I didn’t get into social work on purpose.
I initially wanted to become a teacher for students with hearing impairments. As it turns out, my chosen college didn’t have that program. I really should have researched this prior to submitting my application, but when both your parents are alumni, it’s nearly impossible to change your fate.
From general education, I went to special education, to nursing, then to social work, all in a two year time span. Even though social work wasn’t my first choice, I grew to love it. It just meshed so well with my personality and purview of life. I believed, and still do, that people are inherently good.
I bounced around in my college career. It was only natural, then, for me to bounce around in my social work career as well. Throughout college, I worked for quite a few different positions: a child support call center, healthcare administration, nonprofit case management, and even basic administrative projects under a FEMA grant after Hurricane Katrina.
My favorite of all my social work experiences was the case management position at the nonprofit. I had the opportunity and privilege to work with high schoolers with high functioning disabilities, ranging from autism to ADHD, to cerebral palsy and hearing impairment. We worked with these kids to develop an appreciation for their disabilities and helped normalize life for them. We worked on financial education, took them on field trips to really cool things, and best of all, we developed a bond. I was still young enough to be relevant to them, and we connected on an amazing level. The kind of level that makes social work so fulfilling. This was my favorite experience because it was hands-on; I was around the folks we served every day. They came in just to hang out with us. When I worked in the various forms of state government, I felt more removed.
At the beginning of my MSW program, I settled in at a state agency with a Medicaid waiver program for people with disabilities. This was a very different experience for me because I was trusted with autonomy in my position. Furthermore, my superiors saw my talents and utilized them! Who does that anymore?! I felt pretty savvy with computers, and they put me on the road as a software trainer, traveling all across the state. I got to sit in IT meetings where my opinions actually mattered. It was pretty far removed from the face-to-face case management experience I was in, but I began to find new strengths and interests and was able to utilize them. More importantly, I was able to see firsthand the inner workings of Medicaid, a huge insurance beast.
Rotational social work is not a ‘thing’ – it’s a term I use to describe my revolving experiences in the field. I’ve experienced almost every facet of social work I could possibly get into, with the exception of legal and abuse investigations (I knew from my bachelor’s internship that this area of social work was going to burn me out). The beautiful thing about having so many experiences is that my skillset as a social worker is incredibly broad. I was happy to acquire a certain skill or learn more information, and move forward to another area of social work and start from the bottom. I was totally okay with being a novice in many things; it allowed me to absorb different ideas, attitudes, and programs. I like to think that this is my personal example of having a growth mindset. I get bored and burnt-out if I don’t have a new project or new skills to learn.
I love newbies in the field who feel as if they can take on the world. That attitude does not have to end. We as social workers have so many different opportunities to grow and develop, and the more we see these changes as positive, the less likely we are to be burnt-out and fatigued.
HOW TO SOCIAL WORK BETTER:
If you’re feeling stuck in your career…
Join a local non-profit board • Attend webinars online • Join a grassroot effort in your community • Learn a new skill • Go back to school • Volunteer • Change jobs!
- First and foremost, though, take care of yourself. You’ll hear this in passing so many times, but may not take it to heart. Exercise, get outside more, eat better, meet new people, take time to socialize (but balance that last part with your work). You’re not going to benefit anyone if you’re pissed-off all the time. Nobody wants to work with a complainer; it contributes to low morale in the workplace. Nobody wants to work with people who spend most of their time at the water cooler and avoiding work.
- Take responsibility for your career and personal life. Once you begin moving in a better direction, you passively act as a role model for other social workers. The folks we work with deserve attentive, caring people in their lives, just as social workers need supportive and caring people in our lives too.
- Be smart. Learn about the benefits that are provided at your place of employment. Look into retirement accounts early. Save your money – everyone knows we don’t make much. In some agencies, you have to be vested to get retirement money back that you’ve been paying in all these years. Bouncing from place to place may be dangerous in that aspect; do you homework before big changes.
- Lastly, don’t change jobs simply because the work is difficult. Social work is difficult. Use that discomfort and translate it into a weak area to be improved upon. Chances are, that same difficult area will surface again and again in other agencies and with other populations. Not one person is an expert in any field, simply because the people we work with are the experts in their own lives. We have to stay humble and improve upon the skills necessary to help people become the best versions of themselves.
Life is too short to be unhappy. The folks we serve are too vulnerable to work with unhappy workers. If social work isn’t your dream job, or your workplace isn’t pushing you to be your best, then go find a better position elsewhere. I say that with encouragement, not disdain; we won’t put our best into the people we work with if we’re unhappy ourselves.