The month of May ushers in endings and beginnings. For college students, it is the end of exams; papers; class presentations; impromptu speeches; debates; and internships. Graduation is the rite-of-passage that launches students into a field of practice with specialized knowledge. Congrats to graduates in all fields! However, in this entry, we are focusing on master’s level social work students.

Social work students are leaving behind field instructors, field coordinators, and faculty supervisors who guided their learning and experiences. Social work is a clinical skill and not something you simply pick up from books and videos.  Medical students participate in clinical rounds with physicians to enhance the learning experience. This is followed by a post-graduate internship and residency. In social work, the field internship is the essential pedagogy.  Those who want to become licensed clinicians after graduation must complete a number of supervised work experience hours. 

The fact that we have field instruction before graduation recognizes the implication that social work is a clinical skill…much like medicine. You can’t do it by merely reading a book or watching videos. You learn by the experience of doing it. A physician at a teaching hospital told his med students upon graduation, “Now that you’ve learned the vocabulary of medicine, go out and learn how to be a doctor.” 

Borrowing this philosophy, what is needed for grads to go out and learn how to be a social worker? We have listed some helpful tips:

Have Your Helping Value System in Place

1. Respecting the client’s right to self-determination. An example of this would be recognizing the client’s right to choose to change or not. A client doesn’t have to use a recommended strategy. They can say no and the social worker cannot use coercion to change their thinking.

2. Acknowledging your biases toward particular individuals or groups. The reality is that it is normal to have opinions based on one’s frame of reference, but a social worker must realize their biases, then refrain from acting on them. Supervision is a great place to start addressing these concerns.

3. Recognizing your limitations as a therapist. If a social worker encounters a client with issues beyond their expertise; it is advisable to refer the client to someone who is more seasoned in that area. Additionally, the social worker may take training in that area to improve their skills.

Know Your Function within the Agency

1. Your function within your agency is your point of identification. This is a boundary issue. If the social worker also has a real estate license and learns that one of their clients is looking to buy a house, that social worker cannot switch to their real estate role because that is not what they were hired to do by their agency. Such dual relationships are prohibited by social work ethics. Your identification with your function allows difference without distance.

Apply What You’ve Been Taught

1. Recall and apply theory and practice.

2. Use supervision.

3.  Ask questions and clarify. Don’t allow feelings of embarrassment to prevent you from asking the questions that are needed to gain a deeper understanding of the client.

4. Remember that the social worker is the client’s co-pilot. It is not the social worker’s job to fix the client’s problem. The social worker’s role is to help the client to formulate a plan….not do it for them. Remember as stated earlier, the client has the right to choose not to change…even if they suggested the plan!

Now that you’ve graduated, continue to use the resources and knowledge that increased your clinical skills. For the novice, the most important resource is supervision.  Knowledge includes self-awareness, your function in the agency, and the theory and practice learned in school and your internship. 

Aristotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Adding to that, we believe that “Knowledge depends on ourselves. Now you have everything you need to go out and learn how to be a good social worker!

Frances Goddard, LCSW, BCD
Diane Harvey, LCSW