by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
Some undergraduate and graduate social work programs require their students to have an academic portfolio as part of graduation requirements. The purpose of this collection is to provide evidence of student learning in practice and as a tool for measuring a student’s growth and mastery of social work competencies.
This collection can range from a few to 100 or more pages long and can include a résumé, classroom or internship presentations, papers, self-evaluations, reflections, and other school assignments.
Is this the same as a professional social work portfolio? No, not really.
What is a professional/career portfolio?
Although the academic portfolio in social work education is a great measurement of a student’s understanding of social work competencies, a professional or career portfolio is visual representation of your experience, knowledge, skills, and abilities—and it represents your potential as a professional social worker.
This collection of tangible materials will show your progress, achievements, and contributions from academic and work-related positions. Your professional portfolio will provide evidence of your potential by demonstrating what you have accomplished in the past.
Your career portfolio is not just something to update during your job search periods. It also provides you with a convenient place to keep a record of your professional development and can help you create effective strategies for achieving the goals you have set in your career as a social worker. When I prompt social workers to make sure they include accomplishments on their résumés, their response is usually, “I can’t think of any professional accomplishments I have made.” A professional portfolio will enable you to establish the habit of keeping track of your career achievements and documenting them in one location.
Why should I have a portfolio?
Résumés and cover letters only give employers a taste of who you are and what you have accomplished. Even an interview brings out limited information about your professional background. Why not give employers something concrete they can see about your professional achievements? Having a professional portfolio can:
- help you prepare for interviews
- give you an edge over your competition when interviewing
- communicate your worth to potential employers
- help you provide supporting evidence when asking for a promotion or raise
- help you organize your professional accomplishments
- allow you to assess your own career development.
What should my portfolio include?
What to incorporate into your portfolio will depend on you—where you are in your career, what field of social work you are in or want to be in, and the job to which you are applying. It is important to be very thoughtful about what you include in this collection when using it for your job search. Keep in mind that more is not always better. Just as with a résumé and cover letter, you want to be clear and concise, so potential employers can find what you want them to know quickly. Among the items you may want to include in your professional portfolio are:
Table of Contents: Organize your content and help your readers find what they are looking for quickly.
Social Work Summary and Goals: Similar to the professional summary on your résumé, this could include information about who you are as a professional, your professional interests, and where you see yourself in three to five years.
Extended Résumé: Did it just break your heart to trim your résumé down to two pages when applying for certain jobs? If there are jobs, job accomplishments, honors, or publications you didn’t include on your application résumé to keep it to a manageable and scannable length, this is where you can include a longer version with more detailed information. But again, keep in mind that more isn’t always better.
Educational Background and Achievements: If you are getting ready to graduate or have recently graduated and don’t have a wealth of professional experience, this is where you can include some of the achievements from your social work programs. Were you in your social work honors society? Did you serve as an officer for your student association? Was your poster presentation or research project accepted for a national conference?
Transcripts, Degrees, Licenses, and Certifications: Your professional credentials are probably the first thing an employer checks for when hiring you. Make a copy of all your diplomas and licenses to have available, if requested. Most social work licensure boards have an online searchable database, but it is good practice to have this information handy and in your personal records.
Professional Accomplishments and Growth: Consider including a detailed listing of your accomplishments and promotions. These should be included in your résumé, but outlining them in a separate document with more detail can be impressive and help you articulate your value to the organization when thinking about asking for a promotion or raise.
Skills, Abilities, and Competencies: A detailed examination of your skills and competencies will not only help articulate your potential value to employers, but it will help you assess your strengths and weaknesses as a professional social worker. If you have certain skills you can highlight that fit the jobs you are looking for, this document can help to outline them. In general, it is a good exercise to spend time inventorying your professional skills and providing concrete examples. Examples can include your therapy skills, management/leadership skills, language, communication, and organizational skills.
Professional Artifacts: Don’t forget to include samples of your work, if you have them. Did you create a resource guide, client forms, reports, an agency video, or a newsletter for your internship placement or place of employment? If you were interviewed by a local newspaper or television station or gave a presentation to a local, state, or national audience, be sure to include the links or documentation of these accolades.
