One of the greatest parts of my job is being involved in the social work internship program for MSW students. It is something I truly love, not just for the challenge and fun I have, but because I understand how vital it is for the profession. Social work is a unique field, we have the ability to utilize the skills we learn on every level of social work. Although we might work in a micro area, or focus on macro issues, we require a proper understanding of both in order to be effective.
The first dose we receive of that is through our social work internships. A hefty part of our education, internships can be anywhere from a disaster of what not to do, to the greatest learning curve of your life. Good and bad internships alike provide experience and a broader knowledge base. More importantly, by having the internship requirement while you are in a social work program, you are forced to see that practice through the lens of social work. There are plenty of people working in similar fields who bring a lot to the table going back for their MSW, but the experience alone isn’t enough.
Think of other professions: physical therapists, medical students, nurses, teachers. All of these professions and more require not only experience in the field, but supervised experience in the field. This is usually paired with classes that walk the student along various parts of their learning. The supervisors in fieldwork settings work along with the school to ensure that necessary requirements and growth is met. You may be in the field for twenty years without realizing what proper interventions a social worker is in need of. It doesn’t mean you weren’t great at your job, just that positions alter, and we can always learn a thing or two. How often have you learned something and realized that for years it was done incorrectly? The school is vouching for your ability to practice once you leave with your degree. It is up to us to maintain those standards, and to raise the bar for the profession.
Every social worker needs certain foundation skills, and for those skills to be developed properly through the educational institutions who work with our accreditation standards. Although my passion is macro work, I would consider myself a poor social worker not having the clinical understanding and experience working in the field. For micro social workers, not having a broader perspective only serves to limit the understanding of our role. It is why our education must maintain a well-rounded quality. Our system breaks down without this understanding. It creates silos and causes disconnects within our profession.
There has been talk about eliminating or altering internship standards for social work students, particularly those for non-traditional students. While there is merit to recognizing that many bring a wide range of knowledge and skills when entering school, it is difficult to see this idea as anything but potentially damaging to our profession. We need to discuss raising the standards of social workers. Taking away internships serve only to demonstrate a lesser range of expertise and scope of practice. What would be beneficial is to encourage different internships, alternative placements to meet the interests and broaden the horizons of the typical student. Ideally, most internships would be paid, which could lessen the burden of those of us who have to also work through school, but alas, not everything will be possible.
For those in favor of this elimination I must ask you: would you encourage the elimination of student teaching for education majors who have worked as a TA or in day cares/pre-schools, or alternative settings and see them as fully qualified? Would you want a doctor who was able to exempt himself from medical school hours because they volunteered in clinics? They might bring a lot of great knowledge, but we can never shirk away from upholding professional standards and learning and then hope it will be enough. We must be better.
Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards
By: Courtney Kidd, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer
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I agree with the contention of this well-written article that student internships are necessary when a social work student is still studying toward MSW. The real problem comes after graduation, when 2000-3000 supervision hours are required. I agree that some supervision post-masters is also important, as the new social worker enters the “real world,” outside the more supportive, sheltered academic environment. But the requirements are too stringent and are becoming increasingly obstructive and narrow.
My story is a case in point. When I graduated in 1994, I could have gone straight into private practice without any supervision or license. However, my life took me in other directions. I became a Medical writer and eventually, Medical Director of a medical education company. I also practiced volunteer patient advocacy.
Twenty-six years later, in 2010, I decided to return to clinical work. Much had changed in the intervening years and I knew that requirements were different. I passed my licensing exam and obtained my license in NY and NJ. I arranged for a colleague (an LCSW) to supervise me, who was willing to take me into her practice, or to supervise me in my own private practice. Patients I had worked with on a volunteer basis were interested in pursuing work with me on a more formal basis, as a therapist.
I then found out that in 2009 or 2010 or so, NY regulations had changed and now, all supervision must take place in an agency setting. (This had been the case in NJ for a few years before that). I began to search for a supervised agency setting and after sending out over a hundred resumes in both NY and NJ, as well as calling in every favor with colleagues I had met in the course of my medical writing and volunteer patient advocacy, I was unable to find a single job, despite excellent credentials.
Many of my applications sent to large institutions with online application forms, where a computer screens the forms for certain keywords. My previous job was a “Medical Director” of a medical education company, so the computer disqualified me outright. I submitted applications to several major NY hospitals (I have extensive medical experience, including an internship in a hospital). I would push the “submit” button in the evening and receive my rejection notice in the morning. It was clear that no human eye had ever reviewed my application.
And when I bypassed the online HR form and went straight to the department, assuming I could actually connect with a person who didn’t send me right back to HR, I was told that no one wanted to hire a social worker who had graduated twenty five years earlier and had been out of the field. Medicare wouldn’t reimburse for a person who didn’t have two or three years of recent formal experience in a hospice or skilled nursing facility, for example. Or I was “overqualified” for an entry level social work position. Or other excuses. I was even told this by people close to faculty members, friends, or colleagues in the medical or social work fields. Their hands were tied, they told me, and there was nothing they could do. When I was rejected from an internship position, at an agency that deals with elder abuse, I gave up and have returned to medical writing as a career.
I intend to continue direct work with patients as a volunteer patient advocate, but my goal was to become a licensed therapist. I still have four years in the state of NY to obtain licensure, which must be completed in a 3-6 year period. In NJ it’s already too late, as the 2000 hours must be completed in a 2-3 year period and just this month (March), the two years come to a close. Even if a got a placement on April 1, worked myself to exhaustion and completed the 2000 hours within a year, I would not qualify to be licensed in NJ–another thing that is grotesquely unfair (ie, that the 2000 hours must be completed in such a rigid time frame.)
I am trying not to be bitter. I left my job as Medical Director so as to return to clinical work rather than sitting behind my desk as a writer and hoping that other clinical workers will read my articles and I will indirectly make a difference in the lives of people seeking help. I feel that at every step of the way, increasingly stringent and obstructive rules have been instituted to make it more difficult. I’m not sure what the motivation is on the part of the Board of Social Work Examiners–perhaps because, in the licensure world, social work as a field was in a sort of “me too” position for a long time, as opposed to medicine or psychology for example. Perhaps there is a desire to show that social work is a ‘real profession’ with real hoops to jump through. I don’t know, but whatever it is I feel profoundly disappointed in our field.
–Batya Swift Yasgur MA, LMSW