by Ginger C. Meyette, MSW, LISW, Ph.D.
Congratulations! After years of taking classes, doing research, and immersing yourself in practicum experiences, you are now ready to embark on your social work career. I would imagine that you face this next step on your journey with a combination of anxiety and anticipation. You are not alone. All of us have crossed this bridge from being a student to beginning a job in our chosen careers. One strategy that can ease the transition from being a student to being a professional social worker is to seek a mentor to guide you in your first job setting.
Definition of a Mentor—Formal vs. Informal
A mentor is generally defined as a trusted, experienced person in your field who can serve to advise, counsel, and train you as you begin your professional life. Mentorship may be defined slightly differently depending on your specific social work setting. Formal supervision for licensing requirements can be seen as a kind of formal mentoring and can be very valuable. Another vital form of mentoring is somewhat more informal, although it certainly includes goals and structure; that is the kind of mentoring I am encouraging you to seek out at your new agency.
A mentor in your new job should be someone who is experienced in the kind of work you will be doing, as well as in the work of this particular agency. This person should be able to take you under his or her wing, take you on home visits (if that is part of the job), guide you in the fine points of agency paperwork, and listen to you as you talk about your hopes and fears related to this new job. With a wise mentor early on in your career, you will be able to spread your own wings and work independently much sooner than you will if you have to navigate the responsibilities of this new job all on your own.
Importance of Mentoring
Why is seeking a mentor in your first job so important? First, many social agencies are very complex, and navigating them can seem like trying to find your way through a maze. Agencies often house many different programs, sometimes in multiple buildings. A mentor who has been in the agency for at least a year can often anticipate some of your questions before you know enough about the agency to ask them. This guided navigation through the various parts of the agency can be a lifesaver and contribute toward your own stress reduction during your first weeks at your new agency.
Second, complex agencies are filled with people with a variety of personalities. A competent mentor can introduce you to various staff, accompany you to meetings, and pave the way for your acceptance into the milieu. Observing how your mentor interacts with other staff members can help you to see strategies that seem to work, so you do not inadvertently blunder into social and professional danger zones.
Third, paperwork and documentation are different in every social work job. A mentor can guide you through the intricacies of this part of your work, as well, helping you to see the importance of the documentation in “telling the story” of your work with each client, so colleagues can work effectively with you in providing services. Paperwork is not the most fun part of the job for many social workers, and it can seem mundane and overwhelming. Learning how to handle this through observing and being assisted by a competent mentor can make this task seem less daunting.
A Mentoring Experience
My first social work job was as a bereavement counselor and social worker in a hospice organization. I started this new job with the combined feelings of anxiety and anticipation that accompany the beginning of almost any new job. I was welcomed into this agency by administrators, staff, colleagues, and clients as a competent social worker, even though I felt a little unsure of my role and my ability to do this job with any level of expertise. However, because of the warm welcome that was extended to me by everyone, I embarked on this journey with joy in my heart and hope that I would be able to participate in the life of this agency and to provide comfort and solace to dying and grieving patients and their families.
My mentor embodied the knowledge, skills, and values that I have learned to value in social work. She was able to weave a safety net around me while, at the same time, allowing and encouraging me to spread my wings and fly. She had years of social work experience, and specifically hospice experience, in her background as a basis for being a mentor. I watched her interact in an almost spiritual way with administrators, clients, supervisees, funders, and others, challenging people when difficult issues needed to be addressed and responding with firmness and gentleness when conflicts occurred. I felt completely respected by this woman. When I made mistakes, she would say something like, “How can we work together to make this outcome different in the future?” She honored my worth and dignity, even as she guided me toward growth.
The firm foundation of professional expertise that this mentor instilled in me has guided me in my work in other agencies. In subsequent new jobs, I have sought out a mentor. Based on the solid foundation I developed during this early, formative experience, seeking out a mentor has become a self-care strategy.
Seeking a Mentor
How can you find a mentor, either in your agency or elsewhere? I would suggest that, during the first few weeks in your job, you try to shadow as many social workers as possible (if there are multiple social workers in your agency), so you can observe their different styles of working. Ask one person whose style you admire whether he or she would be willing to serve as a mentor for you, at least during your first year. In my experience, most social workers are delighted to be able to give back in this way, especially if they had good mentors to help them. If the first person you approach does not have the time or energy to devote to you right now, go back to observing until someone else emerges as a possibility. If no one in your agency can serve as your mentor, ask colleagues in similar agencies whether they might be able to mentor you.
