by Amee R. Ramsey
Before I began my MSW, I worked as a pre-school teacher. I remember watching children who didn’t handle transitions well, standing in line pushing, talking, and even crying. In my first semester as a graduate student in the School of Social Work at Spalding University, I had internal and external conflicts that felt very similar to those of the preschooler who pushed, cried, and talked in line.
The beginning of any life-changing event is difficult. For a distinct period of time, everything feels chaotic. Graduate school is certainly a life-changing event. Urdang (2010) writes, “When I was teaching master’s-level social casework, I would say to each class: I don’t think most of you realized what you were getting into when you came into this program; no-one ever disagreed” (p. 523). Taking the steps to achieve a master’s degree in social work is a process that involves embracing what drew me to social work in the first place and being willing to develop my professional self. Urdang writes about this strain: “Students generally do not anticipate the psychological stress and the changes they will undergo in developing a professional self” (p. 523).
I want to offer a few simple tips that I learned through this process that may help other students succeed in the first months of graduate school. These tips will help during the transition period, build a foundation for the rest of the graduate school experience, and support a healthy professional path.
Be Present in the Process
My graduate degree process started before I attended the information session at the university. I spent months in prayer and meditation making sure that returning to school was, indeed, the next right thing to do for me and my family. The process included applications, personal essays, interviews, acceptance, orientation, and classes. Remembering that graduate school is a process has helped me stay in the present moment. Where I am today is the most important place. If I am striving to be somewhere else, then I am missing an opportunity to be the best I can be here and now.
Sometimes, I find it difficult to be present in a process. I want the end result and I want it fast. This need/want for immediate results does not resonate with the reality of processes, which are often slow and arduous. The MSW program at Spalding University dedicates a day to orientation before the fall semester starts. A survey regarding the skill set of a professional social worker is distributed, and students are required to rate themselves at that time—not where they think they will be at the end, but where they are at that very moment. This experience was powerful for me. I realized that who I was right then played an important part in who I was going to be at the end of the process. I just needed to be present and participate in the journey.
Be a Willing Participant
Willingness goes a long way in making the transition to graduate school easier. Resisting the process leads to internal and external conflicts. There is room for “agreeable disagreement,” and there is even more room for willingness to participate. I have watched cohort members resist ideas, assignments, boundaries, and the process—in ways that made it more difficult for them. The resistance creates internal tension and it often comes out during in-class, online, and one-on-one interactions.
Don’t misunderstand. I believe conflict is natural in human relationships. I feel safe calling and expressing my discontent about graduate school with a couple of cohort members I trust. I believe this discontent is normal and healthy. This discussion is always followed by centering on the solution of being willing.
There are so many ways to be willing, and they all enhance the situation. A positive attitude about participation goes a long way toward willingness. If I feel resistant to participating, I say to myself: I will be open, honest, and curious. I have found, in my personal experience, that willingness not only affects my attitude, but it also affects my relationships with others. My relationships with other cohort members have strengthened through willing participation in group presentations, skill videos, in-class/online discussions, and more.
Share Your Strengths and Knowledge
In our MSW program’s cohort model, we go through the program with the same group of students. My fellow cohort members and I are not in competition with one another. I value collaboration and choose to live my life this way. The MSW is a stepping stone to securing a place in the social work profession. Working together with other professionals will not only benefit individual social workers but will also benefit clients. The concept of working together as a profession upholds the core values of the NASW Code of Ethics, and this emphasis starts in graduate school.
Being of service and working with other cohort members creates trust, confidence, and unity. I recently met with another member of my cohort who struggles with writing. I have experience in tutoring individuals in writing. It seemed only fitting to share my strengths and knowledge with her. The experience led us to a greater understanding of each other. Sharing with others allows me to be open to receiving when others want to share. This technique is an important self-care skill. Sharing is a two-way street. It can make life easier and fun.
Organize, Organize, Organize
So many assignments, textbooks, syllabi, e-mails...so little time! I consider myself an organized and efficient person. Never in my life have my organizational skills been tested like they were in the first two months of grad school. Every student entering graduate school has to face the demands of school requirements and their individual lives. Daily, and even hourly, deadlines need to be met, and there are important personal and academic needs that require attention.
The way I organize may not work for others. It is important to find a way to organize that matches each person’s needs. No matter how you choose to do it, the important part is to organize. The level of work required for MSW classes is demanding. Then, you have practicum, jobs, children, pets, significant others, bills, eating, and many more tasks to add to the list. I have seen other cohort members forget an assignment or submit an assignment at the very last minute. This creates an enormous amount of anxiety. Reducing stress and anxiety is imperative to being successful in any situation.
Breathe Deeply and Stay Focused
The first two months of graduate school are full of change, tasks, and unknowns. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and even frightened. Breathing and taking an account of what is the truth about the moment are crucial to maintaining a level of peace and serenity. An honest assessment allows for efficient action to be taken. The action may include looking at the timeline of assignments due, or the action might be taking a walk outside for five minutes to breathe deeply.
Self-care is a core concept in the MSW program at my university. This emphasis begins at orientation with a brief pre-reading of Traveling Toward a Social Work Degree: 10 Road-Tested Trip-Tips (Grise-Owens, 2008). This article addresses the demands of the MSW program and provides tips for incorporating manageable self-care concepts. Self-care is a lifestyle that, if practiced, will not only allow graduate students to thrive during the initial transition period, but will affect the profession of social work when they graduate.
Social work is an emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually demanding profession. Smullens (2012) writes, “What I have learned over the years is the necessity of addressing this complicated exhaustion before the feeling of depletion leads to dysfunction and beyond” (p. 1). Implementing self-care in graduate school is a proactive step toward preventing burnout, compassion fatigue, stress, and anxiety as a professional social worker.
I was introduced to the concept of self-care before starting graduate school. With the demands of school and life, I have found it necessary to re-evaluate my self-care routine. I can honestly say that my ability to “be present in the process,” “strive to be a willing participant,” “share my strengths and knowledge,” “organize, organize, organize,” and “breathe deeply and stay focused” are all directly related to my ability to care for myself. Self-care is similar to organizing. They are both individual. Self-care is designed to enhance experiences and not detract or seem like one more thing to do.
All five tips are based on my personal experience of the first two months of graduate school. Upon reflection, I know that these tips can assist in easing any transition. Graduation is not that far away, and after graduation begins the transition from academic life to the profession of social work. These tips will be the foundation for my ongoing experience in graduate school and my professional path. I hope they can help others who share this wonderful, demanding experience of pursuing an MSW.
Grise-Owens, E. (2008). Traveling toward a social work degree: 10 road-tested trip-tips. The New Social Worker Online. Retrieved from http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/education—credentials/Traveling_Toward_a_Social_Work_Degree%3A_10_Road-Tested_Trip-Tips/
Smullens, S. (2012, Fall). What I wish I had known: Burnout and self-care in our social work profession. The New Social Worker Online. Retrieved from http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field-placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known%3A_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/
Urdang, E. (2010). Awareness of self—A critical tool. Social Work Education, 29 (5), 523-538.
Amee R. Ramsey is a Master of Social Work student at Spalding University School of Social Work. She believes that her life experiences have led her to the social work profession. She strives to serve at each level of social work practice with humility and competence.