Student in Library
by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
Don’t get me wrong, I love social work. I even loved social work school. I’ve been around the bend after having attended two social work schools (one for my master’s and the other for my doctorate) and teaching at four. Through these experiences, I have gotten a clear sense of some of the factors that might be compromising your education or leaving you with a feeling that you didn’t graduate with a sense that your education was enough. I am offering these reflections with the hope that they are validating. I am also offering these reflections with accompanying suggestions that might make your education feel more worthwhile, even after you have graduated.
The Curriculum Is Just Too Generalist
One of the most difficult aspects of master's level social work education is that it is only two years long. Of course, this is also a strength. It means that you don’t pay for more than two years of school, and it means you get into the field quickly. However, it also leaves your classes lacking the depth that many of you are hoping for. To me, many classes felt like survey courses, jumping from topic to topic every week - one week on CBT, the next on DBT. You just aren’t ready to practice CBT after learning about it for one week. Of course, you might be lucky enough to take an elective, but finding a diverse set of electives is increasing uncommon with budget cuts at most universities and colleges. Even in second year practice, arguably your most advanced class, the sense that there is not time to really delve into any one topic looms largely.
Further, it can feel as if the classes are not in proper order. You take Human Behavior in the Social Environment before you are really in placements that render it applicable. When you need that theory most, you are already a year past the material and don’t know exactly how to integrate it. There is something about the way the classes are ordered that makes theory integration and case conceptualization particularly challenging. It goes beyond simply having HBSE the first year. It also has to do with the emphasis on research (which is heavily supported by the Council on Social Work Education) and the ways that those classes often cut into clinical material (if that is what you are most interested in studying). Given that you only have two years in school, it is painfully difficult to be spending time in classes that don’t feel supportive of your overall goal of becoming a clinical social worker (which is what I am emphasizing here, given that this is the topic of this blog). For macro students, these issues might not apply in the same exact way.
- Do everything you can to get undergrad research classes to count toward your MSW research classes, freeing you up to take more of what you want.
- Decide in advance what it is that you want to know more about. Seek out the professors who know about this, gear your papers toward it, read about it. Don’t hesitate to use your time in school in a way that is specifically tailored toward your needs.
- Keep your notes from your first year on hand during your second year, to support your effort to integrate complex pieces of material.
- Pursue electives, pursue electives, pursue electives. Some students can’t fit electives into their schedules or don’t feel the selection of electives is adequate. Then fight for more, and do everything you can to make the schedule work for you.
We Talk About Race and Oppression, But We Don’t Integrate It
Everyone has taken some kind of class on race, multiculturalism, or diversity. These courses go by different names - really too many to count. Some schools offer these classes at the beginning of your education, and others close out with them. I feel that these courses are inarguably essential. My problem with them lies in a few different areas.
First, it seems that we often limit our discussion about difference to topics of race and class. There are few other places in the curriculum, unfortunately, that actually address issues of intersectionality. We rarely have the time and space to talk about sexuality and race, disability and race, disability and sexuality. Of course, we are intensely focused on issues of racial oppression in social work, and we should be. But delving more deeply into how difference presents itself, even talking about racial oppression, often seems to fall short.
Second, it is very difficult to bring the topic of racial oppression and racial differences into the classroom process. Discussions about race often take place in a highly intellectualized, if not defended, manner, leaving the dynamics in the classroom off the table. Often the dynamics in the classroom symbolize some sort of historical racial enactment that is worthy of discussing in the moment. We are undeniably in a heated moment, historically, and keeping this fact and the liveliness of it outside of the classroom can lead to feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement.
And perhaps most frustratingly, the topics of race and oppression rarely make it into our other classes. Because there is a class designated for this topic, it is almost as if the topic exists in a vacuum separate from our other studies and work. These topics need to be integrated into the overall curriculum, rather than leaving them to be dealt with separately and on their own.
- Ask all of your professors, particularly those in your core classes, how issues of diversity will be covered.
- Google pictures of the authors of the articles in your syllabi (throughout your classes), and assess whether you are truly reading materials from diverse voices. I have found that the majority of reading materials are by White writers (in the core classes) and the diversity in the syllabus only really shows up in some electives or classes specifically designated to address difference.
- Ask how difference in your placements can be productively discussed in your practice classes. These classes are the place where you ought to be able to “practice” the most difficult skills that you are cultivating. Negotiating complex and intersecting differences ought to be addressed in practice during both of your school years.
Adjunct vs. Standing Faculty
The power imbalance between adjunct and standing faculty is not unique to schools of social work. More and more schools rely on adjunct faculty to teach their most essential courses, while standing faculty make fewer and fewer appearances across the curriculum. For social work, this can be amazing. The reason is that adjunct faculty are typically in the field, and you need this. You need faculty who are connected to what is actually happening out there. To become tenured at many colleges and universities, standing faculty need to abandon the field in the service of research and service to the university community.
The problem, for you, becomes that adjunct faculty (who might be excellent or might be horrible) are totally beholden to job insecurity. They are well aware of course evaluations and often teach in fear of them. They are also handed a syllabus that they have very little control over or investment in. Most adjunct faculty have no real connection to the school, no office space, and very little time to grade and correspond with you. Given the amount of practice wisdom that adjunct faculty have, the fact that you often don’t have increased access to them is disappointing and frustrating. Further, the short leash that many of them function on creates a real struggle when it comes to bringing their whole self to the classroom.
- Try to take classes that are taught by both adjunct and full-time professors. The diversity helps. You should be able to be exposed to professors who are deeply invested in your school and professors who are currently working in the field.
- Ask your adjunct professors how they are balancing their field and teaching lives. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from this kind of multitasking.
- Ask standing faculty what they are researching and writing. Often, reading what your professors are writing will enrich your academic experience tremendously.
- Asking standing faculty if they need any help with their research will also serve you very well in the future, particularly when it comes to recommendations.
- Approach every social work class you take strategically. Assessing your professors’ relationship with the school will aid you in this process.
Getting your MSW is no cakewalk. It is a complicated process that can feel rushed and underdeveloped. At the same time, it goes so quickly that it can be hard to know just how much you are learning. And you are learning a lot!
Here are some overall suggestions to help you make the VERY most of it all:
- Every social work professor, on some level, is well intentioned and wants to create excellent social workers. They might be tired, stretched too thin, or preoccupied with other issues at the school. But, trust me, they are there for you. The more engaged you are, the more engaged your professors will be.
- Trust the process. It can be almost impossible to even know what is happening to you in the middle of it all, but you are being transformed by this education even though you might not even know how or why.
- Ask for what you want every chance you get. Without students, schools don’t exist. Use your voice, knowing that you are driving the school. You are the customer of the business and on some level the customer is always right.
- Be creative in forming relationships. The relationships you form in graduate school might truly last you for your whole career.
- AND, use your supervisor as an ally, as a professor, as a friend. Being a supervisor is an honor, even if it is a burden, too. Know that so much of your education takes place in the field. There is really no more crucial player than your supervisor. Your keen usage of this relationship will reward you in spades.
GOOD LUCK out there!
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Read more of her clinical perspective and tips on the most burning questions of developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.