5 Things I wish I knew before becoming a social worker
Most people do a healthy amount of research before launching into a degree program to pursue their future career. You might look into factors like the average salary for professionals in a certain industry, the market demand for a particular position, the cost of a specific degree path and even its curriculum.
But it’s more challenging to pinpoint what the day-to-day job responsibilities are for individuals working in your industry. In a dynamic field like social work, for example, there are certain things even the most well-rounded social work programs can’t teach you. You simply have to gain experience on the job.
To help aspiring social workers like you better grasp what lies ahead, we spoke to some seasoned professionals. Take a look at what they want budding social workers to know.
5 Things to know before launching your social work career
An introductory social work course inspired Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global, to continue down that career path. Discussions on social justice, advocacy and mental health fueled a passion she never knew she had.
“I felt I could change the world,” she says. “I set forth a path in the social work profession and never looked back. But as with all careers, there are things I wish I had known when I chose social work as a profession.”
Now with decades of experience under her belt, Dr. Belluomini has ample wisdom to share. Here are five things she and other practicing social workers wish they knew when they were just beginning.
1. Social work is an expansive field
For Abigale Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and social work supervisor at Bellevue Hospital, the breadth of the field was surprising at first. “I didn’t realize that there are so many places and populations that social workers service,” she says.
Johnson highlights the fact that professionals in the field can work with clients of all ages and in a range of different settings. Some workplace environments include hospitals, prisons, law offices, community mental health facilities and private practices.
A social worker’s duties are also extensive. Christine Smith, a master’s-qualified international social worker, explains that these human services professionals are more than case managers. As a social worker, you’d also have the opportunity to act in the following capacities:
- Program developer
- Policy analyst
- Supervisors and trainer
- Community outreach worker
- Marketing professional
“There is a large expectation that social workers are only talking or listening, but this job goes way further than that,” Smith adds. She encourages new social work students to go into their studies with the mindset that they will be learning something applicable to the job with every new assignment.
2. Changing the world is hard (and it takes time)
When Dr. Belluomini graduated with her social work degree, she started full throttle. She threw herself into ideas, plans and advocacy endeavors with hopes of making her mark on the world.
“My life became social work,” she says. “If I wasn’t at work in a long-term substance abuse treatment program, then I attended protests, wrote letters to congresspersons and participated in community meetings promoting public good.”
It was through these activities that Dr. Belluomini learned the importance of appreciating how real change takes time. She especially recalls her efforts to impact the Illinois state legislature in the 1990s. Dr. Belluomini advocated for a bill that aimed to protect LGBT persons from discrimination in the workplace. It didn’t pass until 2006, and the United States government didn’t pass employment equality legislation until 2015.
Whether you’re aiming for nationwide impact like Dr. Belluomini, or you’re focused on important transformations in the life of one child, patience and perseverance will serve you well. It takes time for change to fully manifest.
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3. You won’t be able to fix everything
Many future social workers aspire to change the world. And while the best social workers are those who remain passionate and dedicated to their careers, it’s also important to stay cognizant of the fact that you won’t be able to single-handedly solve every problem you encounter.
“Your job as a social worker is not to fix things for people,” Smith emphasizes. “Your job is to help individuals process and find different ways of dealing with life issues.” Social workers, she adds, provide a safe space and equip individuals with the skills they need.
Learning to separate yourself from your work is also crucial. While having a sense of empathy can make you a great social worker, it can drive you to become personally invested in remedying all of your clients’ hardships.
“The best thing a professor told me was, ‘Your clients’ failures are not your failures, and their successes are not your successes.’ We spend all day filling our cups with others’ emotions, and we need to pour it out somewhere,” Johnson says. “The best thing you can do for yourself and your clients is to maintain boundaries.”
4. Recognizing privilege and biases can be crucial
Our experts maintain that remaining aware of where you fit into our societal system is part of being an effective social worker. This could mean recognizing your own privilege or the privilege of a client. You also need to acknowledge any inherent biases you may have.
“Each person I meet has unique circumstances,” Dr. Belluomini says. “Awareness of my privilege helps me to see the client’s circumstances through their eyes and not my own.”
Privilege, she explains, comes in many different packages — race, gender, income, education, age, sexual orientation, ability and more. “Thirty years of being a social worker, and I am still finding new ways to reflect on my privilege and support those who do not benefit from it,” Dr. Belluomini adds.
Smith notes that it’s instinct to form unconscious biases. All of the beliefs you’ve amassed throughout your life can impact the way you interpret reality. For social workers, it’s key to approach each new client without potentially damaging preconceived notions. How? Smith says the first step is to become aware of them.
“A great thing that graduate school really forces you to see is that we all carry around biases,” she says. “Evaluating them helps you become more aware so they do not get in the way while you’re providing therapy.”
5. You’ll face emotional circumstances you’ve never imagined
Most people become social workers with an understanding they’ll encounter a multitude of difficult circumstances. “Nothing prepares a person for the child who is taken away from their parents, the death of a senior in a nursing home or the countless stories of abuse told in the safe confines of a social worker’s office,” Dr. Belluomini divulges. Stories like these can be devastating. This is why Smith adamantly believes that self-care is crucial to your well-being and can directly affect your performance as a social worker.
But then there are heartwarming stories. Dr. Belluomini recalls a text message she received ten years after providing therapy to a teenager at a social service agency.
“It included a picture of a taller, older boy smiling ear-to-ear in his graduation gown,” she reflects. "His mom’s text read, ‘A bachelor’s in engineering, top honors. Thank you.’”
She also recalls a time when a former client stopped her in the grocery store, then giddily pulled her five-year sobriety coin out of her purse. “These, with hundreds more stories, continue to fuel my passion for social work,” Dr. Belluomini says.
Prepare for a thriving social work career
Social work can be an unpredictable and emotionally taxing field. But the insight from the three seasoned professionals above makes it clear that effective social workers can always find ways to preserve their passion for the tireless work they do.
If this insider insight has inspired you to move forward with your dream of becoming a social worker, it might be time to evaluate your next steps. Learn more about the path that lies ahead by visiting our article, “The social worker requirements you’ll need to meet in order to serve.”
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