How to Ace your Social Work Fieldwork Placement

Undoubtedly, social work fieldwork placements are a key component in social work education. Acting as an essential link between studies and practice, field placements can greatly impact the future functioning of students, and hence why students do their utmost to achieve a successful placement.

But how you may ask?

Throughout both of my fieldwork placements, I gained a number of skills and tips which helped me to cope with the demands and stress fieldwork placements brought with them.

Time Management

In the beginning of my fieldwork placement, I struggled. I was still finishing my dissertation, had to keep up with 8 cases, as well as attend lectures once every fortnight. I had no other choice, but to challenge myself to plan before hand and manage my time better.

My advice to you is to write an exhaustive list of all the things you have to do. You can either do this every week or once a month whichever you deem the most helpful. Prioritize the list accordingly and plan how much time you will need to spend on each task. Avoid getting stuck on single activities, if you feel like you cannot concentrate on a specific task, be flexible, and move on to another task. Every time you finish something, tick it off your list – it is so satisfying!

Supervision

You have probably learnt the importance of supervision during your lectures. Now is the time to actually make use of it. Do not hesitate to ask for supervision if you feel more guidance and information is needed. Additionally, ensure the time allocated for supervision is not used solely for case management. Use some of this time to discuss how you are coping with the workload, the feelings clients are evoking within yourself, your fears and safety concerns if any. Do not be afraid to use supervision as an added support. Whatever is said during supervision is confidential (obviously, if no harm will be caused to self or to others), so use this opportunity to process and assess your placement because hearing others’ problems is surely emotionally draining.

Research

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of doing research throughout the course of your placement. Be informed and read about the client group you are serving. Understand and be aware of the services available to them and the skills you can use when working with them. Fieldwork placements are a great opportunity for you to widen your knowledge, so make sure that you do this to the best of your ability. Both editorial and academic journal articles can be a source of information for you. Read them while commuting, watch videos while eating or cooking – educate yourself as much as possible because as they say, “you cannot pour from an empty cup!”.

Ask Questions

Your practice educator is not expecting you to know it all on your last day of placement – let alone your first day! Social work is a learning process, and we can never reach a point where we can say we know everything. Human beings are different and dynamic. Hence, why asking questions will only help you understand your client group and what is being expected to enhance your practice. Do not hesitate to tell clients that you are not sure about an answer while assuring them you will research a solution. Do not be afraid to ask for clarification, if you did not understand something. Ask your practice educator about the agency’s policies, regulations, procedures or any reference materials you can access when needed. Do not pretend you know it all – because you do not, nobody does!

Respect your Practice Educators and Tutors

You may not always agree with your practice educators and tutors, but ultimately they are the ones who will be assessing your progress. Starting on a wrong foot is surely not ideal which can derail the placement before it begins. Try to stick with their guidelines and even though you may feel at times it’s wasting your time on unnecessarily. I highly suggest you take a step back before complaining. I am not saying you should be passive, however, avoid arguments about word limit of essays, working hours or workload. Keep in mind your practice educators and tutors know what they are doing, so if they request something try to find a diplomatic path forward.

Do More than it is Expected

Give your placement your very best, and at times this may entail doing work that is not compulsory. Attend any meetings, conferences or opportunities taking place within your organisational framework. Observe how graduate social workers interact with their clients, chair a meeting and extend your comfort zone. Volunteer to take phone calls or intakes, even if this may mean staying for an extra hour. It is amazing how much you can actually learn from this! In the beginning of my first placement, I was terrified to answer the phone because I was always scared that I will stutter, or say something wrong. However, after sitting in the office and answering the phone for 10 weeks, I have gained a lot of confidence while talking to others over the phone.

Self-Care

Ultimately, as social workers, we have to preserve ourselves because we have minimal tools to protect ourselves from burnout. So while I highly suggest you do all the above, you also need to have an ‘off’ button. Learn to assess and identify your limits in order to detach yourself from placement related work for a few hours a day especially before going to bed. Dedicate some time for yourself, read a fiction, watch a funny video, take bath or go for a walk – do something that makes you feel good. Stop yourself from going to bed thinking about the following day and the long to-do list that you have waiting for you. Avoid thinking about action plans and give your mind a well deserved break.

Although sometimes you may feel unstoppable and very motivated, especially in the beginning you must remain mindful of your body limits because otherwise, you will be risking being burnt-out before actually stepping into the profession.

Non-traditional Students Require Non-traditional Policies for Field Placements

I am only six weeks away from completing my BSW degree; a degree that has taken nearly twenty years to complete.  As I am nearing the end of my current educational journey and in the final hours of my field placement, I have found myself becoming quite reflective about my educational experience.

