Social work is an extremely in-demand profession with a lot of potential for advancement. As part of your training and education as a social worker, you must spend a considerable amount of time in a field placement position where you work alongside licensed social workers and learn how to use your skills and connect with clients.
The benefits of a field placement
There are a range of insightful benefits to partaking in a clinical field placement during your social work degree. Here are just a few of the benefits of a good field placement.
You have the opportunity to apply the skills you have learned in class to real-world situations
Classwork is important to have a complete understanding of social work, but the experience gained by applying these skills to real-world situations is invaluable. During your field placement, you will use your skills and knowledge to help people live better and healthier lives. There is a great amount of satisfaction in seeing your studies pay off.
Field placements allow you to learn and improve on your strengths and weaknesses
Everyone has aspects of their careers or studies that they are better at and areas where some improvement may be welcomed. Even if you show a lot of skill and talent for working with people from many different backgrounds, you will likely discover areas where you would like to be better or learn more before you obtain your social work license.
Field placement is a great time to discover your strengths and weaknesses and get good advice from your mentor on improving. Understanding your strengths may help give you an idea of what type of social worker you would like to be after graduation.
Field placements are great opportunities to network and meet other social workers, interact with various organizations, and explore different areas of social work. Networking and being open to learning opportunities may lead to faster job placement and getting the job you want right out of school.
Networking also offers the benefit of understanding and knowing what resources are available to help social workers and their clients in the area your placement is in. Even if you work in another area after graduation, you will gain valuable experience in knowing how to create a network of resources in your new position so you can help more people.
Have a better understanding of your future career
There is no better way to gain insight into the reality of being a social worker than spending time doing the work. Since you will be working with a mentor, this is the time to ask questions and get inside tips on what it is like working as a social worker every day. Learning what challenges your mentor has faced and how they overcame them will be helpful to your future career. For example, a good question to ask your mentor might be, what do you wish you would have known at the beginning of your first paid position?
You get practice at compartmentalizing your emotions
While social workers help many people, it is important to consider the emotional toll the job can sometimes take on even the most stoic social worker. There will be times when you might have to deal with some very bleak circumstances and still other times when no matter what you do, you cannot force the outcome you would like to see.
Compartmentalizing your work and home life is important to avoiding burnout and other mental and emotional issues. While it may be hard at first, you will improve over time. This is very important to your self-care routine, as it will allow you to remain healthy and strong to help more people in the future.
You can explore one or more niches that interest you
There are a lot of different kinds of social workers. Some work for government agencies and schools, while others work for non-profit organizations. Non-profits tend to be focused on one specific area, which is not the case when working for the Department of Social Services in your home county.
Suppose you have an area of social work that you are particularly passionate about. In that case, your field placement is an excellent time to explore that area and see if it suits you.
How do I decide what area of social work I might want to specialize in?
It’s good to think about your specialization as a social worker before you choose your degree program. This is important because those who run your social work degree program will do their best to find a placement that suits your interests and career goals whenever possible. Of course, if you try out a specialization and find that it is not the best fit, you can always work in another area of social work, although you may lack some experience in the other areas.
Online master degree programs in social work offer the option to specialize in your studies and then get a field placement in your niche. Cleveland State University offers online degree programs for aspiring social workers that can be completed in as little as 19-24 months. The free field placement service helps find a suitable position for the required 900 hours of fieldwork to graduate. Here are some of the main specialties in demand today:
Community and advocacy social work
In this specialty, you will work to advocate for people in communities. You may be placed in particularly disadvantaged communities. Advocacy means working to help people often victimized by more powerful forces.
As a community social worker, you will interact with people from many different backgrounds that experience a variety of problems. Community social workers have to interact with many people daily, so they must have good social skills and be able to connect with people quickly.
Mental health and substance abuse
As a mental health and substance abuse social worker, you will work with people experiencing mental illness and those addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. These two issues are often closely linked; drug addiction is often the result of untreated mental illness, while addiction can cause or exacerbate mental health issues. Social workers are important in working with individuals and their loved ones to get them the help and support they need to overcome their mental health and substance abuse issues.
The road to recovery is not easy, so this is one area of social work that can be particularly challenging. Sometimes, people lose the battle despite efforts to help them, and this is something to consider when deciding if you want to specialize in this area of social work. The upside is that helping someone turn their life around can be incredibly rewarding.
There is a strong demand for social workers in the overburdened healthcare system. With the cost of healthcare on the rise, there are times when insurance is not enough to cover the care people need when faced with a disease or illness.
