What Have You Learned
by Sharon L. Young, Ph.D., LCSW
Editor’s Note: Within the context of this article, the terms intern and internship refer to the social work field placement or practicum.
A year ago last fall, I began my academic career as the field coordinator at a medium-sized BSW program in Connecticut. Looking back over my first year, it was not unlike what a new intern experiences when beginning the semester at a new placement. The early days were both exciting and terrifying. There was so much to learn and process as I adjusted to my new role. I relied on the expertise of my new colleagues to teach me the ropes and to support me when I struggled. I found a mentor who provided me with guidance and a sounding board when I needed one.
Like a social work intern, I learned on the job by applying the education and experience I brought with me. As you begin your fieldwork, you will learn how to apply your experiences to your new role as social work intern. This article will provide you with some tips and insider information that can make your transition to your internship smoother.
Social work is a demanding profession. As social workers, we understand and respond to a myriad of political, social, interpersonal, and intrapersonal forces that affect the people we serve. Social workers assume a broad range of roles and duties that span wider than those of other human service providers.
As a profession, we are the Jack (and Jill) of all trades. In just one position at a neighborhood agency, I have been a community organizer, a group worker, a clinician, a grant writer, and a program manager. Among my varied tasks, I have driven clients to the hospital, gone camping with a youth group, organized a task force of mental health care providers, and provided crisis support for grieving teens. I know my experience is not unique, in that all social workers will face a wide range of challenges, big and small. My job as a social work educator is to prepare students for the many roles they will play as professionals.
I am no expert on field education. Drawing from my experiences as a student, social worker, field instructor, field liaison, and now coordinator, I have been able to see all sides of the field education experience. I learned many valuable lessons, and I want to share them with you.
1. It’s normal to be nervous and unsure in the beginning.
For some students, the first field placement is their initial step into a professional world. Even for seasoned students, each workplace brings a new set of challenges and expectations. There is a lot to learn in the beginning. Take your time and ask questions. No one expects you to know the job before you start.
2. Always begin with a learner’s stance.
Learning involves watching, listening, asking questions, rehearsing, and practicing. You will find that there will be several people at your field placement who are happy to share their knowledge with you. You will likely learn as much from the clients or consumers as you do from the staff. Allow everyone the opportunity to share their expertise with you.
3. Practice, practice, practice.
Your internship not only provides you with exposure to the field of social work, but also allows you to try out your new skills. If you learned an engagement technique in your practice class, put it to use when meeting a new client. How about applying your knowledge about adolescent development when working with a parent group?
4. Beware of field placement envy.
When you are sitting in seminar listening to your classmate describe a fantastic field experience, don’t despair about your own. Many placements start out bumpy, but they often improve as you become more skilled and empowered to take on more challenging work.
5. If you think your field instructor isn’t providing you with challenging assignments, discuss it with him or her.
Field instructors sometimes like to start students out slowly, so they can be sure the intern is prepared for what is to come. It is helpful to go over your learning agreement with your field instructor throughout the semester, to make sure your agency assignments match your learning goals.
6. If you are having difficulty at your agency, tell someone.
Students sometimes have trouble discussing difficulties with new field instructors or faculty liaisons. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your field instructor and professors are there to help you negotiate difficult situations and to aid you in reflecting on your practice decisions.
7. Develop your professional identity.
At your field placement, you will be learning what it means to be a social worker, especially if working in a multi-disciplinary environment. What roles do social workers play on treatment teams, in community meetings, in a residential setting? Remember to identify yourself as the social work intern, not just the intern.
8. Remember, you are making professional contacts along the way.
Make sure you leave a good impression in every professional setting. You may be meeting potential future employers at your next community meeting or task force. Make sure you introduce yourself to others when at larger agency meetings, trainings, or when visiting other agencies.
I remember the feelings of anxiety I felt as an MSW student entering a new field placement. The first weeks of field placement bring many new challenges—establishing yourself as a professional, learning the organizational culture and structure, and finding a work-life balance. It becomes especially challenging when you begin to face clients and community groups and start to connect what you learned in Practice I to the real world.
Fieldwork gives social work students an opportunity to apply academic training to a professional setting. Practicing social work skills in field practicum leads to greater learning outcomes and higher satisfaction for students (Lee & Fortune, 2013). Make the most of your internship by applying and practicing your newly learned skills and knowledge.
As an intern, you are establishing the foundation for your social work career. As a professional social worker, it is important for you to develop supportive and open relationships with colleagues and supervisors. These relationships will provide a source of both support and challenge for you throughout your career. Make sure you develop a sound relationship with your field instructor and other supportive social workers and benefit from their knowledge and experience.
Having a strong on-site supervisor has been associated with greater learning satisfaction in social work interns (Cleak & Smith, 2012). Practicing social work can be stressful and emotionally difficult work, even for veteran social workers. It is important that you keep the lines of communication open with your field liaison, faculty members, and field instructors when things get difficult.
Social work students often turn to friends, family members, or fellow students to discuss stressful or emotionally charged field situations (Litvack, Mishna, & Bogo, 2010). Discussing difficult client situations with friends and family could lead to a breach of confidentiality and could also compromise your professional career. Your faculty and field instructors are there to help you and to guide you through sticky situations. Use them.
You are in the process of not only learning how to be a social worker but also how to manage the emotional toll this work can bring. Over the years, you will find the support of supervisors and colleagues to be important in avoiding burnout, especially when you are a new practitioner (Hamama, 2012).
Cleak, H., & Smith, D. (2012). Student satisfaction with models of field placement supervision. Australian Social Work, 65 (2), 243-258. doi:10.1080/0312407X.2011.572981.
Hamama, L. (2012). Burnout in social workers treating children as related to demographic characteristics, work environment, and social support. Social Work Research, 36 (2), 113-125. doi:10.1093/swr/svs003.
Lee, M. & Fortune, A. E. (2013). Do we need more “doing” activities or “thinking” activities in the field practicum? Journal of Social Work Education, 49 (4), 646-660. doi:10.1080/10437797.2013.812851.
Litvack, A., Mishna, F., & Bogo, M. (2010). Emotional reactions of students in field education: An exploratory study. Journal of Social Work Education, 46 (2), 227-243.
Sharon L. Young, Ph.D., LCSW, is an assistant professor and field coordinator in the Department of Social Work at Western Connecticut State University. Prior to her academic career, she was a clinical social worker in the substance abuse prevention and treatment field.