Now, I am not your traditional BSW student, and as such, my experience is dramatically different from many individuals who enter a BSW straight out of high school.  I have never sat in a physical class or classroom; I have never met any of my classmates and my professors or instructors face-to-face.  I am thirty-six years old with two children, and I work full-time in a field where I have spent the last sixteen years in.  No, I am not your traditional BSW student; I am a new breed of student, an older nontraditional online student.

Advances in technology have flung wide the doors of innovation in higher education. Online programs, developed in the last ten years and refined in the last five, have drastically changed the face of higher education for non-traditional students like me, who would have had no other opportunity to complete a degree.

Due to their ability to offer flexibility to students, online programs have become a permeant feature on the higher education landscape, and their popularity and student population are growing at an exponential rate. The academic training of future social workers has not been exempted from the advancements in technology and education. My soon-to-be alma mater and one of the leading online social work programs in the nation have reported a 34% increase in the number of students enrolled in the online BSW program this year alone.

While there have been major leaps forward in distance learning and online education, there has been little to no innovation regarding CSWE accreditation policies concerning this new breed of students, especially as it pertains to their field placement.

As it stands, all CSWE accredited schools, including non-traditional online programs function under the same blanket policy regarding field placement. Students enrolled in BSW programs are required to perform a minimum of four hundred unpaid hours of field placement at a social service agency. The policy also requires that field placement hours be served in conjunction with educational direction.

The CSWE considers field placement the “signature pedagogy” of social work education as it offers future practitioners the opportunity to apply theories learned in the classroom by exposing them to all sorts of problems and situations.  There is no debate concerning the importance of the field placement experience.  Incongruence occurs, however, due to a lack of nuance in policy when it comes to the unique needs and strengths of non-traditional learners.

Many non-traditional students, like me, who find an educational home in online BSW programs, are typically older adults either seeking to complete a bachelors degree they forsook earlier in life, seeking to further their current career, or shift their career entirely into a new filed.  While the reasons non-traditional students have for returning to school through an online program vary, one thing is common for us all.  Each student brings many years of life experience and employment history to the program.

Personally, when I started my online BSW program, I had over sixteen years of social services experience; working for years in a therapeutic boarding school for teenagers on the verge of incarceration, pastoral ministry, and serving as the Executive Director of a large non-profit social services organization.  I am not alone in bringing this level of experience in my current distance learning program.

In an informal survey conducted by current and former students of my school’s online BSW program, sixty percent of students reported that their resumes reflect positions comparable to that of social workers with fifty percent of responders stating they were employed by a social services agency while also performing their field placements. Students reported they have or are serving in capacities such as SUD Therapist, Program Coordinator, Outreach Specialist, Case Manager, Addiction Recovery Specialist, Youth Career Specialist, and Parent Mentor.

It is safe to assume that students from other online programs would report the same data. As such, it is important for the current CSWE and school policies concerning field placement for online programs be reviewed and discussed to create the most effective learning environment for these unique students. If the current policies are followed, older non-traditional students will not have the desired experience as CSWE and accredited schools for BSW students.

If there is no change in how these students are viewed and the policies surrounding their placement, the CSWE and institutions of higher learning run the risk of non-traditional students viewing their service hours as a mere assignment that must be completed to graduate.

To be honest, this has been my thinking on more than one occasion during my field placement. While I have learned a substantial amount about the agency I have worked in and it has been truly informative, I have also found myself questioning whether this experience was truly fulfilling the mission and vision the CSWE and my school had in mind when policy was crafted concerning BSW field placement making it the signature pedagogy.

Often times in my placement, I found that due to my life and employment experience, I was more qualified to perform the duties and tasks than those I was shadowing and being supervised by. I do not relay this out of a sense of arrogance, but sheer professional experience.

Due to the nature and requirements of my field placement setting, I have spent a majority of my time shadowing new social workers or others who do not have a BSW at all. There is much to be gleaned by working with these individuals in an agency setting and hearing about their roles and responsibilities.

There is also great value in navigating through interpersonal issues that arise in a field placement setting. This aspect of placement has been invaluable to me.  What has become cumbersome, however, is trying to relate to my agency, my placement, and my future practice of social work as if my life experience and employment history were non-existent and as if the position I may potentially secure after placement will be my first professional job.

The current framework concerning BSW field placement is to provide students with experience in generalist practice with the hope that after field placement and graduation, students will secure jobs in social services agencies as entry-level generalist social work practitioners. This is a fine and noble objective to have, but the reality is a majority of older non-traditional students will not seek entry-level positions.

