by Nancy L. White-Gibson, MSW, LCSW
My social work career has been a ride I never would have imagined. During my internship, I worked at a shelter for domestic violence survivors and their children, where I developed skills I would use throughout my career. As a new graduate, I started practicing in a hospital in a physical rehabilitation unit. I learned to work with families and patients who were primarily struggling with strokes, traumatic brain injuries, or spinal cord damage.
I eventually moved to a large city and started working in employee assistance programs. I also worked in longer-term counseling situations, and additionally worked in the field of adoption. The learning and growing in the field has been a fascinating and rarely, if ever, boring life. As I look back on my 20-plus years of work, I can honestly say that one of the most important connections I made was a happy accident.
Graduation brought a sense of urgency to find a position. I wanted to help people, as we all do, but I also sought to make a living—something that would help me pay off my graduate school debt! I had an offer from the agency where I had interned, but it would pay less than the job I had held prior to entering my MSW program. I felt I needed to at least make a bit more money to start chipping away at the bills, so I went to a job fair. There were several avenues I considered, but one job seemed to float to the top as an optimal opportunity.
Little did I know that a wonderful thing had occurred the moment I accepted that first position. I not only got my start as a social worker, but fortunately for me, the placement also came with an excellent supervisor and mentor—Alice.
Supervision seems to be understood as a necessity for a beginning social worker, but it wasn’t always emphasized in terms of its true importance. Good supervisors can take you to incredible heights. They help you learn to fly, providing the wind beneath you, and providing a net for when you fall. A shoulder is offered at just the right times, and assurance is given regarding your abilities. Constructive criticism and reality checks are also important along the way, so you have an honest and clear view of your work and, in general, reality. A great supervisor helps prevent those falls but knows how to be unobtrusive. You think you are doing it all on your own and can feel that sense of success and accomplishment that is especially important. Still, you also know someone has your back, should you happen to falter. Alice could do all that, and more.
As I left this first position, I knew that I would be able to function well. However, I also realized I would miss Alice’s straight talk, encouragement, and support. I didn’t realize that moving out of state, I would need to find a supervisor to help me with the licensure process. I learned that I would need to complete three more months of supervised practice before sitting for the clinical licensure exam. Living in a large metropolitan area, I quickly found that no one was willing to supervise me for just three months. They wanted contracts for at least a year, costing $100 or more per month. I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t want that long of a contract, either.
I called Alice. She graciously agreed to do regular phone supervision to get me through until my license was obtained. She charged me for the phone bill costs. Luckily, in the state where I was living, phone supervision was allowed for a brief portion of the overall supervision. It was a perfect arrangement. After three months, I was able to obtain my clinical license.
Alice and I lost touch for a few years. We heard from each other rarely, or through friends. I knew she was still working, and she knew what I was up to, as well. We communicated occasionally, usually by e-mail or through a colleague. When she heard I had written a book of short stories for children, she was right there with me in spirit, cheerleading.
In 2006, I had the need to return to my home state, Illinois, and I worked on transferring my license. With no reciprocal agreement between states, I was required to file my test score for the clinical license, the requirements for licensure from my previous state for comparison, college transcripts, and, much to my surprise, supportive documentation by my first supervisor who, 14 years prior, had provided the affirmation of my readiness to test. Of course, that was Alice! We reconnected, and she responded with energy and support. Paperwork never seemed to scare her, especially if it meant that she was helping someone. There are not that many people who eagerly tackle forms, but she did it without complaint or expectation of reward.
I wanted to write about this, because it became clear over the years that choosing your first supervisor—the one who will vouch for your readiness for licensure—is a critical decision. I think most of us “fall into” this relationship based on just who we report to when we get the job. However, it is worth thinking about more than a few seconds as you say “yes” to the money. Make sure that you are choosing wisely. I cannot imagine, at this stage, a supervisor who is not invested in your success. Ensure that your supervisor is going to engage with you in important dialogue and is going to encourage and support your growth. If you are torn between one option that has better pay and another that has an excellent supervisor that you find engaging and supportive—you know what I’d recommend! Go for the best supervisor!
I recently was able to invite Alice to speak with one of my classes about her career and the cutting edge research that she conducts in her current position. She was a delight to have in the classroom, and her engaging personality persists. When I look back, I had no idea that I would find not only a supervisor to help me with my goal of licensure, but a lifelong friend and colleague. I hope you are able to find the same.
Nancy L. White-Gibson, MSW, LCSW, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the field department of the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.