By: Jennifer Trifari
Winter 1999, Vol. 6, No. 1
From Student to Professional: Making the Transition
by Jennifer Trifari, MSW
It' been a little over two months since I graduated from New York University and began my first job as a social worker. My internship was at a child day treatment program where I provided individual, group, and family therapy services to latency-aged children. Since graduation, I have begun working at a child welfare agency providing case management and therapy services to children and adolescents. All of my case management cases are kinship care, which means that the children are placed in the home of a relative. My therapy cases are a mix of children who are in kinship care and children who are in the traditional foster care system. After being at my job for a little over two months and transitioning from being a social work intern to a social worker, I have noticed some similarities and differences between the two roles.
What' the Same?
One of the biggest similarities that I have noticed is that with both my internship and my job, there was an orientation period. Last year, all of the social work interns had to attend a one-day orientation to become familiar with agency policy and procedures, including the paperwork. When I began on the unit, I was encouraged to take time to observe the program in order to get to know the other staff members and clients and become familiar with how the program operated. At the agency I work for now, new social workers spend a week or two accompanying current workers to various meetings and home visits. In my case, for three weeks I “shadowed” the social worker who was leaving and whose caseload I assumed responsibility for. This proved to be invaluable to me. My internship was in a mental health setting, so some of the responsibilities differed. For instance, at my internship I never needed to supervise visits between children and their natural parents or go to court. I appreciated having an experienced person with me the first time I assumed these responsibilities.
When I began working, one of my concerns was that I wanted to be in a situation where there would be opportunities for me to improve my intervention skills, to acquire new skills, and to learn more about the services other agencies can provide. Thankfully, I have found this to be the case. As I shadowed the worker whose cases I assumed responsibility for, I used that opportunity to observe how she interacted with the clients and the different interventions she used. Furthermore, when calling other agencies, if I found someone who was willing to talk to me for any length of time, I used that opportunity to learn more about the services they provided. For example, I have been attempting to locate housing resources for one family. The first agency I called could not provide this service, but was able to refer me to another agency. I used this opportunity to find out more about the services that agency does provide and how its program “fits in” with services offered by other agencies. This was information that neither the child protection services worker nor I had been aware of.
Both the agency where I completed my internship and the agency I work for now provide a variety of training opportunities. At my internship, the intern coordinator arranged weekly seminars on a variety of topics, including medications, child sexual abuse, and ethnicity and family therapy. As interns, we were invited to attend grand round seminars that were held for the medical school.
The agency that I work for now also offers a variety of trainings, which staff members are required to attend. These trainings include those required by various regulatory agencies, as well as continuing education seminars and weekly play therapy seminars. Moreover, the agency is part of a consortium that provides a variety of training opportunities, most of which count for licensure renewal. In order to obtain satisfactory job evaluations, staff members must have completed a certain number of training hours.
As I make the transition from a social work intern to a social worker, I have noted several differences as well. One of the major differences that I have noted is that as a social worker, I have more independence in my job. For instance, at my internship, my supervisor reviewed all of my paperwork. At my job, my supervisor checked all of my paperwork at first, but now she checks only certain paperwork. Also, while I consult with my supervisor on my cases and, in certain circumstances, we plan together how to proceed, now I make a significant number of decisions independently.
Another difference is that there is a greater intensity to the work day. The work I did at my internship was definitely intense and required a lot of physical and mental energy. A significant portion of the day was spent with the children, often attempting to avert a crisis. I also provided individual, group, and/or family therapy to three children. It took a while to learn how to juggle the different responsibilities, but eventually I did. In this sense, there is a similarity between the role of student intern and the role of social worker. However, now it does feel that there is a greater intensity-more things are happening at once. This may be the result of maintaining a larger caseload and also of being at the agency five days a week instead of three.
Making the Adjustment
In making the transition from social work student to social worker, I have found it helpful to have regular supervision, to use any resources that are available at the agency, to develop a life outside of work, and to maintain contact with people who are making a similar transition. At my agency, social workers receive an hour of supervision a week from our supervisor and are expected to meet with the psychiatrist one time per month for supervision focusing on providing therapy. This has helped me not only become oriented to the agency, but to maintain some sanity as I assumed greater and more diverse job responsibilities. My supervisor has been great in helping me prioritize what needs to be done and to feel more confident and comfortable with the job requirements. Unfortunately, I am aware that some agencies do not offer supervision that frequently. When I graduated in May, my professors strongly recommended that when interviewing we ask what supervision we would receive and to pay for it ourselves, if necessary. This was excellent advice.
I have also used resources that are available at my agency. Informally, this has sometimes meant venting to my officemate or another worker. It is something that all of us have needed to do once in a while. Formally, this has meant using other agency resources. In one instance, a client of mine was having surgery. While I was able to be there for the day of the surgery, I was not able to go out to the home a day or two later to see how things were going. I was, however, able to have a member of our foster parent support team go to visit the home. This put my mind at ease, because I knew that the family was receiving some extra support at a difficult time and it allowed me to address other responsibilities.
In addition, given how stressful the job can be, I have become involved in a variety of activities outside of work in order to maintain my mental health. While I found this to be helpful when completing my internship, it has been even more important as I have been making the transition from student to social worker. For example, I have begun to attend creative writing workshops and poetry readings. These are activities that I used to enjoy in high school, but became less involved with after I entered college. Writing has begun to once more serve as a great release for me and provides me with an opportunity to meet a variety of people. I also started reading novels again, began exercising, and am looking to become involved in other activities in the area. By having a life outside of work and learning to leave work at work, I have found that mentally I have felt “more together,” which puts me in a better position to address the problems and issues that my clients raise.
Finally, I have found it helpful to talk to other people who are making a similar transition, as well as those who have already made the transition from student intern to social worker. By talking to other people in a similar situation, I have found that I felt less isolated and have been better able to keep things in perspective. By talking to other people who have already made a similar transition, I am reminded that the adjustment period does not last forever and that the transition from social work intern to social worker can be made successfully.
Jennifer Trifari, MSW, graduated from NYU in Spring 1998, and received her B.A. in social work from Elizabethtown College in 1997. She is a social worker at Presbyterian Children' Village in Rosemont, PA.