Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Words of Wisdom for New Social Work Graduate Students

 The excitement is building as a new academic year begins and thousands of students are embarking on a social work graduate degree. As I scroll through my facebook newsfeed, I see photos of MSW program orientations, showing groups of men and women who, over the next year or two, will be transformed into new social work professionals.

I am reminded of my own MSW graduate school experience. It was an exciting time of learning and growth, anticipation and--sometimes--fear!  My very wise field instructor said to me, "If you already knew everything, why would you need to get a master's degree to do this?"  In other words, be "okay" with not knowing and with the learning process as it unfolds. Any time something difficult came up (which was maybe a daily occurrence), my co-interns and I laughed and called it a "learning experience," which it definitely was! Letting ourselves learn the hard lessons was not always easy, but it was always worth it.

To all new and continuing social work students, I wish for you the BEST (if not the "easiest") learning experience ever.  Be open to unexpected opportunities and experiences that will expand your ability to be the best social worker you can be.

I would love to hear other "words of wisdom" for this year's new social work students. Your comments are welcome!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Back to Social Work School: How to Communicate Effectively With Your Professor

It's back to school time! Social work Ph.D. student Karen Zgoda wrote this article for THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine on using technology effectively in communicating with your professors. For example:

DON'T: Ask your professor what course you are taking with him/her. Seriously.
DO: Communicate that you are going to miss a class.

Read the article here.

Do you have other tips or comments to add?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Joint Degree Programs--Getting an MSW and Another Degree At the Same Time

A good number of accredited graduate programs of social work offer joint degree opportunities. Most common offerings include joint programs with schools of law, schools of divinity, schools of business, schools of public or health policy, schools of gerontology, schools of urban and regional planning, and schools of education. There are also a few programs available in less traditional areas, such as dual degrees in social work and dance therapy, for instance. If you are interested in these possibilities, you have your job cut out for you. You should undertake a thorough investigation of the other program in whichever discipline you choose as carefully as you are exploring the social work program. Appendix B, In Their Own Words, contains information on joint degree programs from participating schools.

Applicants for admission to joint degree programs are normally required to apply to each school independently. A crucial factor in the admissions decision will be the extent to which the applicant makes a case for seeking the two degrees. How have the applicant’s background and experiences in both fields tested and shaped her interests? How will the applicant’s future professional plans benefit from dual training? Normally, an applicant must meet the individual entrance requirements of both programs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tackling the Social Work Graduate Admissions Process with a Graduate Education Action Plan (G.E.A.P.)

by Felicia L. Townsend, MBA, M.Ed.

(Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. For permission to reprint or reproduce in any way, please contact Linda Grobman . Copyright 2007 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.)

Are you considering applying to graduate school but you just don’t know where to start? The pursuit of a graduate education is a financial and personal investment. It’s important for students to make an informed decision before committing to an advanced degree of study like a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. It’s almost like purchasing a new car.

The average car buyer will visit several dealerships before making a final purchase. The same strategy should apply to selecting the MSW program that will fit your needs. Any major decision in your life that will affect your financial, academic, and professional career should be approached with a plan of action that will help you make practical decisions. One way to demystify the journey to obtaining an MSW is to create what I have coined as a Graduate Education Action Plan (G.E.A.P). The plan consists of three key components that will make your pursuit of obtaining a graduate degree more attainable: Purpose, Research, and Apply. It’s that simple. The G.E.A.P is similar to a business plan that an aspiring entrepreneur would create before embarking on a new business venture. The plan will provide you with a roadmap to sort out your reasons for wanting to earn an MSW or any graduate level degree.

Purpose: Why do you want to obtain an MSW?

The first part of the G.E.A.P should focus on your purpose for applying to an MSW program. Remember that the decision to pursue an advanced degree, like an MSW, should be your decision and no one else’s. Just because your best friend or relative is a social worker does not necessarily mean that social work is a good fit for you. To be truly successful and fulfilled in an MSW program, you have to possess the passion and motivation to want to earn the degree in order to make a meaningful contribution to the field of social work. You should not expect to find your passion once you get to graduate school—you should come into the program motivated and driven to contribute and gain new knowledge in the social work field.

Also assess why you want to apply to a particular type of MSW program at a particular university. For example, will the universities that you are applying to provide you with the skills to reach your goal to better serve your community, individuals, and families? Will the MSW degree provide you with the conceptual and practical knowledge you need to achieve your lifelong dream of addressing international issues? Is the university conducive to learning? If the answers are yes, then you should start applying to those graduate schools of social work that you feel are conducive to learning and that will best prepare you to practice international and family-centered social work. If the answers are no, or if you have different goals, I recommend that you continue your research until you find the university that provides the MSW program that will meet your academic and career goals. Whatever the outcome, you should feel proud in knowing that your diligence in following a plan of action will yield a more rewarding and beneficial outcome.