What qualities should you look for in a mentor? Look for someone who has been in his or her present job for at least a year and has expertise in the job you are expected to do. Look for someone with a social work degree, if at all possible. In some agencies, case workers and discharge planners refer to themselves as social workers; but potential mentors who have either a BSW or MSW degree have been exposed to the same knowledge, skills, and values as you have and will be able to connect with you as a professional social worker. You can definitely learn from other workers in your agency, even from those in other fields (such as nurses, chaplains, or educators); but for your social work mentor, seek out an actual social worker.
Once you have begun a relationship with a mentor, what should you expect from this mentor? Most importantly, you can expect that this person will actively listen to your questions and concerns and will guide you toward fulfilling the tasks that you are asked to fulfill in your new job. You have a right to expect that the mentor will create time for working with you and will not cancel mentoring times unless absolutely necessary in an emergency. To get the most out of a mentoring relationship, come prepared with questions and observations of your own. Mentoring is, in the best of circumstances, a two-way street, and your mentor will appreciate what you do to prepare for your time together. Finally, expect your mentor to provide constructive criticism as well as praise, and practice gracefully accepting suggestions on how to improve in your work. A wise mentor will offer suggestions and discuss ideas for improvement with you, rather than simply making critical comments.
Proactively seeking a mentor has many benefits. If you find and choose your mentor, it may boost your confidence in your ability to advocate for yourself. This will serve you well in whatever social work job you begin in the future. Working with a mentor early on in a new job can quickly increase your feelings of competence, which can lead to a sense of job satisfaction. In addition, working with an affirming mentor can increase your sense of personal and professional self-esteem, which can help you to approach each day knowing that you can meet any challenges that arise.
Reciprocal Benefits of Mentoring
One amazing thing about mentoring is that the mentor benefits, as well. Many social workers who have served as mentors have positive things to say about mentoring from the mentor’s point of view. One social worker who recently worked with a new graduate stated, “I learned as much from her as she learned from me! It was an honor and a pleasure to serve as her mentor.” Another social work mentor stated, “I grew so much during this mentoring process. I had a wonderful mentor in my first job, and I was happy to be able to give back in this way to the social work profession and to assist with his professional growth.”
Receiving suggestions and guidance from an experienced mentor can greatly benefit the mentee. Seeing their jobs through the fresh eyes of a new social worker can greatly benefit the mentor.
The Mentee Becomes the Mentor
One of the joys of my own professional career has been to mentor new social workers. When I worked as a hospice bereavement counselor and social worker, I took new social workers out with me to patients’ homes and encouraged them to contribute to the conversations with patients and families as they felt comfortable. In the car on the way to and from the visits, we were able to talk about the new social worker’s career goals, and the new employee was able to ask me questions about how I handled a visit or why I worked in a certain way. I loved looking at my job through the fresh eyes of social workers new to the agency, and I found my spark of enthusiasm for my job being ignited again through these interactions. I am so grateful for the mentees whose paths crossed with mine in those mentoring relationships.
After you have been in your job for at least a year, you may find your perspective switching subtly from that of a mentee to that of a mentor. As new social workers come to work in your agency, you may find yourself eager to share your knowledge and expertise with them. You may also find yourself being willing to mentor social work student interns. My interactions with alumni confirm my beliefs regarding the importance of the mentoring relationship in social work. It is important in a first job, and it is important throughout our social work careers, both for the mentor (who may become a mentee in a new job later on) and for the mentee (who may become a mentor).
Seeking a mentor in a first social work job is a very important strategy for building a cushion of support as you embark on your social work career. Experiencing mentoring as a mentee in a new job may prove to be so rewarding that you will be eager to be a mentor yourself, even within a year after graduation. I would strongly encourage you to consider embarking on your own mentoring experience.
Pomeroy, E.C., & Steiker, L.H. (2011). Paying it forward: On mentors and mentoring. Social Work, 56 (3), 197-200.
Rowan, N. L. (Fall, 2009). Mentorship in social work: A dialogue of powerful interplay. Reflections, 51-55.
Strand, V.C., & Bosco-Ruggiero, S. (2010). Initiating and sustaining a mentoring program for child welfare staff. Administration in Social Work, 34, 49-67. DOI: 10.1080/03643100903432941.
Ginger C. Meyette, MSW, LISW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of social work at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She also serves as field director for the social work program. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work in Denver, Colorado. Her writing and research interests include mentoring, social work education, hospice care, and LGBTQ issues.