By: Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., LCSW, CSW-G
You find a social work agency that you believe would be the perfect place for your field practicum, only to discover that it is not on the list of agencies sanctioned by your school of social work. You feel passionate about being placed with this agency, and you are determined to pursue that possibility. Can it happen? Should it happen? How do you make it happen?
Social work field practicum placements vary according to schools of social work. Some universities, colleges, or schools of social work have very strict guidelines about the types of programs with which they can be affiliated. It is not uncommon for some schools of social work not to place field students with for-profit organizations or institutions. Others might place social work field practicum students with for-profit agencies, with the provision that clients with little or no income are able to receive services on a sliding scale or through other arrangements.
Social work programs can be publicly funded or privately funded. Funding sources can and do influence the types of settings in which social work can be practiced. Certain funding sources require a binding commitment about keeping private and public funding separate, to the extent of even avoiding the appearance of mixing those funds.
Some schools of social work might view religious-based organizations as inappropriate for field placements, especially if certain clients are viewed as unsuitable for their services, regardless of their faith. Conversely, social work programs based in religiously affiliated colleges or universities might be reluctant to place field practicum students with agencies that appear to have values and practices differing from the theological basis of the university or college. Additionally, some schools of social work with very specific missions may be reluctant to partner with religious organizations, particularly if there is a sense that these agencies might be vastly different from the expressed mission of the school of social work’s program.
With all this in mind, how does a student initiate a new placement site? It is helpful to consider a perspective beyond the personal desire to have the perfect field placement.
The first priority is to gather information about the agency. Consider asking some critical questions. What do you know about the agency? How long has the agency been in business? Just because it is new to you, this does not necessarily mean that it is a new agency. Sometimes agencies change names or have personnel changes. To someone new in the social work community, the agency might appear to be brand new, but in reality, the agency may have a long history of services and programs.
Who are the staff and what are their professional credentials? Does the agency have social work staff, counseling staff, or a mix? Is there a licensed social worker on staff who can provide weekly supervision to a social work field practicum student? What is the agency’s mission? What services and programs are available at the agency? What are the client base and referral sources?
Not only will having a basic foundation of information assist in knowing more about the agency, but it will provide a better picture about whether this is a truly viable option for a social work field placement. You may think that the agency would be a wonderful social work placement, but realistically it is important to consider the bigger picture.
When you have gathered some baseline information about the agency and its clientele, then it is helpful to consult with the field practicum director at your school of social work. Gather your information about the agency, and schedule an appointment with the practicum director.
More than likely, the field practicum director is already familiar with this agency. If it is an established agency that you have just learned about, the field practicum director may be able to provide additional information, including a rationale about why (or why not) a social work field placement would be appropriate. If this is a newly opened agency, the field practicum director may know some of the staff or the director. One of the individuals may, in fact, be a graduate of your school of social work. Frequently, the social work community is very small.
The field director will most likely address some pertinent issues with you, such as the following: Your school most likely has specific policies about how an agency becomes a partner in the field education of social work students. Your school probably has certain criteria, timelines, and deadlines for agencies to become approved sites for social work field practicum students.
The ability to supervise social work students, licensed social work staff, or social work staff who have graduated from a social work program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, are key elements for most agencies to be associated with schools of social work. In some instances, community agencies partner with a social worker from another agency or someone in private practice to provide weekly supervision time, while another person (not a social worker) does the actual day-to-day work with the social work student.
The field practicum director will consider whether the client- and service-base is broad enough to provide basic foundations or advanced education for a social work student. Are there practice areas that address human behavior, policy, individual work, neighborhood, family, community, networking, group work, just to name a few? Is the agency narrow or broad in its scope of practice?
The stability of the agency will be of interest to the director of field placement. If the agency is very new, then the director will presume that agency personnel will be investing their time and energies in keeping it going, and getting it on a solid foundation. Agency personnel may not have the time or energy to invest in building a relationship with a school of social work. Additionally, if the agency is new, the practicum director will be concerned about whether the client base is large enough, varied enough, and stable enough to provide a comprehensive cross-section of social work field education experiences.