During the initial stages of the admissions process to a particular institution, students begin to form their first impressions of the social and intellectual character of the institution (Tinto, 1993). Therefore, it’s critical for prospective students to take the time now to thoroughly investigate various universities and their graduate programs to make sure that it’s the right fit. The G.E.A.P will help you make informed decisions that will ultimately turn your purpose into reality.

Monday, August 13, 2012

9 Essential Tips for New Medical Students--Do They Apply to Social Work Students, Too?

I came across an article on outlining 9 essential tips for new medical school students.  I think some of them--like don't cram, don't get down on yourself, set aside time to relax, learn about the profession, and others--can just as well apply to students in other professions, including social work.  What do you think?  What tips would you add for social work students?

You can read the article here:

Monday, August 6, 2012

Finding My Way to an MSW: Step-by-Step

by Mary Hannity, MSW

Statistics and research. APA style papers. Ten-page papers. Multiple books for each class. Presentations to my classmates. Role-playing. Raising my hand in class. Finding an internship. Meeting with clients. Commuting. Meeting new people. Going to class with people younger than myself. Going to class with people older than myself.

When I entered my MSW program, I didn’t know how I would face the challenges ahead. I hoped I would make it. I knew I wanted to become a social worker. But I also knew desire alone would not carry me through my course work. I questioned my ability to do the academic work. I questioned whether or not I should even return to school. I had not been a full-time student for over twenty years. In fact, I questioned just about everything related to school.

Between my undergraduate and graduate years, I had the luxury of choosing books to read of any and all kinds. I could read unhurriedly and mull over timeless prose. That approach to reading changed after my first class on the first day of graduate school. The luxury of reading for pleasure was suddenly gone. As a graduate student, I had to be self-disciplined and follow a strict reading schedule. Over the course of a term, I had to read lots of books and become conversant on what I had read. I made daily, weekly, and monthly reading lists. My house started to look like a miniature library. Books were strategically placed so as to remind me of my reading requirements. Adhering to a tight and full reading schedule was one of several responsibilities I had to attend to in order to succeed in graduate school.

For me, graduate school meant a lot of hard work and balancing priorities. I had to coordinate reading, research, class work, writing papers, preparing for class presentations, and so on. Then about the time I became moderately comfortable with managing class work, I had to find a practicum and add practicum hours to my weekly schedule. This all occurred in my first quarter. I was concerned that entering a master’s in social work program might not be a good idea for me.

Then things began to click. Writing research papers, for example, was not new to me. As an undergraduate student in American history, I had been trained in research. Writing in APA style was new to me. Writing a ten-plus page research paper in APA style was a daunting task. Perusing through the APA Publication Manual made me anxious. How would I master the precise writing expected of graduate level work? How would I even think of a suitable topic?

Writing a graduate-level research paper was one of my first challenges and one of my first significant successes. I had to think carefully about it and immerse myself into the assignment. I don’t recall exactly how I navigated each step. But I do know that components of my success included hard work and focus and lots of time in the library and at my computer. I was also very fortunate to have professors who were available and involved in helping. Having a research professor who would make time for me to have lengthy conversations about my research and the attendant questions played an important role.

Other challenges piled on. I had no idea whether I could stand up and make a presentation to my class, for example. I had spent over 14 years teaching in a high school classroom, but that meant nothing compared to addressing my peers. Presentations were just as much a part of the program as writing papers. My response, again, was hard work, focus and tap into my professional resources. I researched and practiced my assigned topic. I went to the library, searched the Internet, interviewed people in person, and talked to people on the phone. I wrote and re-wrote my presentations. My strategy was to overlearn the subject matter. After several presentations, each one a little more successful than the last, I became more confident in my ability to present to my classmates. I spoke with more authority and less apprehension.

Getting through research and statistics class presented another challenge. Unlike writing papers and giving presentations, I had little faith that my simply working hard would be enough to get me through stats class. The fact that none of my classmates was any more comfortable with statistics than I was did little to placate my uneasiness. I knew beyond any doubt that stats class would be dreadful.

Because I had a gifted professor, however, my first day in research and statistics class wasn’t that bad. With her informal and reassuring style, my professor disquieted my fears and instilled in me hope that I could succeed in her class. As the term progressed, I began to see the many applications research and statistics have in the field of social work. The class was actually intriguing. With lots of weekend hours spent on homework, I successfully surmounted the class. In the end, statistics and research became one of my favorite classes.

Obtaining a practicum placement was yet another hurdle. Although I knew from the outset that I was expected to secure an internship, I did not fully appreciate how competitive the market was. There were few placements, and many students scrambled for internships. Securing a placement would take determination and resourcefulness. I started out by meeting with the college director of field placement. She was supportive and encouraging, but it was clear that finding a placement would be my undertaking, not hers.