As their resumes reflect extensive knowledge and experience, the addition of a BSW degree will only elevate them to higher levels of employment.  To use a professional metaphor, these older non-traditional students will most likely not be starting at the “bottom of the ladder.” With that being the case, it would be prudent and wise for these students to be placed in advanced practice settings with more intensive supervision, settings that will mirror the level they will be entering the profession of social work in.

While this may not be true for everyone enrolled in online programs, it is true for many; and those individuals deserve to have a field placement setting and experience that will rightly prepare them for the work they have before them in the professional field.

I am by no means suggesting for a cessation of field placement for older non-traditional students. Field placement is imperative and a means by which students safely test theories and gain invaluable experience.  I desire to open a dialogue concerning the needs and strengths of the non-traditional students and how to best serve them during this crucial time of learning.

However, a new examination of the CSWE requirements, policies, and procedures of institutions of higher education with a manner of nuance should be given to this growing student population. It will ensure these older non-traditional students who are finishing their degree and entering the practice of social work receive a placement that meets their educational and professional needs rather than being an exercise in futility to complete a requirement.

A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders

It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of  3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.

The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.

In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.

The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.

This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.

I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.

Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.

My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.

Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology,  I  realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.

The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further.  To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.

A Students’ Guide to Making the Most of Field Placement

planning-for-success

Being a social work student on my final placement before I graduate, I know how daunting and challenging they can be. From my own student perspective, I have put together some tips that I hope will help you make the most of your placement.

All social work degrees in the UK require students to undertake compulsory placements. In Northern Ireland, where I am based, students must complete two placements of 85 days and 100 days in practice, respectively.

Once you have received your placement, the nerves may start to creep up on you but try not to let them affect your enthusiasm!

First things first, do your research. Read up on the area/specialism that you will be working in as this will provide you with knowledge about what to expect and what the role might entail. Although, social work has no set role and changes depending on what area you are in, so it is important to bear this in mind. Our expectations of how we view the social work role can negatively impact how we perceive our placement so it is best to stay positive and keep an open mind!

In Northern Ireland, we are required to arrange a pre-placement visit. This is just a meeting with your practice teacher to talk through the logistics. If your university does not require this I advise thinking about organising one anyway. They allow you to meet your practice teacher, the team and to get a real understanding of the environment you will be working in. This can be a good way to minimise anxiety!

Every placement is different. As students, we sometimes have an idea of the area we want to work in when we graduate. This is good but don’t let it put you off other placements! You may find that your mind changes with your experiences!images (1)

Be organised! Keep and maintain a diary that sets out your working hours. Do you have assignments? Make sure you know when they are due. You need to time-manage effectively. Some placements will allow you to complete assignments during your working hours, however that depends on the service users. They are your priority!

Make full use of supervision! Supervision is vital regardless of whether you are a student or professional, so don’t waste the opportunity it provides. This may be your only time with your practice teacher. Prepare what you want to talk about and set an agenda. They will be impressed if they know you are motivated, proactive and thinking about practice.

Not everyone hits the ground running, and it’s okay to have doubts about your placement and/or your own abilities. I doubted myself during my first placement, but don’t let one placement dictate your view of social work. Some placements can be challenging, but there are things you can do to make it that little bit better!

Find a staff member that you can work alongside. For my first placement, I wasn’t placed in a statutory setting, so I did not work with other social workers. This can be daunting, but you are not alone. There are many other members of staff more than willing to help you! Find one who you can communicate with and who you think could give you good ideas. Staff members know the service users, so don’t be afraid to ask questions as they may have knowledge you can utilise that you won’t find in a textbook.

Know yourself. Sometimes, as students, we get so overwhelmed by what all our friends are doing that we worry whether we aren’t getting a good experience. When you have spent many semesters reading pages upon pages, once you get out into the real world of practice, we sometimes have expectations set too high. We have thought about what we want and what we hope to do, but placements can’t change to our way of thinking. We need to adapt to theirs. Changing your mindset about how you view your placement can help you understand exactly what you need to achieve and how.

In the UK, there are evidence criteria that have to be met during placement. Usually these are listed in a huge table in a 288 page document. Break it down. Go through each standard, either on your own or with a team member, and jot down ideas as to how to meet it.

Placements aren’t meant to be easy. Social work in general isn’t easy, but don’t overcomplicate it. You can only work with what you are given. Adapt work to suit your placement and your learning needs. Think of things in the context of your own placement, this makes it easier to understand exactly what you need to do.

