Friday, December 5, 2014

Tips for Choosing Your Social Work Grad School Professors

By Kimberly DeFields Bay

Graduate school has its challenges, not the least of which is course registration. How do you choose which professors are worth the hundreds or thousands of dollars you are paying each credit hour for your advanced education? Protect your investment by following the strategies below to make the best possible choice of professor.

1.    FACULTY DIRECTORIES—Most schools have a faculty directory on the web. Visit your school directory to look up potential social work professors and review their bios or curriculum vitae. You can use this to your advantage by looking for professors who conduct research or work in your areas of professional interest and have a higher level of expertise. For example, if you have a specific interest in trauma, look for a professor who has published trauma research or has a history of working with clients who have experienced trauma, such as combat veterans or survivors of sexual assault.  
2.    ASK OTHER SOCIAL WORK STUDENTS AT YOUR SCHOOL—This idea may seem the most obvious, but there is a best practice approach that can garner you the most relevant information. Understand that what you ask is important. Simply asking “Who is your favorite professor?” will not necessarily provide you with the best match. Create a list of three to five characteristics you feel are most important in a professor. Let’s say you choose good lecturer, laid-back/relaxed, and fair grader. Now, create a list of questions to ask other students. Be specific! For example, you might ask: “Does this professor keep students’ attention during lectures?” “Does he/she have a good sense of humor that is evident in class?” “Does this professor expect perfect APA-style writing?” Each of these questions is specific in nature and zeroes in on what is personally important to you. This will enable you to determine whether a particular professor is the best match based on your own preferences.

3.    COMPLETE A GOOGLE SEARCH—Do not underestimate what you may learn by Googling the names of your potential professors. You might find LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter accounts, or blogs, for example, all of which could potentially provide even more insight into the individual’s professional history or interests, volunteer work, or education. These can be valuable tidbits when trying to decide between one professor and another. Discovering who has professional expertise in your areas of interest or has contacts at an agency for which you would like work can help you make a winning decision.
4.    RATEMYPROFESSOR.COM—Recently updated, this site is a great one if you want to know what other students think! If you know of a specific social work professor you want to check out, search by name. If you want to check out all rated social work professors, enter your school name, then search the social work program. Ratings are 1 to 5 stars and indicate the popularity of a given professor. Student comments provide more specific information. Although this site can be helpful, it is important to keep in mind that ratings are purely subjective—if a student happens to disagree with a professor’s grading or takes issue with the instructor’s teaching style, he or she could give that professor an unfair negative ranking.

5.    CONTACT PROFESSORS DIRECTLY—Once you have identified two or three professors who have been highly recommended, it can be helpful to call or e-mail the candidates for a brief interview. You might not want to call it an interview, but you can indicate that you have recently been referred to them for a certain class and have a few questions you would like to ask. Then, take the opportunity to talk about office hours, accessibility to students outside of office hours, and perhaps even inquire as to whether they ever offer mentorship to outstanding students. Few students take this particular step, so you are likely to gain the favor of those you contact!

Universities may not guarantee you will like your instructors, but with a little time, effort, and practice, you can gain a higher rate of graduate school professor satisfaction for yourself. Good luck! 

Kimberly DeFields Bay is a second-year MSW student at the University of Southern California. She will graduate in Spring 2015 and plans to seek employment that will allow her to start logging hours toward full licensure as a clinical social worker. Her professional interests include substance abuse/recovery, trauma, attachment, sex/sexuality,and couples/romance/intimacy. Kimberly holds professional membership in the NASW and the CSWA. She is also a member of the USC Phi Alpha Honor Society. Kimberly lives with her husband Eric; son David, dog Tinka, and cat Sean-Connery in Southwest Michigan, where she enjoys spending time with family--especially babysitting her first grandson who was born in October.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going to Social Work Graduate School - For the Right Reasons!

by Brittany Stahnke Couturier

Two years ago, I was far from the confident social work student I am today, but from the outside, it seemed I was thriving. I had worked my way into a Ph.D. program in psychology and moved cross-country with my husband to grab at the opportunity. However, I hadn't put myself there for the right reasons. I had done it for egoto feel good about myself.

I had always wanted to "help" people, but that was not why I was working to become a psychologist. I had never stopped to think of other options—other ways to do just that. I had tunnel-visioned my way to a town that was a major culture shock and into a program which I doubted was going to help me be who I wanted to be. Professionally, yes, but not personally.

Graduate programs can have as high as a 50% attrition/drop-out rate. Thousands of uninformed students blindly go into grad programs every year, and thousands leave, wounded and pulling at straws of what to do next. As future social workers, anyone going into the field should be informed— not only regarding people, policy, and the world, but regarding themselves. Be aware of every decision you make and why you are making it. Be aware of the person you are and the person you want to be.

