What Every New Professional Should Know*
Navigating Your First Social Work Job Search
Most new professionals enter the work force idealistic and eager to apply theories carefully studied during years of graduate school. As NASW has long asserted, however, many new professionals find themselves strained by less than ideal working conditions. By investing time in a well-rounded job search, along with strategic self-advocacy, you can find a job where your newly honed social work skills can be practiced effectively.
Prepare for the Search
While job searches can take on as many forms as there are individuals to conduct them, most admit any decent search takes at least three months. If you are still in school, consider that the job search should be prioritized in your schedule like another class. If you feel unsure about your direction, the sooner you start the greater clarity you will achieve. NASW has a helpful reference guide entitled, “Social Work Career Development: A Handbook for Job Hunting and Career Planning,” that is available through NASW Press Publications at www.naswpress.org.
If you’ve already graduated, but have not yet secured a position, decide what to do while you look for a job. A short-term position may buy you time to look for a more permanent position. You may consider securing a summer internship to complement your previous experience. Some field placements continue their internship programs through the summer, including supervision and training.
Graduating from social work school is a major life transition that also means stressors: possible relocation, change of social milieu, and routine. Don’t deny yourself a much-deserved post-graduation vacation or continued enrollment at the gym. Maintaining your self-care strategy will bode well during the first (stressful) months of your new job. Make reference to your excellent self-care skills in your interview. Employers want to know you understand a healthy work/leisure balance.
Begin financial planning early. Use the experts at your school’s financial aid department to help in consolidating loans and understanding your loans’ grace periods. Working at this gradually will leave more time for your job search closer to graduation. Remember to ask if any of your loans (such as the Perkins) may be forgivable if you take certain jobs.
Strengthen your Network
Cultivate relationships with professors, mentors, and other students. Arrange meetings with field advisors and employees from your field placement. Secure your references early, and keep them informed regarding your progress through email. Most agencies ask for three references, but you could have more to use for different positions. Bring your list of references to the interview, and ask them to inform you before they are contacted.
Don’t underestimate fellow students or recent graduates as resources; there may be openings at their jobs or internships. NASW has a range of committee meetings and task forces where you can meet social workers from your field of interest. Additionally, most undergraduate career offices and alumni associations have lists of individuals working in your area willing to serve as contacts. Continue informational interviews throughout your job search.
Use Your Technological Savvy
Most newspapers, including The New York Times, have websites that can send you postings that match your search criteria. Consider setting up a new email account to receive these postings. Most-used websites for social work jobs are: www.socialservice.com, www.idealist.org, and Monstertrak (your school may have a specially accessed section). NASW also provides its members Job Link: Social Work Career Center and the NYC Chapter has listings specific to jobs available in New York City.
Many agencies and government organizations have human resource sites that require submission of your resume in a format compatible with their website. Have a text version of your resume saved to cut and paste for such occasions. When applying for jobs this way, it is wise to also work through your personal contacts as it often feels like your information is lost in the electronic void.
Apply for the NYS licensing exam as soon as you graduate. Some agencies offer different salary rates for LMSW’s. The process is easy, but it takes several months. Make sure you take the Child Abuse and Neglect class (which is required for licensing) either at your school or online through NASW’s members only section of the website. Download information from the Office of the Professions website. Most schools offer free information sessions given by staff, and you can practice for the Master’s exam through a study guide available through the Association of Social Work Boards for $30 (plus postage and handling). NASW-NYC offers a test preparation workshop, which fills up fast.
If you are considering pursuing the LCSW, make sure to understand the requirements you’ll need to be working on. Informing yourself about the requirements for licensure will put you ahead of the game, so inform yourself and ask explicitly what supervision will be available to you (information on requirements is available through www.naswnyc.org).
While employers may say a position needs to be urgently filled, many positions require three or four interviews. These can include directors, future team members, and clients. In preparation, identify the overlap between your work at your field placements and the work at the job you want. Know specific case examples where you were successful and where you would improve your work if you could. Be able to explain your work in terms of engagement, assessment, goal setting, intervention and termination. Reframe any pre-social work school experiences through a social work lens. For positions where a MSW is not explicitly required, plan to explain why a social worker fits the job. Commonly, interviewers want to know what skills you are still working on (think field advisory sessions and end-of-year evaluations), how you handle stress, how you handle conflict between team members, and challenges you have had with supervision.
Consider the Compensation
Be prepared to ask the employer questions about working conditions. NASW advocates a minimum beginning salary of $50,000 for a MSW, though most positions run between $38,000- $45,000. Consider caseload size, qualifications of your supervisor, proximity to transportation, reimbursement of expenses, allocation of vacation and personal days, health insurance benefits, procedures for voicing grievances within the agency, participation of social workers in agency decisions, and perception of social workers within the agency. Try to get a sense of the work environment: Is this agency a place that will sustain you when the stress of work sets in?
Training opportunities can be an important perk the agency offers in-house, or for which they may reimburse. Attending seminars and trainings through the year (NASW offers a yearly continuing education curriculum) can further your career while providing for continued networking and respite from the everyday intensity of your work.
Remember, you will only do your best work for your clients if you are able to sustain yourself as an effective social worker.
*excerpted from an article authored by Anna Fewell that originally appeared in the April 2007 issue of Currents.