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.