By: Julie Birkenmaier
Fall 1997, Vol. 4, No. 4
A Paid Practicum: Do I Want One? How Do I Find One?
by Julie Birkenmaier, MSW, LCSW
With increasing tuition costs, many social work students find themselves juggling practicum requirements with other obligations-work, classes, family and life commitments. Out of necessity, some students find that they must mold the practicum around their other responsibilities, rather than enjoy an opportunity to focus their energies on this career-building experience. A paid practicum may help a student alleviate some of this pressure by combining practicum with a means of financial support. There are many issues to be considered in making the decision to pursue and accept a paid practicum.
Paid Practicum Policy
In an effort to accommodate the need for income while in school, social work programs can create and maintain paid practicum opportunities for students. Although the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has extensive guidelines for practica and has developed specific guidelines for practica completed by students employed at the practicum agency (Council on Social Work Education, 1994), no additional guidelines are in place for practica for which compensation is provided.
Social work programs vary widely in their policies and procedures governing the field education component of the curriculum. For instance, some programs assign practicum sites with little student input, while others allow for complete student self-selection. For those students interested in a paid practicum and able to provide significant input into their practicum site selection, information about the role of money in the field placement process is crucial to the decision-making process. What are the advantages and disadvantages of completing a paid practicum?
Advantages of a Paid Practicum
While considering the pursuit of a paid practicum, several distinct advantages emerge, to include:
1. Ease of financial burden and stress-Combining practicum with a source of income allows one to focus energies on learning while paying the bills. Students who must work at “outside” jobs often find their attention and energies divided as they struggle to make ends meet, complete their schooling, and meet other life commitments.
2. Investment/connection to agency-The role of intern can often be ambiguous, often existing in the “netherworld” between employee and volunteer. Receiving payment for a practicum may assist in clarifying the role and responsibilities of the intern to all concerned. The student may feel more of a sense of connection and commitment to the agency in exchange for payment.
3. Possible stepping stone to paid employment at the agency-Many agencies consider paid students to be employees. If the student is able to meet or exceed expectations of the supervisor(s) during the practicum, the paid practicum student may enjoy an advantage over other applicants for an opening at the agency.
4. Paid experience weighted more heavily-Paid experience can be given more consideration than volunteer work in the job-seeking process. A reference from a paid practicum experience may be considered equal in weight to a reference from a paid social work job.
Disadvantages of a Paid Practicum
While the advantages of a paid practicum may be clear, the disadvantages must be considered before a decision may be reached. Disadvantages for the student may include:
1. Deterrent from learning goals-For a financially strapped student, the lure of a paid practicum has the potential to dissuade even the best laid plans for the practicum. Students sometimes find that they must set their immediate career-building interests aside to accept a practicum that offers payment.
2. Constraints on the opportunity to critically analyze aspects of agency functioning-The paid practicum student may feel inhibited from offering constructive criticism of aspects of the experience that impact learning goals (i.e., supervision, administrative structure and process, policies) because they are considered more of an employee than a student.
3. Extra requirements-While some unpaid practicum opportunities may involve lengthy procedures prior to acceptance, many students find that securing the paid opportunity frequently involves lengthy procedures. Students may find that multiple interviews are required, while the norm for an unpaid practicum is only one interview. Furthermore, administrative approval to accept the student may be required, while approval from the proposed field instructor is the norm for unpaid practica. Other requirements for a paid practicum could include successful completion and approval of an application, a criminal background check, reference checks, and a drug and/or health screening. Some students find that paid sites require more hours or a longer-term commitment than specified by their school for practicum. Students may find it necessary to complete activities and tasks for the agency or organization after the practicum requirements for the school have been met.
4. Role confusion and conflict-Students receiving payment for practicum activities may feel compelled or may be encouraged to assist the agency in any way needed without regard to the completion of learning objectives. Agency staff and volunteers may view the paid student as “staff,” thereby assuming that the student should show unreasonable flexibility in work/practicum activities. Students could find themselves substantially involved in work unrelated to learning objectives (i.e., clerical work or janitorial work) or only offered a very limited variety of tasks. Without a specified set of learning objectives and tasks specified by the school and agreed to by all concerned, learning could be compromised.
The potential for conflict between employment and school tasks and expectations has prompted some schools to develop a variety of contracting and monitoring policies with the aim of enhancing the student status as a student and not an employee (Martin, 1991). Martin further reports that only 10% of social work programs view practicum at place of employment as “very positive,” while 59% assess the arrangement as “not very positive.” These findings may be indicative of the problems that can occur when completing a practicum and generating income at the same site.
Possible Sources of Funds for a Paid Practicum
Social work programs may elect to prohibit student compensation for practicum activities. However, for those students attending schools that allow paid placements, there is a wide variety of possible sources for funding to explore. Among the funding sources for a paid practicum are:
1. Government funding-A variety of government funding options can be made available for stipends. Most Veterans Administration hospitals across the country offer training programs with the possibility of a paid practicum for second-year graduate students. Additionally, many baccalaureate and master' level social work education programs use federal Title IV-E funding to financially support students working within the public child welfare system (Zlotnik, 1997). Some states elect to support social work training in public schools through the availability of stipend funds for students. The AmeriCorps and Vista programs have been successfully utilized as sources of paid practica. Other state and local agencies may elect to use discretionary funds, such as “consulting fees,” to pay students.
