Social Welfare & Justice

5 Things I wish I knew before becoming a social worker

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. Social work is a noble profession that demands dedication, compassion, and a strong sense of social justice. However, it's also a career that comes with a unique set of challenges.

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.

What to Know Before Becoming a Social Worker

An introductory social work course inspired Dr. Ellen Belluomini, assistant professor of social work at University of Massachusetts Global, to continue studying social work and pursue the field as her major. Discussions on social justice, advocacy and mental health fueled a passion she never knew she had.

“I felt I could change the world,” Dr. Ellen Belluomini 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:

  • Therapist
  • Program developer
  • Policy analyst
  • Researcher
  • Supervisors and trainer
  • Community outreach worker
  • Diplomat
  • 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. Self-care is critical to avoid burnout

Social work revolves around helping others, but it's crucial to remember that you can't pour from an empty cup. Burnout is a significant concern in the field. Many social workers wish they had known the importance of self-care before embarking on their career. The nature of the job often involves dealing with emotionally charged situations and supporting individuals who are experiencing hardships. For some, this can lead to burnout quickly despite having a passion for the work.

To maintain your own well-being, as a social worker you must prioritize self-care to succeed long-term. This can include activities such as exercise, meditation, spending time with loved ones, or pursuing hobbies. By taking care of your own mental and physical health, you can ensure you have the energy and resilience needed to make a difference in the lives of others.

Considering becoming a social worker?

Explore more about the field and its different career paths.

3. 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.

The road to social change can be long and arduous, requiring patience and perseverance. Don’t get disheartened by the pace of change, it’s important you embrace the entire journey. Celebrate the small victories along the way and find satisfaction in knowing that you're making a positive difference, no matter how small it may seem.

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. Social work involves working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and communities. This diversity brings with it unique challenges and considerations. Depending on your upbringing some of the populations you serve may be entirely new to you. This is the beauty of social work; but it requires effort to ensure you remain sensitive in your communications.

“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.”

Additionally, you must proactively educate yourself about different cultures, traditions, and customs. By embracing diversity and recognizing the unique needs of each individual, you can provide more inclusive support.

5. 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.

The nature of the job often involves forming close relationships with clients, but it's important to establish professional boundaries. 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.”

Boundaries can include maintaining appropriate physical and emotional distance, managing confidentiality, and being clear about roles and responsibilities. By establishing and enforcing boundaries, social workers can ensure ethical practice and prevent burnout.

6. 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 10 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.

It's important for social workers to develop strategies to cope with the emotional demands of the job. This can include seeking support from colleagues, participating in supervision or therapy, and finding healthy outlets for processing emotions. By acknowledging and addressing the emotional toll of social work, professionals can better navigate the highs and lows of the job.

7. You will need to invest in continuing education

In the dynamic and ever-evolving field of social work, the need for ongoing professional development is necessary. Oftentimes, it’s mandatory as part of your licensure. Social workers must adjust with shifting societal dynamics, emerging research, and evolving best practices. Staying up to date with these changes is essential for providing the highest level of care and support to clients. Continuous professional development ensures you are equipped with the latest knowledge, tools, and interventions to address the complex challenges faced by individuals and communities.

Moreover, professional development opportunities, such as workshops, conferences, and advanced training, allow social workers to hone their expertise in specialized areas like trauma-informed care, cultural competency, or the utilization of technology in practice. These learnings can also help you advance your career. In a profession dedicated to advocating for social justice and empowerment, staying informed and continuously improving one's skills is a fundamental responsibility for those aspiring to make a lasting impact.

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Social Work

A career in social work is a deeply rewarding and meaningful journey. One of the primary pros of a career in social work is the profound sense of fulfillment gained from helping others navigate life's challenges. Social workers play a crucial role in advocating for marginalized populations, providing support to those in need, and contributing to the overall well-being of society. The ability to witness positive transformations and empower individuals to overcome adversity is a gratifying aspect of the profession.

However, like any career, social work comes with its challenges. Social workers often deal with individuals facing trauma, abuse, or challenging life circumstances. The demanding nature of the job, coupled with limited resources and systemic barriers, can contribute to high stress levels. Additionally, social workers may face ethical dilemmas and complex decision-making situations, navigating the fine line between professional responsibilities and respecting the autonomy of their clients.

Striking a balance between empathy and maintaining healthy boundaries is an ongoing challenge in the field of social work. Despite these challenges, the potential for positive impact and the fulfillment of contributing to social change make a career in social work a compelling and impactful choice for those committed to making a difference.

Final Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Social Workers

For those considering a career in social work, there are a few key pieces of advice seasoned professionals wish they had known earlier. First and foremost, take the time to truly understand the profession and its demands. Talk to current social workers, shadow professionals in the field, and gain firsthand experience.

It's also important to develop a strong support system. Social work can be emotionally challenging, and having a network of colleagues, mentors, and friends who understand the unique demands can provide invaluable support. Lastly, remember that self-care is not selfish; it's essential. Prioritize your own well-being and establish healthy boundaries to ensure longevity in the field.

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 requesting more information about our social work programs.

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