There are a million ways to help people, and a social work degree can help you with many of them. I chose social work, because all of the things I was interested in doing with my life and career were fulfilled by the field of social work. Don't go to grad school because you are unsure what to do next and need to fill the time. Don’t go because you want to make yourself or your parents proud. And certainly don't go to make more money.

Go to graduate school in social work because you believe in people and have more tolerance than impatience. Go because you have worked in the field and want more knowledge and to move up the ladder. Go because you are hands-on. Go because your best days have been those that have been focused on other people. Go because you look at someone who hurts other people and wonder who once hurt them. Go because you were born a social worker.

As someone who has degrees in both criminal justice and psychology, fields in which people commit themselves to also help others, I can state that there is nothing like social work. I work every day to be more selfless, but in the end, I do this for me, as well. I want to go home at the end of the day and feel fulfilled. I am a person who needs to feel I have made a difference. Social work called to me during my darkest times, before I dropped out of my doctorate program, something I speak further about in my recent e-book, Confessions of a Grad School Dropout. I had never even met a social worker before the option was presented to me. But when I look at the happy faces of my professors, and think about the unhappy ones of those in my past program, I know I chose the path for me.

Information about grad school and making a decision is out there—so use it! There is plenty of information about where to go, what program is right for you, and what to do with your degree. 

Brittany Stahnke Couturier is a Master of Social Work student at Florida Atlantic University, with a focus in child welfare, a member of the 2015 class. She recently published her first e-book, Confessions of a Grad School Dropout. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology; a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice; a Bachelor of Arts in English; a minor in Sociology; and a Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, all earned from Florida Atlantic University Magna Cum Laude. Her social work placements include working in adoptions and hospice care. She has published prose in Eternal Heartland and Surrender to the Moon. She runs Hub of the Grad School Dropouts, a blog dedicated to providing support to fellow students. She lives in Palm Beach County, Florida, with her husband and cat, Yoda. She can be reached at

Friday, October 10, 2014

3 Tips To Reduce Your Graduate School Application Stress

by Katie-Ann Mason, Ed.M.

1. Be Prepared

When applying to graduate school, allow yourself plenty of time, and make sure you are prepared for the process. When you are searching for schools or researching a specific school of interest, it is important to review the schools website in detail. You will likely have questions that cant be answered online, but it is an important place to start. Many schools put pertinent admissions, financial aid, and academic program information on their sites just for you. Before applying, you also want to be sure that you are in compliance with all eligibility requirements, and that you understand the complete process. 

2. Start Early

I recommend starting the application process early. You want to give yourself time to collect all the pieces of your application. You also want to give your references time to complete their recommendations for you. Everyone gets busy, including your references. Out of fairness to them, give them time to carefully write up and submit your recommendation. You also want to allow time as a buffer in case there are any problems getting your official transcripts sent to the school.

3. Put Your Best Foot Forward in the Personal Statement

For many schools, the personal statement is a writing sample, so be sure you follow the prescribed format, answer the required questions, and have one or more people look it over and review for grammar, spelling, or content errors and concerns. The personal statement is also one of the subjective parts of your application. It is the review committees chance to hear your voice. This statement is your chance to relay why you are choosing a certain profession or career path, why you are choosing to apply to that school in particular, and why you are a good fit for the school. It also provides you an opportunity to discuss any piece of the application that you are concerned with. For example, if you failed a class or had to withdraw, discussing these matters in your personal statement gives the committee something else to consider other than a grade on a paper.

Applying to graduate school can be stressful. Try to enjoy the search process and remember that you have to choose the school that is the best overall fit for you. 

Katie-Ann Mason, Ed.M., is the admissions officer at the Boston University School of SocialWork, a dynamic, urban-based graduate program offering MSW and PhD and continuing professional education.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How To Approach Writing Your Personal Statement for Social Work Graduate School

by Jesus Reyes

This post is an excerpt from The Social Work Graduate School Applicant's Handbook, by Jesus Reyes.

I recommend that you perform a thorough self-assessment before writing your statement. Make a list of all jobs, volunteer positions, and internships you have ever held. In short, take an inventory of any experiences that somehow contributed to your interest in social work. Don’t neglect to also list classes that you may have taken that contributed to the development of your interests. For some people, even an individual field trip taken as part of a class may have been significant.

Chances are you’ve had some experiences in settings that you may not have previously considered related to social work. I’ve often met with students who tell me of jobs in research, legal offices, and other settings and then proceed to state they have no social work experience. They are surprised when I mention that certain types of research are very beneficial to aspiring social workers.

Even if the research was not directly related to social welfare issues, the exposure to the act of research is very useful. The aim of social research courses in MSW programs is to make students aware of the essentials of good research and the benefits of good research to an informed professional practice. Applicants seem equally surprised that an experience in a legal aid agency can serve as valuable exposure to clients who are at a crisis point in their lives and very much in need of assistance coping with many social systems around them.

