Social Work Internships: Advice for the Social Work Graduate Student

By: Jane Shersher, LSW and Founder of Counselors Autonomous, a program within Ava Today

I consider internships to be 50% of your social work degree. They are super important, and will help you to get a job when you graduate. Remember: employers look at your fieldwork experience (resume) and don’t look at your GPA (transcript) when you are applying for jobs, so take the internship process very seriously.

Don’t expect to work with your population of choice for your first internship assignment. Universities like to place you with sites where you do not expect to work post graduation because they want to open your horizons- it’s their job to educate you after all. It’s true, you’ll probably fight your first fieldwork placement thinking, “I don’t plan to ever work with this population, why did they assign me to work at this company?!” But you know what? I learned more from my first internship site than my second one, and it changed my approach to social work forever. My first level placement totally shaped my professional perspective. I would not have gotten the training otherwise because I was not seeking out the kind of experience that I got, and it broadened my resume’s potential, which helped me to secure jobs after graduating.

Social Work Internship Tip

Important tip: You interview the placement site just as much as they interview you- make sure to get a solid site that will expose you to the real world of social work. Make sure the facility is run well and responsibly. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just has to be well managed. Make sure you have access to a good supervisor- they are often busy and you don’t get to pick them, so ensure that your placement requires good tutelage for your development. Your first level placement for a masters degree involves 480 hours and the second- 860. Your supervisor needs to sign off on your hours and give you a passing or failing grade. You can’t work more than the allotted hours and you can’t work less either- those are the official social work rules.

I fulfilled my hours for my first internship by working full time while taking 2 classes over the summer- it was intense and I totally burned out, but I thought it was a great experience to work full time as a social worker and get the internship done in a packed 3 months. The assignment was for a community-based non-profit doing resource management and advocacy for breaking the cycle of poverty in Chicago when the budgets were first being slashed in 2011. Being new to Chicago (I moved to the city for graduate school from Boston), it was a crash coarse for learning about all of the social service agencies in the city along with the systemic neglect of the disenfranchised in the area. It also was a “throw you in the arena” type of clinical experience, where I saw people from all walks of life needing every type of service imaginable- housing / homelessness prevention, substance abuse support, domestic violence prevention, refugee support, fresh out of prison and needing a job, resume building, need for affordable healthcare / childcare / legal representation… the list was very long. I did not expect to love the work as much as I did because I had entered graduate school with a focus on medical social work, but the work that I did at this site changed my life; it was meaningful, I could see the impact of my efforts, and was able to zoom into an individual’s life by working directly in a clinical capacity with them and zoom out to see the big picture of how administrative or advocacy social work efforts could impact the social justice system as a whole- it was a rare experience and I am thankful for it.

I chose to stretch my second level internship over two semesters, which is typical- it was an 8 month placement, and it helped me to develop a real relationship with my coworkers and supervisor that I cherish to this day. I got really good at my job and could have been hired right after graduating if I didn’t need a license- that speaks to my training and exposure at the site. This internship was on the cardiac, neurosurgery, and orthopedic units at a well- respected hospital, and I could have run the units as a head social worker by the time my internship was done. It was a vastly different experience from my first internship, but a solid one as well. My supervisor taught me how to be professional and succinct. She helped me to set good boundaries with my patients and coworkers, to write clear and concise notes, and to anticipate a crisis before it happened. These are all crucial skills to learn as a young social work- look for a supervisor that can teach you these things both during the interview processes and after placement.

Tips for the Job/Social Work Internship

Here are some tips for the job/social work internship: to the best of your ability, offer professional services for your internship site. Go above and beyond the call of duty. Ask your supervisor as many questions as you can so that you can do a great job, learn, and train your mind to think like a professional social worker. Make sure you are on good terms with your supervisor and coworkers, and that you are respected at the site. You never know, your internship site might be looking to hire you when you graduate, or even years after you graduate- the impression that you leave behind during internship months can’t hurt with the job hunt later. Ask for as many written recommendations as you can, and use your supervisors as referrals – these resources are crucial for the social work job hunt that you will be faced with within months of completing your second internship.

If you don’t like your internship assignment, ask to be placed at a different one as quickly as possible. Your school will likely not make this process easy for you, but you have a right to advocate for your own professional development- you are paying for it after all. I got lucky and got amazing internship sites where I learned more than I did in the classroom- thanks to the exposure to the populations that I worked with, my supervisors, the structure of the companies that I worked for and the nature of my position there. I have had classmates that were not so lucky and they felt like they wasted months of their education on poor internship sites. Don’t let this happen. I was unhappy with my first internship assignment, and I made an appointment with my internship advisor, who was responsible for placing me after I interviewed with a particular fieldwork site, and emphatically begged her to give me more options. She was reluctant to do so because the University where I studied was eager to solidify placements, but I made it very clear I was uncomfortable with the premise of the position that I had just interviewed for and the next option that she gave me ended up being an incredible internship site. I was grateful that I advocated for myself. I also expressed my gratitude to the advisor, and we are still on great terms today- in fact she is my private supervisor and the director of supervision for the support group that I started: Counselors Autonomous.

Also read: "How to Find the Right Internship During your MSW Program"

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