According to the College Board, one of the hottest careers through 2018 will be that of social worker, particularly in the fields of mental health and substance abuse. Have you ever wondered what a day on the job with a social worker is like? Ms. Morgan Bass, who works in the community mental health sector, graciously agreed to speak about her career choice and to offer advice to those who are interested in becoming social workers.
Morgan has been a social worker for two years. She started her MSW program in 2007, graduated in 2009, and began her licensure process in May 2009. She has just completed her provisional licensure stage and is waiting to hear from the Board regarding her status as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).
Why Choose a Career as a Social Worker?
Morgan fell into her career by a lucky accident. She received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and realized she'd be graduating early. This left her with time to figure out how to take the next step to become a mental health therapist. She got some bad advice from advisors in her department and wound up getting rejected from several Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs because of inexperience in the field.
Finally, an advisor recommended that she apply to either Counseling Psychology or Social Work Master's programs. Morgan chose to attend a Social Work program because it provided two years of field placement, whereas the program in Counseling Psychology would provide only one year of field placement.
Why Choose the Mental Health Field?
Morgan has a sister who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder as a child and who would later be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Watching her family experience difficulty navigating the mental health field made Morgan want to enter the field herself. Even in high school, she knew she wanted to be a child and family mental health therapist. As Morgan grew older, she also realized that she was seldom included in family sessions and that no one seemed to care about how her sister's diagnosis affected her. In her practice, Morgan has seen that few therapists include the siblings of children who are diagnosed. This also drove Morgan to become a social worker, to give a voice to those who are otherwise ignored.
What is a Typical Day on the Job Like?
The typical day of a Provisional Licensed Clinical Social Worker (P-LCSW) is tough. You have to be truly driven to do what you do and to reach your end goal. Morgan's end goal is to work in the school system or in private practice. Many social work students consider going into private practice if they take the Direct Practice route in graduate school, but the truth is that P-LCSWs (people who are working towards their LCSW license) work with some of the toughest populations.
Morgan has been a Team Lead for Intensive In-Home Services and Assertive Community Treatment Team Services. She's also been an Outpatient Therapist and an Intake Coordinator. Typically, she spends a few hours in the office doing paperwork (reading and writing notes, developing person-centered plans, submitting authorization requests for funding), and then she spends the rest of the day in the field seeing clients.
The time a social worker spends in the field depends on the population served. If you're a social worker and you work with children during the school year, you have to see them after school hours unless you work in the schools. Morgan has seen child clients as late as 9:00 p.m., which has her getting home around 10:30 p.m. Sometimes she performs her services in dangerous areas, so it's important that she set her schedule to hit those areas earlier in the day, in order to be safer.
Satisfaction and Challenges
Morgan finds great satisfaction when she sees the wheels click in a client's head. She loves it when a client gets the lesson she's been teaching them in session and is able to identify it as such on his or her own and is then able to use those skills. It's like a light bulb turns on. The client understands what the whole therapy thing has been about and says, “Oh, I don't have to live like that anymore. I can use my skills, and I'll be in good shape.” Morgan also finds great satisfaction from providing support and seeing growth in her co-workers.
Challenges sometimes arise with the parents Morgan works with. Many of these parents see social workers as glorified babysitters on whom they can dump their “problem children.” Some parents on the community mental health level are unable or unwilling to learn new behaviors and new ways to interact with their children. This makes it extremely difficult to help the child improve, because the parents' behavior contributes greatly to the child's behavior.
Morgan also finds the travel aspect of community mental health to be a challenge. It can be wearying, on both her car and herself, to have to drive to see each individual client. Sometimes, by the time Morgan gets home, she's too exhausted to have time to unwind before going to bed. This can be dangerous for self-care. If you don't have time to unwind or take care of yourself, you can wind up burnt out.
What It Takes to Be a Good Social Worker
To be a good social worker, you must be compassionate and have a true desire to work with people, sometimes in very unsavory situations. You have to be willing to go out of your comfort zone and set your own needs on the back burner. You must also have the necessary skills to be a good social worker in the mental health field. If you don't know your counseling styles or you don't feel comfortable using them, then you should probably try to find another way to help people. You have to be self-confident, or clients won't be confident in your abilities.
You also need a good poker face. Clients say and do some shocking things, and you have to be able to roll with it just as though they'd told you their aunt grows daisies instead of, for example, that they were raped by their father until they were twelve. Finally, you must be willing to grow and to admit that you'll never know everything. That's why the Board requires social workers to take continuing education.
Morgan recently worked in a community mental health agency that provided a wide variety of services for adults, children and substance abuse clients. She has since moved to another state, where she plans to join an existing private practice. In the community mental health agency, they had Master's level therapists (counselors and social workers) who were either fully licensed or in the process to become fully licensed (the provisional stage). They also had Qualified Professionals, individuals who have a Bachelor's degree in a related field and two years of field experience, or individuals who have a Bachelor's degree in an unrelated field and four years of field experience. Community Mental Health can be frustrating because Qualified Professionals (QPs) can either be very good or very bad. Morgan has worked with both types of QPs. The agency was small, with less than 25 people working there. Management was approachable and really wanted to grow in a positive direction.
The Lifestyle of a Social Worker
Morgan's career choice has greatly affected her lifestyle. She loves to travel and go on vacation; however, she can't do that often because she doesn't get paid much. She has learned to budget and survive on little. Social workers get really good at couponing! Morgan makes sure she goes out with fellow therapists at her agency at least once a month to blow off steam and have a good time. She hopes that by entering the private practice realm, she can earn more money and go on more vacations.
Morgan notes, too, that it's easier to be in a dual income household, which minimizes the impact of a social worker's often-small paycheck. Previously, Morgan hadn't been able to apply for jobs in the private practice realm because she wasn't fully licensed as a LCSW.
Advice to People Interested in a Career as a Social Worker
Morgan recommends that you get a BSW first, then transition to the MSW program. That way, you'll only have to complete one year in the program before you're out there in the “real world.” Expect to go into homes, find yourself in unsafe neighborhoods, and be on-call for crises. If community mental health isn't what you want to do for the rest of your life, that's okay. Just remind yourself that you have to push through your provisional years to get to the LCSW gold at the end of the rainbow.
Morgan urges that you learn as much as you can about what you'll be getting yourself into. Your internships and field placements will be amazing, but you'll likely not be able to get a job after graduation doing those same things. Listen to the advice of people who have been through it. If you do, you'll feel better when things get rough, because you won't be kicking yourself about “Oh, I should have listened to that person about such-and-such.”
Would Morgan choose the same path for herself, a career as a social worker? She thinks she would, but she would change certain aspects. For example, she wouldn't have been as naïve to believe that she could survive as an outpatient therapist without several other jobs. Morgan does, however, find the career path of social worker quite rewarding, since she loves working with people and helping them deal with their mental health issues.