The field practicum director can also address whether the agency is participating in one of the areas of research or practice of social work faculty within your school. Schools of social work frequently attempt to affiliate with agencies in the area of their faculty’s expertise. This has the additional benefit of having faculty familiar with the practice area, a potential research relationship, and having faculty who will serve as faculty liaisons with the agency. Also, the additional faculty support to establish a new placement may make it more plausible. If the agency is within an area of practice that faculty also have interest in, this helps to lighten the workload.
The field director and you will make a decision for the next step—approaching the agency. Sometimes, field directors prefer to make the initial contact with a potential agency. If a faculty member’s area of expertise lies in the realm of the agency’s services, the field practicum director may want to ask that person to join in the negotiations. The school field director and faculty may or may not want to have you join them when they meet with the agency.
Some schools of social work are very relaxed about approaching agencies about potential field placements. If this is the case, the school may be fine with you, as a student, approaching the agency. If your field director approves of you making the initial contact with the agency, then he or she needs to make sure that you have a clear understanding of the expectations placed on an agency providing social work field placement. If you end up initiating the first meeting with the agency, it is imperative for you to have a clear sense of what you can and cannot address with the agency and how the school of social work will be following up with the agency.
It is important to begin with the program director or owner—the power person. Prior to scheduling an appointment to discuss the possibility of the agency becoming a social work field site, make sure that you will be able to explain clearly what your intentions for the appointment are. Your contact person may want some materials prior to the meeting, particularly policies regarding field practicum placements or a résumé from you. The agency spokesperson may request to meet only with school officials. Additionally, the agency may have already discussed working with field practicum students and may be excited about the meeting or may decline your proposal, thus saving time for everyone.
Be prepared for the meeting. It is helpful to provide information about how you learned about the agency and why you think it would be a wonderful place for a social work field practicum. You need to check in with the agency contact person, to learn what she or he knows about being affiliated with a school of social work as a field agency. The agency may have students from other allied fields, so addressing what is specific to a social work field practicum is warranted.
The agency needs to have information about what to expect if it is to become a social work field agency. This includes the number of hours a week you would need to be there and information about the types of tasks and educational experiences the school would expect of a field practicum agency.
Can you detect the agency director’s interest in providing a social work practicum site? Is it extremely high? Beginning a placement is extremely time consuming. The agency director needs to understand that this is a career investment for the student, and that having a field student is not merely a way to gain an extra employee or another set of ears for listening. To be successful, there needs to be a commitment and investment in the social work student’s education.
It is important to identify the personnel who would provide the day-to-day supervision, as well as the need for a social worker who would provide weekly supervision. Some schools of social work have very strict and narrow definitions of weekly supervision. It is important for you to have addressed this with your school’s field director before meeting with the agency.
Does the agency have the ability to sustain a placement for social work students over time? Or is this just an interest of yours, and the agency (or some personnel at the agency you know well) has agreed to do it just this once for you? If it’s unlikely that there will be another student for years, then this is not in anyone’s best interest. Schools of social work build partnership-sustaining placements, benefiting social work programs, agencies, and in turn, students. The agency doesn’t need to accept a student every year, but every other year or every few years is best. Otherwise, it is like starting new each and every time!
It may not have occurred to you until you came to the agency that, as a student, you may not be the best fit for the agency. You may never have considered—yes—great agency, but no—not me as the social work field student. The agency may want to interview students to make a selection, and not select you automatically.
Think of the initial meeting as information-gathering time and a time for testing the waters for the likelihood that this agency may be interested in becoming a social work field practicum site. Typically, the school of social work and a designated agency person will do the actual formalization of the site as a field practicum agency.
On the outside—sure, no problem—what is the big deal in setting up a practicum? There is NO big deal about setting up a practicum, But to establish a great practicum to ensure learning over time takes a huge commitment on the part of schools of social work, as well as of agencies. The payoff is wonderful—super social workers for the future!
Denice Goodrich Liley, Ph.D., LCSW, CSW-G, is an associate professor at Boise State University School of Social Work in Boise, Idaho. Dr. Liley is on CSWE’s Advisory Board for Social Work Field Education.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).