A healthcare social worker helps people find resources to cover the cost of medical bills. Other duties may include accessing resources to retrofit a home to accommodate someone with a disability attempting to live as independently as possible.
Healthcare social workers also work with elderly individuals so they can access resources and benefits to stay active and independent.
Of course, another role is helping families get the resources and support they need when dealing with the emotional strain of an illness, injury, or death.
When times are tough, children are often the ones that need the most support and care. As a child welfare social worker, you will work with children, parents, and extended families to ensure that children are safe and well cared for. Finding resources to help with housing, food stability, and ensuring they get an education is a priority for child welfare social workers.
You will also be investigating reports of neglect and abuse. This job has a strong potential for emotional involvement because you are dealing with children. You will work with the foster parent system when children need temporary or permanent removal from their home due to neglect, abuse, or lack of adults to care for them.
Justice system social work
There are many social workers within the justice system. The role these workers play includes working at rape crisis centers, police departments, corrections facilities, and within the court system. Duties can include advocating and supporting victims of sexual assault by helping them know what benefits they are entitled to and ensuring they have the resources and support they need to recover and heal.
In some cases, a social worker may work as a probation or parole officer to rehabilitate those convicted of criminal offenses. This support can include everything from helping previous convicts find housing and jobs to meeting with them regularly to ensure they are doing well and not participating in nefarious activities. Parole officers help reduce the likelihood of someone becoming a repeat offender.
How to get the most out of your field placement
Here are a few things you can do to make the most of your time in the field with your mentor.
Take time to prepare
The more you know before a field placement, the better off you are. This means researching the area and people you will be working with and for. If your placement area has a dominant culture or religion that you are not familiar with, then take the time to learn as much as you can.
Determining demographic information, crime statistics, average education level, and ethnic makeup can help understand the challenges your potential clients face.
Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions
It is important to ask many questions when you are trying to learn as much as you can in a given period. When you are out in the field, make sure that you take notes and keep a list of questions to go over with your mentor later. Spending time with different clients when doing house calls is a great opportunity to discuss anything of particular interest to you and get any needed clarification.
Find a project that you can take on yourself
Gaining the confidence to work independently should play a role in your field placement. Find a project you can start and finish without major help from others. That is not to say you should not ask questions or consult with others during your project. Just ensure you do the bulk of it on your own and under minimal supervision.
Consider this one of your capstone experiences that will help potential employers see that you are driven and motivated to do the best job possible.
Your placement may feel intense at times. There can be a strong emotional component that you have to learn to deal with. In addition, you may be working odd hours or working on personal projects related to your placement that are in addition to the duties your supervisor wants you to complete.
It’s important to find time to relax and take your mind off your placement duties. Hiking, reading, or another hobby is a great idea. Have a ritual or two that you do daily at the end of your day to unwind and get a good night’s rest, and don’t forget to socialize with your friends and family during your time off.
Do not treat your placement as just a class, treat it like you are taking on a real job
While you may not be getting paid, it is important to approach your placement as if it is a full-time real job and do the best you can. Work as hard as you would if you were in a permanent position; the sooner you allow yourself to get into a professional mindset, the better.
At the same time, do not overstep boundaries. As a student, there are some things you are allowed to do and some that you are not. Always respect your limitations and the chain of command where you are placed. Potential employers need to know that they can precisely count on you to follow instructions.
Learn to take constructive criticism
You are in your placement to learn, meaning your work will be open to constructive criticism. You need to be able to accept criticism—no one is a perfect student social worker, and it can take some time to orient yourself into your placement.
If you are unclear on what you can do to improve what you are doing that is lacking, then you need clarification. Most social work mentors will give you options on how to improve, but if you feel that you are not getting the clarification you need, you should speak up immediately.
Demand for social workers will be high for decades to come
The shortage of social workers is set to increase if more people are not trained. A large population of aging adults, economic issues, and an unfortunately increasing problem with drug and alcohol abuse have all contributed to the increased need.
In addition, increasing diversity means that social workers are needed to help people learn to work through their differences and come together on common ground. There are many people immigrating to the United States that need help enrolling in schools, finding jobs, learning English, and more.
A social work field placement is truly a momentous capstone experience for anyone seeking a degree in social work. There are many areas and specialties a student social worker can choose to pursue. It is important to find an area of social work that calls to you the most and then do whatever you can to do the best job possible.
Social work is an emotionally demanding but rewarding occupation that offers amazing job security and benefits. In the future, the demand for social workers will continue to rise, at least for the next few decades. This means that it is easier than ever to find a position in the specialty that is of most interest to you and in an area that is desirable for you to live in.