2. Place of employment practica-For students employed in social service-related settings, completing practica with their employers is an option in some programs. In a recent survey of MSW programs, over 9% of students enrolled have used employment sites as a practicum setting with the range being 0-27% (Martin, 1991). In some cases, students have negotiated with their employers to complete some or all practicum activities on work time while they are “on the payroll.” While some social work programs restrict place of employment practica, many have developed special policies, and some schools have developed special programs for employed students who elect to remain at their work settings (Martin, 1991).
3. Filling in for staff member on leave-When agency staff take a sabbatical or leave to care for a new child or a sick relative, a need is created for a “temporary worker” in the agency. Depending on the level of knowledge and skill needed for the job duties, a paid practicum may be a positive alternative for the student, the employee, and the agency.
4. University-secured funding-Some social work programs have developed paid sites through a variety of university-generated sources. These sources can include: a) foundation support or grants, b) research funds used to create paid research assistantships, and/or c) funds from an endowment to support social work practice with a particular emphasis.
5. Agency-based grants and funds-Some agencies have included stipend funds for practica in grant proposal budgets. Other agencies have allocated stipend funds for students in their annual budgets. If the agency relies on student labor to fulfill specific duties and would like to have students each semester, offering a stipend can be a very effective incentive in recruiting students.
6. Secure a new job-If a new job is at a practicum site and entails new and appropriate learning for the student, some social work programs will allow a student to complete a placement within this arrangement.
Compensation for practicum activities can take many forms. Payment may be based on an hourly wage or a pre-determined stipend paid in bi-weekly, monthly, or a lump sum payment for the semester. University-funded paid practica may involve tuition assistance. For those students in a practicum at a place of employment who are able to negotiate the completion of practicum activities on work time, payment could be considered the continuation of a regular paycheck. A practicum site that is unable to compensate a student for all practicum activities may be able to offer a stipend for specific activities that are under the purview of a grant or contract.
Tips for Securing a Paid Practicum
You have debated the pros and cons and are interested in pursuing a paid practicum. If you are attending a school that permits, facilitates, and supports this arrangement, securing a practicum that pays will take planning and preparation. The process of locating a paid practicum is often very similar to the job-seeking process.
Factors that will contribute to securing a paid practicum include prior social work experience (paid or unpaid), a proven academic track record, good networking skills, flexibility, creativity, determination, negotiation skills, timing, and sheer luck. Many agencies and organizations that have funds for stipends or payment will only “hire” a student for a paid practicum if the student also fits the criteria they have crafted for an employee.
If you are seeking a paid practicum, consider the following:
1. Start the process early. Become familiar with the procedures and policies guiding practica in your social work program. Complete the necessary paperwork and meet with your faculty liaison as soon as possible to explore possibilities. Paid practicum opportunities often are the first to be filled.
2. Utilize your practicum liaison. Your designated practicum liaison is there to assist in all phases of the practicum. The liaison is an important source of information about sites and can assist in the development of a new or renewing paid practicum site. You can expect your practicum liaison to offer appropriate challenge and support in your decision-making process. Approach your liaison with your ideas for new paid practicum sites. Stay in close contact with your liaison throughout the planning semester to monitor for new paid practicum options that emerge.
3. Network with faculty, students, alumni, and other social workers. Use all your social work-related contacts to learn about paid opportunities and to communicate your interests.
4. Polish your résumé and interviewing skills. Update your résumé and ask others to review it. Practice your interviewing skills with friends and family. Remember that many agencies will only hire a student for practicum if the student also fits the criteria for an employee.
5. Monitor employment ads. If a new job would entail new appropriate learning, you may be able to complete practicum requirements simultaneously with employment duties or negotiate a practicum at your new place of employment.
The Final Decision
Before accepting an offer of a paid practicum, ponder the possibilities. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does this practicum opportunity entail significant, new, and appropriate learning for me?
2. Does this practicum opportunity include the skills and experiences that I am seeking at this point in my social work program?
3. Does this practicum opportunity appear to offer the experiences that will lead me toward my long-term career goals?
4. Would I accept this practicum if payment was not an option?
5. If desired by the agency, am I willing to complete tasks and activities beyond the requirements of the social work program?
If you answer “no” to a significant number of these questions, you may well need to reconsider the offer. Ask yourself, “Is the financial gain worth the sacrifice of my present educational goals?”
The practicum experience is often pivotal in shaping career interests and directions. A paid practicum that entails new appropriate learning in the direction of the career interests of the student can be advantageous for all involved. Knowing where the pitfalls may lie can be helpful in avoiding potential conflicts.
Council on Social Work Education (1994). Handbook of accreditation standards and procedures (4th edition). Alexandria, VA: Author.
Martin, M. L. (1991). Employment setting as practicum site: A field instruction dilemma. In D. Schneck, B. Grossman, & U. Glassman, Field education in social work. Contemporary issues and trends (pp. 288-294). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Zlotnik, J. L. (1997). Survey findings on use of Title IV-E training funds. Social Work Education Reporter, 45(1), 8-11.
Julie Birkenmaier, MSW, LCSW, is an Assistant Clinical Professor at Saint Louis University School of Social Service.
Special thanks go to Eugene Kain (United States Pretrial Services), Don Moses (United States Veterans Administration), and Marla Berg-Weger, Ph.D. (Saint Louis University School of Social Service) for information that contributed to this article.