How to Find the Right Internship During your MSW Program

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

Applying for internships is like applying for jobs. You have to send your resume and cover letters to supervisors, pleading for a position at their facility and/or program, and you don’t actually get paid for the work. Be at peace with this cuz it aint gonna change any time soon.

Then if they select you for an interview, you have to wow them with how prepared you are for the meeting, how professional and collaborative you can be, how eager and ready you can be to learn, and what you can bring to the company in terms of value and goodness of fit. They don’t want to take on any more risks than they are already have by signing up to be an internship host, so be responsible and receptive to feedback at all times.

If you get selected for the job after one or two interviews, congratulations! Now it’s your job to do your job, and to learn on top of it, to benefit your career, your advisor, your advisor’s advisor, and most importantly, your clients.

But let’s back track a bit, because these are all important pieces of the scaffolding to consider in order to succeed at your internship, but really, the most important factor is the foundation upon which the structure stands. Let’s investigate how to pin down that ideal internship in your MSW program (AKA finding the right one).

Here are the things you need to know:

1) It all starts with the first meeting with your internship coordinator at your university. They have to give you two internships: one at 480 hours in duration (no more and no less) and the second at 760. The first one they like to stick you with is going to be an attempt to work with a population and in a setting that you do not want to work with after you graduate. In other words, they are literally going to try to give you the opposite of what you want in your first internship. There is a reason behind this. They want to broaden your horizons. And you know what? When I was going through it I thought that idea was totally dumb. But looking back, I am so grateful that they did this because it changed the trajectory of my whole career. I learned about the broken social service systems of Chicago for the first time during all of the exposure I got during my first internship, and I was given an incredible introduction to accountable systemic planning for both grassroots organizations and clinical provision. I thought I would learn this in my fancy second internship at a hospital, but I learned much more and got great exposure while working with the homeless population at my first internship, even though I wasn’t super excited about the opportunity at first. So Lesson 1: be open to surprises.

2) If you don’t like what they offered you, apply, interview, and try it on for size before you show up at your site coordinator’s office welling up with tears. You need to have specific reasons to armor you when they say they can’t offer you other options for sites to apply to. And the reason has to be more than just “I don’t want to work with this type of population”- that’s not a social work response. Even poor transportation or a dangerous neighborhood might not be enough. You have to say things like, “I don’t feel I will be able to learn properly from the supervisor or the work setting because of x,y,z reasons. I believe I need x,y,z training in order to become an x,y,z type of social work professional, and I don’t think I will get this type of support or guidance or exposure at this current option...” do you see how these don’t sound like excuses but are rather reasons why the proposed setting seems like a bad fit for you? Your school may still insist that you attend a certain internship, but Lesson 2- Advocate for Yourself. I did, and it turned out awesome.

3) Start off your meeting with your site coordinator at your school with a prepared list of specific experiences that you have already had, what you learned from them, and what you hope to learn through your internships while you are at school. Paint a picture of the type of social worker you want to become in 2-6 years. Be structured yet flexible. Make a list of the types of character traits you would like in your supervisor, the types of environments you would like to work in (for example: interdisciplinary, organized, safe, etc), and how you hope your internship placement will affect your career. Be ready to discuss as your coordinator is supposed to help guide you through that process and collaborate with you here. Lesson 3- Be Prepared.

4) Do your research when you are applying and interviewing. Look for signs of whether the location would be a good fit for your resume as well as your personality. You don’t want to set yourself up to fail. Look at the characters that you will be working with and try to anticipate what it would look like if things went horribly wrong- what would that entail and how likely would it be for your worst nightmare at an internship to come true? In no obvious terms, you can test out your potential supervisor by looking for evidence of things going south at the interview. How receptive is your potential supervisor to working with you in your training? You are interviewing them for goodness of fit just as much as they are interviewing you, so try to figure out if you will have a supportive and nurturing training environment and whether your personality would be a good fit at each site. I still write clinical notes based on my training at my second level internship, and I feel that my professional boundaries have been drastically molded by my second level internship. My first level internship showed me how to strategize organizational and community development, how to foster exponential impact, and how to hold effective clinical meetings while often mitigating client crises within the short span of an hour. All very valuable lessons that launched my career properly and gave me a solid base to build off of as a young social worker. Lesson 4- Look for the Right Fit.

The job descriptions of each internship should tell you a lot about the culture of the place that you are considering to serve and learn from, and will help you to draw a parallel between the work that will be expected of you, and your professional skills and goals. If there isn’t a big detailed job description, there will likely be very little structure and high amounts of disorganization. This may be a good fit for interns that dislike structure or being micromanaged, so plus’s and cons depending on how you look at it. If you are checking out a highly detailed job opening on the other hand, the people that you work with may either be quite prepared but rigid and/or expecting more than the typical expectation of an unpaid intern. Either way, be prepared to work your tush off- that’s the best way to learn. Insert yourself into extra projects so that you can build your skill set, add to your resume and develop great connections and overzealous recommendations from your supervisors that may some day become your bosses or even your peers when you graduate.

Also read: "Social Work Internships: Advice for the Social Work Graduate Student"