Stand Out in the Crowd
By: Natasha Nalls, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, CAP
A job is easy. A career takes time. As a social worker, you want a career. I graduated with my MSW in 2007. I'm still at the very beginning of my career. Here are some things you can do to launch, maximize, and promote your social work career TODAY.
***WARNING: Only the ambitious graduate need read on!***
1. Join, participate, and assume leadership in a professional organization.
NASW is the largest national professional social work organization. Each state has a chapter, and each chapter is divided into local units. Join your local unit! Chair a sub-committee, volunteer to be a liaison for your agency, or assume a position on the unit’s executive committee. NASW participation keeps you steeped in professional social work issues. Also, there are tons of opportunities for “free training.” For example, by volunteering at the local level, you gain invaluable experience developing your leadership skills by leading advocacy projects, managing relationships, and planning professional events.
2. Network and have social work friends.
Attend professional socials, forge professional relationships with social workers, and have social worker friends. Doing so allows you to “pace” yourself with peers, and gives you broader perspective of the field.
3. Start any long-term processes immediately.
Even registering for licensure in some states may be a multi-tiered process. You may need letters from your university confirming your coursework or field placement. You may also need transcripts and letters from your employer. Also, positions with state or federal agencies may require extended application processes.
4. Find a mentor.
I have a mentor. She has by far been my greatest asset. I met her at an NASW event. Last week, I happened to be at her house. By happenstance, while I was over hanging out, she got a call for some short-term work. She couldn’t take the job. She’s too busy. She recommended me. I was hired and was fast tracked into the position. Let me emphasize: Having a good mentor will open professional doors for you.
5. Maintain affiliation with your school or a local school of social work.
Social work schools tend to lead the local social work community, and there is therefore an inherent symbiotic relationship. Agency heads often teach as adjuncts. Schools also sometimes spearhead professional conferences and forums. Maintain contact with professors and staff, especially those with whom you share similar professional interests.
6. Consider licensure.
It’s not for everyone, but depending on your long-term career plans and interests, licensure may be a long-term asset. If you plan to have a clinical social work career, it would behoove you to become licensed as soon as possible. Depending on the state in which you are licensed, after you are licensed, there may be no requirement or reduced requirements for ongoing clinical supervision (although you’ll have continuing education requirements). In addition, licensure may allow you to clinically supervise others, which might make you an asset to your agency or allow you to generate income by supervising others privately. P.S. I advise you to take the licensing exam within two years of graduation. (Editor's Note: Please check with your state's licensure board for details on requirements and what tasks you are allowed to perform with each level of licensure.)
7. Consider different credentials.
Do you know what these letters stand for: AASECT, CEAP, CAP, SAP, ACSW, CTS, EMDR? They are all professional credentials that are recognized in the social work field. The value of these credentials is generally contingent upon your population or setting. For example, if you desire to work in chemical dependency/substance abuse, credentials as a Certified Addictions Professional or Substance Abuse Professional would be an asset. Similarly, a certification as a Certified Trauma Specialist might enhance your professional options in working with victims of domestic violence. Certifications demonstrate competency and acumen in specialized practice areas.
8. Remain learned!
Continuing education is part and parcel to a successful social work career. In fact, nearly every worthwhile credential or licensure will require a minimum number of continuing education hours. Attend local continuing education events that you hear about. Remain current on policies and trends that might have an impact on the social work profession. International conflicts, shifting national demographics, and recent economic declines over the past five years have generated new, unique social work opportunities for working with returning troops, developing long-term care programs for elders, and developing social work/human service policies and agendas.
9. Be open.
At some point I desperately wanted to do grant writing for human service programs to benefit children and families. I was offered a job writing grants for aging programs. I had never had an interest in aging, but I took the job. I LOVED THE JOB. So, be flexible. Also, consider part time gigs. There are tons of opportunities to do per diem or part-time work to gain experience in a particular setting.
10. Get the best job possible.
By “best,” I mean the best option when you consider opportunity to utilize your social work skill set to help people, support yourself financially, develop your leadership skills, and advance your career goals.
11. Identify some role models.
Role models are different from mentors. Whereas you have a really close relationship with a mentor, a professional role model is someone who you professionally admire and who has a career similar to the one you would like to have. Observe your role models’ styles. What are their values? What can you learn from your mentor’s journey?
12. Work on your professional speaking and presentation.
I was speaking to an MSW student the other day. During our conversation, as we were talking about clinical issues during supervision, she stated, “That blows.” I cringed! As you develop professionally, you’ll need to pick up the jargon and clinical verbiage appropriate to that setting.
13. Social network.
Long term, social media will affect how we interface with clients and professional colleagues. At a minimum, you should have a LinkedIn account. Your LinkedIn profile should feature you as a smart, attractive, accomplished, and/or ambitious professional person. If you are interested in working in a particular field or for a particular agency, follow that interest on Twitter or Facebook. Manage your online and social media image. And remember, your next boss just may Google you ahead of your job interview. So, make sure your online profile is CLEAN.
14. Have a good, well formatted résumé.
I’ve seen a few résumés in my time. Some are amazing. Others are horrible. I’ve seen spelling errors, bad grammar, and poor formatting. Your résumé should look attractive at first glance, be organized, and clearly spell out your professional assets and potential contributions. Have someone review yours.
Notice any common threads among these suggestions? I do. They are networking, building personal relationships, giving back to your professional community, taking risks, and self interest in development. Remember, you want a career, not a job.
Natasha K. Nalls, MSW, LCSW, ACSW, CAP, is a proud social worker! She received her Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University in May 2007. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and leadership studies from Claremont McKenna College. She enjoys travel and academic scholarship. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
This article was revised on 8/13/13.