March is Social Work Month, and today’s post was inspired by a comment left on the article “I am Getting in MSW, but I Do Not Want to be a ‘Social Worker‘” on the Social Work Helper. The comment reads:
“Although trained to think in a multi-systemic way, many of us choose to specialize. I do a great deal of mezzo and macro work; however, I chose to concentrate on clinical practice when completing my master’s in social work…Outside of our profession, there are some practitioners who do not understand what social work is. When I’ve testified on legislation and engaged in policy making, people assume I don’t have the skills necessary because I am not a lawyer or didn’t major in criminal justice. I can’t help but wonder then if this is why some social workers impose practice goals and assumptions on others (or upon students) as a part of assuaging the anxiety produced by how our profession–as a whole–is undervalued and misunderstood by society.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. The profession is expected to grow by 19% between 2012 and 2022, and more than 650,000 people currently hold social work degrees. If you’re not in the profession, chances are you know someone who currently is or who currently studying to enter the field. And there are some common misconceptions about the field. The biggest misconception about social workers is that they only work with individuals and families, provide therapeutic counseling or link clients to programs and services via case management, or that our days only look like Mrs. Weiss’.
The foundation of social work rests on social justice, with social workers like Jane Addams in the late 1880s dedicating their career to taking action against the injustices of sexism, racism, classism and poverty, taking the approach of addressing these through research, reform, and building up urban areas.
And then professionalization happened
In 1915, Dr. Abraham Flexner, an American educator known for his role in the reform of the higher education and medicine professions in the United States, stated that social work was not a real profession because it lacked specific application of theoretical knowledge to solving human issues, though he did give several
back-handed compliments. He said:
I have made the point that all the established and recognized professions have definite and specific ends: medicine, law, architecture, engineering—one can draw a clear line of demarcation about their respective fields. This is not true of social work. It appears not so much a definite field as an aspect of work in many fields. An aspect of medicine belongs to social work, as do certain aspects of law, education, architecture, etc…The unselfish devotion of those who have chosen to give themselves to making the world a fitter place to live in can fill social work with the professional spirit and thus to some extent lift it above all the distinctions which I have been at such pains to make. In the long run, the first, main and indispensable criterion of a profession will be the possession of a professional spirit, and that test social work may, if it will, fully satisfy.
(He also believed that Black people were inferior and advocated for the closing of all but two historically Black medical schools, that Black doctors should only treat black patients and only serve in subservient roles to white physicians, and that Black people posed a greater health threat to upper middle class white people. But this is a conversation for another day).
As a result, the professionalization of social work began by concentrating on casework, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), research and in developing a formalized education structure, putting it in competition with the psychology and psychiatry professions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with professionalization, but this has led the social work profession down a rabbit hole of trying too hard to look legit in the eyes of other professions.
I get lots of emails and social media messages from professional social workers, social work students, and people interested in the profession on everything related to describing a day in the life of a social worker and what I wish I’d known before becoming a social worker. My answer is always the same:
There’s no one way to be a social worker.
What you do in one day may look completely different tomorrow. What you do in your role in one agency may look completely different when you decide to move on to another agency. What you specialize in at the beginning of your career can lead you into exploring other avenues of the profession. In fact…
When burnout comes calling, pivot.
Your saving grace lies in recognizing when it’s time to make a shift in your social work career. How this will look for you is subjective. What looks like burnout may be a sign that you’re ready for something bigger. Never stay where you are. Get comfortable with exploring. Take a chance and apply for leadership positions. Channel your expertise into speaking opportunities. Or start a blog that shares your perspective on the profession and promote it on social media. My consulting business started as a blog that I did for the simple joy of sharing my perspective on the Reproductive Justice movement, feminism, and women and girls of color. My voice as a social worker and an evaluator came later. And speaking of consulting:
Think about starting a business.
“Going into business” usually translates to opening a private practice for social workers, and mostly clinical social work students receive this type of preparation. My social work graduate focus was on generalist practice, where I studied community organizing/building/advocacy, program design, and direct practice, evaluation and grant writing, but I was able to take a few classes in the program’s social enterprise administration where I gain insight in administration and management, financial management, and staff development and training. But most of what I learned about starting a business came from connecting with independent consultants who are members of the American Evaluation Association, and I also started following blogs from social work entrepreneurs like Eva Forde and Anneke Krakers. Handling contracts, on-boaring new clients, etc. came through trial and error, but my connections to AEA independent consultants helped me to find a process that works for me, far more than what the National Association of Social Workers provides. If nothing else, starting a business as a social worker gives you more control of your career (and money) through entrepreneurship, and it turns the image of a social worker on its head.
Cultural awareness is just as important as child welfare.
During program orientation, my grad program held multiple discussions on cultural awareness and recognizing privilege, and tried to prepare us for being placed in nonprofits, agencies, and community organizations that work with communities that we’re not from. And someone in my foundations class complained about the fact that, in her view, the program placed more emphasis on cultural awareness than on child welfare and mandated reporting.
Most of the students she ended up working with were children in the foster care system, youth of color who lived in communities that didn’t have the same resources as children living in neighborhoods with more resources and a higher income bracket.
Sometimes our lived experiences are shaped by our race, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, and those lived experiences can be compounded by what’s happening in our homes. You can’t separate them.
Don’t tie your worth into these licensing exams…
Easier said that done, I know. Especially when employment is contingent on whether you have passed the social work licensing exam in your state or plan to take the exam during your employment probational period. I graduated from my program in 2010, and after attending this forum to hear about people’s struggles in passing the LMSW exam, I effectively delayed taking the exam until 2014. My day job didn’t require me to be licensed. I took the exam because I had been out of school for 4 years at that time, and I figured being licensed would show my commitment to the profession. The biggest frustration about the exam was that I wasn’t a clinical social worker, though I was working in a direct practice role. With the exception of a few questions related to administration and program evaluation, my exam was basically all clinical. Some states have a generalist practice license, but not all states recognize it, so I was pretty much stuck in which exam I was able to take. But I studied my butt off. Yes, these exams can make or break you getting hired (or, in some cases, fired), but the more people we have in taking the Association of Social Work Boards to task on how these exams are designed, the better.
…and challenge these grad programs and the NASW to do better.
Was my grad program the best graduate program for social work? Well, there were a lot of things I didn’t like about it. But one thing I’ll always be grateful for is the inclusion of a generalist practice focus. My program is one of the few social work programs in the country that offers this type of focus, though the majority of its enrolled students historically have chosen to the clinic route. Social work grad programs often say that they tailor their program offering based on their students’ perceived needs, and I feel that chapters of the NASW does the same. When it comes to social justice hot topics, I feel that the NASW is trying, but with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, No Ban No Wall, and other social justice movements than are now operating under this new White House Administration, it’s more important than ever for the social work powers-that-be to recognize how the profession started. Developing professional development trainings on social justice principles, entrepreneurship, recognizing privilege and community organizing are just as important as clinical continuing education trainings. No matter what you specialize in, you’re always advocating. For your clients, the communities you serve, and for yourself.
RAISE YOUR VOICE: In what ways can thinking beyond your specialization benefit you, both personally and professionally? Share below in the comments section.