I didn’t start out dreaming of a career in social work. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to write. As a child, when I “pretend played,” I used to ask my family members to be my interview subjects while I took notes in a little spiral notebook and ran off to compose “articles” on my exciting assignments. I loved learning about people and putting their interesting stories on paper. As a high school student, I wrote for the school newspaper and literary magazine, which were much more real than the imaginary newspapers I crafted at the age of ten. During the summers I even signed up for creative writing workshops at local colleges. Nerdy… perhaps. But my passions kept me out of trouble and taught me invaluable lessons about intelligent communication.
I continued to pursue my interests in people and writing when I started college. When it came time to declare a major, I chose Sociology; the idea of studying human behavior naturally intrigued me. And since my school also offered Writing, I selected that as my minor. I enjoyed four more years of school newspaper experience, and even landed an awesome summer job at a major New York TV news network.
But when I graduated, I had a hard time putting my interests and talents into a job I enjoyed.
After some time in journalism and public relations left me feeling unfulfilled, I went back to my alma mater to get some advice from my mentor professor, Jim O’Kane.
“What do I do, Professor?!” I remember nervously asking him. “Lara, you’re a people person,” he said. “Go to social work school. You’ll help people and you’ll be a natural at it.” Dr. O’Kane, who also received a Master’s in Social Work, explained to me how marketable the degree is. There were professional options in mental health, management, advocacy and education. He, for example, went on to receive an Ed.D. and enjoyed a forty-year career as a college professor. I sat in his cozy office that spring afternoon and felt such relief as he began printing me information on his alma mater, Columbia University. I was accepted and enrolled the following September.
Studying social work as a graduate student is a lot like learning a skilled craft. You spend plenty of time learning textbook material, but just as much time applying it as you get your hands dirty in your field placement. Like my professor told me, there are tons of settings and areas of practice available to social workers because of the marketability of a Master’s in Social Work. I studied on the Clinical Mental Health track, but there were also options in Advocacy, Administration, and Public Policy. If you’re creative enough, you can use your degree to craft a career path just for you. After my two-year program I earned my Master’s of Science in Social Work (MSSW), passed the test for my first license, and then spent two more years working under a supervisor to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who can practice independently.
There are a lot of misconceptions about social workers which often underestimate our qualifications. When I first tell people my profession, I get a lot of interesting questions. “So, is that like a psychologist?” or “They don’t make much money do they?” and my personal favorite, “Do you remove kids from their homes? Ya know, like the guy in Lilo and Stitch.”
There are indeed a lot of different credentialed professionals who are licensed to provide psychotherapy. I understand it’s hard for many people to know the difference, and in some ways we all do similar things (quick note though: psychologist and psychiatrist are not the same thing. The latter is a medical doctor who prescribes.)
What I love about social work, and what sets it apart from other schools of thought, is its broad perspective. The field looks at every situation from the “person in environment” theory, the idea that every person must be considered not just as an individual, but also within the context of his or her environment. We perform what’s called biopsychosocial assessments, which means just what the name suggests… that we take into consideration the biological, psychological and social aspects of a person, rather than just one part. This is what makes our approach to helping patients unique. We may meet a person in need of clinical counseling for her painful divorce, only to find out we need to also coordinate support groups for her kids and help her apply for assistance in paying her utilities bill. It’s an all-encompassing approach to helping. A lot more than, “So how did that make you feel?” !!!
I hope this helps clarify what social workers are and what we do. I’ve learned so much about life, human behavior, and society in this field, and I love how it has allowed me to explore my curiosity about people’s stories. Thanks to my area of practice, I’ve also learned a ton about parenting. Kids don’t come with a handbook for any of us, but I’m very thankful for the learning experiences my MSW gave me before I became a Mom.
Photo courtesy Columbia University