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.

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