Once you’ve made as comprehensive a list as possible, identify the skills you developed as a result of each particular experience. Keep in mind that the most important aspect in the experience is not necessarily the setting itself.

The most important elements are the skills you develop that are transferable to other settings. For example, the skills developed in interviewing clients are transferable to many other settings. People who seek services at a legal aid agency typically are experiencing financial difficulties, either of a temporary or chronic nature. They are also at a point in their lives when they are experiencing a life event of considerable stress, such as a divorce, eviction, or other event. They require an interviewer who can ease their anxiety and be empathic enough to allow them to express their needs at their own pace. Those skills are transferable to virtually any crisis setting.

 A review of your experiences will be helpful not only in making an inventory of the skills you may have begun to develop, but also in identifying the areas of social work where you may want to go in the future. That awareness can help you immensely in determining which of the programs you are considering can best train you to achieve your goals.

 By this point, you should be in an excellent position to make a strong case in your statement about why your experiences and goals are a good fit with the particular school’s programs. For example, if your experiences have been in a pediatric hospital setting, you have probably begun to develop skills in the areas of assessing the impact of the onset of childhood illness on the family system. A careful evaluation of those skills can serve as a good foundation for assessing a school’s maternal and child health program. In turn, the process can move to making a solid case for the suitability of the program to your educational and professional objectives.

 It is difficult to overstate the importance of presenting a thoughtful and deliberate case of your reasons for wanting to be a social worker and for wanting to attend the particular program in your biographical statement. All other aspects of two applicants competing for a place in the class being equal, the person with the better biographical statement will win out. In the schools with more competitive admissions, most applicants have excellent undergraduate records and stellar references. What often separates them is the biographical statement. It often weighs as much or more than the undergraduate record and the references combined.

This article is an excerpt from The Social Work Graduate School Applicant's Handbook, by Jesus Reyes. The book includes two chapters on writing your personal statement, as well as worksheets to help with the process. The book is available at in print and Kindle formats.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Self-Care and Its Importance for Social Workers and Social Work Students

by Victoria Brewster, MSW

I remember from my own graduate school days, 5 classes a week, 3 hours each, 2 full days of internship, course work, a part-time job, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life.

Staying and being busy is good, but down time is just as important. What exactly is down time? What does that mean for you? As a graduate student in social work or a newly minted social worker, down time equals self-care.

I cannot stress enough the importance of self-care in the social work profession and instilling the concept and importance of it as a student or new professional. Not practicing self-care can lead to burnout. Many students meet with friends to chat or go to parties for needed and important socialization time, and this is a good thing.

Social workers, by their very nature, are nurturing, caring, helpful, want to make a difference, and often put others before themselves. If one wants to still be in the profession in 5, 10, 25, or 30 years, practicing and implementing self-care is a must.

Self-care promotes relaxation, a needed break from work and work related thoughts. I know many helping professionals who do not practice self-care, who lack the motivation, the inclination, the skills, the knowledge, and/or willingness to seek ways to minimize stress. You see it in their interactions with clients and colleagues and by their body language and facial expressions. 

Examples of self-care are: take your lunch break, visit with colleagues and chat about non-work related things, take a walk at lunch, eat lunch outside of the office, engage in hobbies that interest you (i.e. knitting, scrap booking, reading, painting, listening to music, playing sports), take a vacation every 6 months or so (even if it is just a weekend away), practice meditation, and--probably one of the most important--"unplug" every once in a while. No computer, e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media. Institute a no electronics rule--no TV, no iPod or iPad, turn your cell phone to quiet, or better yet turn it off for a few hours. Relax with family and friends, and when you leave work, leave work. 

This means do not take your work home with you, and leave thoughts of work behind. This is difficult for many, and there are times when you have to take your work home to finish paperwork or to prepare for a workshop or presentation. Perhaps you are "on call" for your job after hours or on a weekend. Add some self-care to the mix, and balance your work and non-work life.

A colleague suggested the term "perpetual social work mode." It has to be left behind. As social workers or social work students, often it is part of our nature to be helpful, to assist, to rescue, to say yes even if we are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and stressed. It is okay to say no.

Many get bogged down with papers, studying, and group projects while trying to perhaps balance a social life and employment. Be supportive of one another, mentor a fellow student, and remember you will leave graduate school behind and enter the professional world. Instill and carry the self-care concept with you into the work world.

Victoria Brewster, MSW, has 16 years of social work experience, 13 of which have been as a case manager and group facilitator with seniors/older adults. Her areas of interest are aging, healthcare, end-of-life issues, improvements in education for youth, advocacy, and social justice. She is is Coordinator of Member Relations and a staff writer at