By: Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW, and Claudia Dewane, D.Ed., LCSW, BCD
The one thing that concerns me following graduation is I want to know that I am experienced enough and have the knowledge about skills and theories to effectively work with someone. It is important to be more than someone who sits in an office and gives someone a person to talk to. There is more to therapy than talking; one must know how to do talking with a purpose and an end result.
After years of school, you’ve finally graduated with your master’s degree in social work. You are relieved, ecstatic, and...petrified! You are plagued by the thought that you didn’t learn enough and that you really don’t know what you’re doing! You might have “New Social Worker Anxiety Syndrome” (see sidebar on page 12 for diagnostic criteria). The good news is that some of this anxiety is going to help you be a better clinician. The bad news is that too much anxiety can interfere with providing effective clinical services. The purpose of this article is to identify and address situations that clinical MSW students anticipate causing anxiety. Our hope is that by addressing these concerns, we can reduce unnecessary anxiety, so that new social workers can focus more of their energy on their clients.
You are not alone
As a graduate student, you’ve had to learn to cope with a variety of anxiety-provoking situations. Dziegielewski, Turnage, and Roest-Marti (2004) identified three sources of stress for social work students: role diversity (e.g., “how can I juggle course work, field, and my personal/work life?”), interpersonal relationships (e.g., “why are my group assignments always with Jen—we don’t get along at all”), and academic requirements (e.g., “why does every professor have a different expectation for APA format?”). These stressors are most apparent in the first year of an MSW program, when students are adjusting to the demands and expectations of their graduate program. Luckily, first-year MSW students have the time and space to address those concerns with other students, field instructors, and faculty. Furthermore, most college campuses have counseling centers that offer “stress management” or “burnout prevention” classes and seminars that help new students with time management, study skills, and relaxation techniques.
Graduating MSW students have to cope with a new set of anxiety-provoking situations, but no longer have the same group of students, field instructors, and faculty with whom to address their concerns. Gone are the concerns about writing lit reviews, policy papers, and seeing your first client. Graduating students are now concerned with finding a job, knowing job-related skills, and being successful as a professional. If these concerns sound familiar, you’re not alone. One study found that 88% of graduating MSW students reported feeling anxious about entering the profession (Mathias-Williams & Thomas, 2002).
Despite the near ubiquity of graduation-related anxiety, we were unable to find any articles that directly addressed the specific anxieties that clinical social work students experience upon graduation.
Survey of student anxiety
Our students were becoming anxious about their impending graduation. In the last semester of an MSW clinical practice course, we did an informal poll of 43 graduating clinical MSW students and asked them to anonymously write down their most feared intervention or situation, or a counseling issue that makes them most anxious or hesitant. We found that students shared many of the same anxieties. Their responses fell into four broad categories:
- working in a certain modality (individual, family, or group therapy)
- what to say in a specific situation
- how to intervene with a specific problem
- professional use of self
Although there is overlap among categories, each category represents a different type of anxiety and consequently suggests a different approach to addressing that anxiety. Student responses indicated that their anxiety was due to a perception that they lack specific knowledge or skills. Thus, this article provides some information on specific knowledge or skills that might reduce anxiety. The remainder of this article is divided into four sections, one for each category. In each section, we explain the category, use student quotes to illustrate the anxiety or concern, and recommend specific approaches to address specific anxiety-provoking situations. We end with general recommendations that students and schools of social work can implement to address practice-related anxiety