Continuing Education: Whether you have been to one conference or 30, you should be actively documenting your continuing education (CE), even if you are not licensed or certified. Including an annotated list in your portfolio will show employers you are keeping up with the latest developments in practice and are organized about your professional development. Don’t forget to include information about the provider of the CE, how many hours of CE or CEUs you received, where and when you received the training, and the learning objectives of each session.
Honors and Awards: A collection of certificates of awards, honors, and scholarships can be a great addition to your portfolio.
Letters of Support/Recommendations: A collection of any positive feedback or support from your professors, field instructors, past employers, or colleagues is always helpful. If you have them, include your positive performance evaluations from your past employers.
Volunteering/Community Service: Include a description of any community service activities, volunteer work, or pro bono work you have completed, especially as it relates to your career. This is especially helpful if you are new to the profession or if there are breaks in your employment timeline.
Reference List: Compile and include a list of three to five professional colleagues or professors (including full names, titles, addresses, and phone/email) who are willing to speak about your strengths, abilities, and experience. Include information about how you know them and if they supervised you.
How long should each of these documents be, and how far back should I go in my professional history?
If the portfolio is for your personal record-keeping, it can be as long as you want. If you intend it to be a supplement for your job interview, an employer is not going to have the time to read a lengthy tome, so it is important to be succinct and only include material relevant to the job for which you are interviewing.
What should a portfolio NOT include?
Do not include your personal history or narrative. This collection is strictly about your social work education and professional accomplishments. Photos should not be included, unless they were published in a newspaper or newsletter or highlighted in some other professional way. This document is not your social media profile.
Format: digital or hard copy?
Should I print and take my entire portfolio to every interview? Many career experts recommend that your portfolio be presented in a sleek binder organized with dividers and taken to every interview. Keep in mind that you will probably never get this collection back, and the likelihood that your interviewer will have time to read your entire collection is slim, but possible. It definitely can’t hurt to put this much effort into your portfolio, but at the very least, print some of the most relevant supplemental material to leave for your interviewers.
Retaining a digital copy of all your portfolio items is crucial to keep this collection updated. Be sure to convert the documents to one PDF file if you choose to email it to potential employers. Scan any brochures or newspaper articles of your work that you can’t find online. If you were featured in an article in your local online newspaper or on your university website, be sure to download copies for safekeeping. Linking to articles in your résumé is a great idea, but nothing is forever. Online newspapers archive their articles fairly quickly, and they won’t be available online long-term.
You should definitely consider an online professional portfolio if you are in the job market. Why? Because employers may Google you anyway. You may as well put the information out there that you want them to see. It is also an easy way to allow them to see this collection without spending a cent on printing costs and fancy binders. There are a handful of online portfolio websites that are free and relatively easy to create:
LinkedIn.com: I have mentioned the value of LinkedIn multiple times, and if you still haven’t created a profile, now is the time. LinkedIn is THE place to build your professional identity online and stay in touch with your professional network. LinkedIn has added some great features in the last few years, including a portfolio feature. You can now add documents, photos, links, videos, and presentations to each of your work and volunteer positions and educational institutions. There is also the option to add sections, such as certifications, interests, projects, and posts, to increase your visibility and improve your professional brand. Let us not forget that employers can easily see recommendations on your profile written by your professional colleagues. However, I am not fond of the “Endorsements” feature. I have 36 endorsements for “Grant Writing” on my profile, and I think only two of those individuals have actually seen a grant I have written and secured. Be aware that actual “Recommendations” will carry more weight. LinkedIn is free and easy to use and has some decent privacy controls.
Blogs: If you are somewhat computer savvy, blogs can be an excellent starting point for creating your own website/online career portfolio. Blogs tend to be easy to set up and use. They are often free, but most have subscription options with advanced features. Blogs may be a good option if you need a simple portfolio. I have used both WordPress.com and Blogger.com, and both are fairly straightforward and easy to use. There are many other blog sites, but some have limited features. Some are better for personal blogging than for a professional profile.
Digital Portfolio Websites: There are a number of career portfolio websites. However, I found during my research that around 90% of these sites are for graphic designers, photographers, and other creative professionals to display their visual art. The one I found to be most useful is called PortfolioGen.com. It is free with available upgrades. Your site can be public or private, and you can give employers the password to access it.
I think a career portfolio is an underutilized tool for social workers. It can help you keep your professional accomplishments organized and allow you to strategically plan your career trajectory. Your professional portfolio is a living collection that you will continually update throughout your career.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.