I began by copying down phone numbers and addresses from the telephone book of all the agencies that might have potential placements. I called and explained who I was and what I was calling about. I hoped to make a connection to move to the next step, which was to meet for an interview. I crossed names off my list much faster than I entered interview dates on my calendar. Sometimes a phone call would lead to another agency that wasn’t on my list. For several weeks, if I wasn’t writing a paper, studying for an exam, or reading class material, I was focused on finding a placement. I was able to secure a few interviews. During the process of calling and interviewing, I gained confidence and was able to refine more closely the idea of what I wanted to do.

After updating my résumé, phoning many people, and interviewing, I was able to find a placement. I was relieved. My focus immediately shifted to preparing for the placement and making sure I did a good job. It seemed a pattern was emerging in my program. As soon as I felt in control of a project or assignment, the next challenge was awaiting me. But that was okay. By now, I was really starting to feel like a social worker. And I liked that feeling.

The course work, the interaction with classmates and professors, and then, the interaction with clients in my practicum brought my work together. I came to value my practicum experience. It was the best of both worlds. I gained experience with clients while still in the safety of my academic program. Once again, I could use my professors’ expertise for insight and skill development while gaining confidence in working independently with clients.

My master’s in social work program has been an awakening experience for me. A professor told my incoming class at orientation that we would change over the course of our program. At the time, I wondered what he meant. Now, after going through the program, I couldn’t agree more. I have learned the value of hard work and active participation. When I gave to my program, my program gave back to me. And now, grateful to have received the training to do social work, I expect more positive growth to come.

Mary Hannity, MSW, lives in Boise, ID. She is a June 2002 graduate of Walla Walla College in College Place, WA.

This article originally appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine. All rights reserved. Please contact Linda Grobman for reprint permission.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

MSW Program Rankings

There are a number of rankings of graduate programs in social work and social welfare. I advise caution in letting your choice of school be driven by them. They tend to have the same band-wagon effect on some applicants that the old advertising phrase “seven out of ten doctors recommend...” has on purchasers of aspirin. Keep in mind that rankings are the end result of someone’s idea of what constitutes a good program. That “someone’s” ideas may be based on needs and priorities very different from your own. Beyond that, that someone’s methodology for evaluating or ranking the programs may be less than perfect. Whose point of view they represent is also important.

Having made the above disclaimer, I will add that, when placed in their proper perspective, rankings can be useful. They give applicants a feel for how the school and, by extension, its graduates, are seen, at least within academe.

Rankings generally tend to be done by educators for educators and students. Just how many practicing social service professionals know the rankings or are aware that they even exist is questionable. Those practicing professionals who are graduates of the highly ranked schools know of the rankings, because their schools tend to feature the rankings in alumni publications. On the other hand, practicing professionals outside of academe who are graduates of lower-ranked or not-at-all-ranked schools probably never hear about rankings, because their schools are unlikely to feature a story on rankings in alumni publications. The mainstream press and other media, with the notable exception of U.S. News & World Report (more on this later), are also unlikely to feature stories on rankings of academic programs.

If you plan to remain in academe, whether by teaching and doing research in an academic setting once you have your master’s or by pursuing a doctorate, the ranking of the school you attend may be more relevant. Within academia, the rankings are analogous to the price of stocks in business. The higher the ranking, the higher the “stock.” There are also, from time to time, studies on the amount of research and writings produced at various schools. Within the academic world, those reports are significant. That is the stuff that tenure is made of. Overall, the academic ranking of the program you attend may or may not assist you in securing employment.

Two well-known rankings on social work programs are worth mentioning. They are very different from one another in the methodologies they employ.

The more empirically sound of the two is The Gourman Report: A Rating of Graduate and Professional Programs in American and International Universities (Gourman, J., Sixth edition, Revised. Los Angeles: National Education Standards, 1997). Gourman offers rankings based on specific criteria including, among many others, the age and experience of the institution, qualifications of the faculty, curricular content, and support services and physical facilities. It offers a good starting point for those interested in programs of national prominence.

The second ranking is that of U.S. News & World Report. The inclusion of schools of social work in the magazine’s annual education issue began in 1993. A partial listing of U.S. News & World Report’s current rankings of schools of social work (ranked in 2004) may be found on the Internet at

The methodology employed in determining rankings consisted of a survey of opinions of senior faculty and deans of schools of social work. To what extent the respondents’ loyalty to the schools they attended or where they are employed played a part in their responses is anyone’s guess. Given that the magazine is so widely distributed and known, the results of the survey may become widely accepted by the general public, despite the weak methodology.