If you need to, talk to someone. Never keep an issue to yourself. Social work requires us to be available, physically, mentally and emotionally. We cannot work with people effectively if we are worn out or stressed. Talk to your practice teacher, or a university tutor as chances are the issue will have arisen before with other students and they will know exactly how to help!

Honesty is the best policy! As students we sometimes have the dilemma of, if we see something in practice that we don’t agree with, should we challenge it? Weigh up the risks. You are going somewhere on placement that some people may have worked at for years. An ethos can be drilled into an organisation and change is not a quick thing. However, don’t be afraid to ask why things are done a certain way and if you don’t feel comfortable doing this publicly, mention it in supervision. Supervision is a ‘safe place’ and a place for you to critically reflect on your practice.

Self care is important because placements can be tough and draining. Look after yourself! Do things that help you relax, maybe yoga, reading or exercise. Listening to music really helps me zone out but I would also recommend adult colouring books! These are great for alleviating anxiety and just channeling your energy for a while and there are also free apps too if you want to try it out!

Lastly, have fun! You are on your way to becoming a qualified social worker. This may be one of the last times you can do social work without the heavy case loads and the safety net of university! Be open to it, seek out your own work and view everything as an opportunity.

Find the Perfect Internship: Interview with Nathan Parcells CEO of InternMatch

I often hear from social work students and professionals who wished better internship opportunities were available to them. Many social work degreed students are finding that they are competing with communication and journalism majors, women’s studies, political science, public administration, and law students for social justice positions that have been traditionally social work roles.

Employers are beginning to view social workers from a child welfare or mental health professional lens which is preventing social work students from interning as social media community managers, community organizers,  grassroots activism, digital strategist, and public policy positions.

I had the opportunity to engage in a lengthy conversation with Nathan Parcells, CEO of InternMatch, who appears sympathetic to the plight of the social work student in creating expanded opportunities. We also discussed how the social work skill set is transferable and may be highly desired by some of the companies he works with.

Nathan appeared open to new possibilities, and here is our conversation below:

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background, and what led you to create InternMatch.com?

Nathan: We started InternMatch when I was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. I remember attending career fairs, searching online and seeing the same big brands names posting internships again and again. I quickly realized that there was no internship resource that reflected the diverse range of positions that truly interested my peers and myself.  Beyond this internships had become the most critical gateway for students to break into new industries but most students were still relying on family and friend connections rather than having a tool that helped them apply to roles they wanted.  We felt this had to change and decided to start InternMatch to create an easier place for students to search, find and apply to roles.

Nathan ParcellsSWH: What types of companies take advantage of the services you provide at InternMatch, and is it expensive?

Nathan: We have all kinds of employers on our site from leading tech companies like GoogleFacebook, Not For Profits like DoSomething, and DonorsChoose small startups like MindSnacksand Udemy to small businesses. Thousands of companies post with InternMatch.  The cost for posting a 60-day internship is $99 and a 60-day entry-level job is $199 .

Ultimately, this is not very expensive because we focus on helping companies find students who truly fit their culture and role.  We do this through our large community of millions of students, but also by working with 850+ universities at the department, club and even professor level.  This deep focus on sourcing candidates helps ensure companies find quality matches, which ultimately far outweigh the cost of the posting itself.

SWH: How do students learn about the opportunities available at Internmatch?

Nathan: Students discover InternMatch in a variety of ways.  As I mentioned we work with over 850 schools that directly promote InternMatch. In addition, over 42% of students start their internship search through a Google search and we are easily found this way by students.  Lastly, students really like the clean and easy user experience our site offers.  Because of this we see a huge amount of students coming to InternMatch via word of mouth and returning for many years as they find the site useful.

SWH: Are you willing or interested in being a broker with these companies to foster field placement opportunities for social work students? 

Nathan: InternMatch is setup like a broker already. Companies are able to easily post roles and we currently have over 500 social work positions available all across the country.  Meanwhile, students can easily save roles and searches they are interested in and apply for free.  Our goal is to make all these positions easily findable and open to all students regardless of connections.

SWH: Would you be willing to make contact with the career coordinators at Schools of Social Work, in addition to the career centers with the university? Often those opportunities are not in the pool of field placements available to social work students.

Nathan: We are always excited to connect with career centers of various kinds and find the best way for us to share internships that are helpful for their students.  We also are always happy to craft resources for career centers that are specific to challenges their students face.  Students, employers and career centers can contact me at any time at nathan@internmatch.com.

Exit mobile version