How to Become a Social Worker
William Hurd has been a social worker in Seattle, Washington, for five years. He completed an internship with Child Welfare Services, and currently works with homeless individuals in crisis.
In addition to his work with the homeless population, he also works as an on-call therapeutic childcare provider. William earned a bachelor’s in social work from Seattle University and is planning to enroll in a Master of Social Work graduate program this fall.
What is a social worker?
First and foremost, a social worker is an advocate. Some social workers interact one-on-one with individuals in a clinical setting, and some work to organize groups of individuals seeking social change. Regardless of the setting, at the most basic level, social workers advocate for the well-being of the people they serve.
Why did you decide to become a social worker?
I was always drawn to social justice, and I first planned to pursue photo journalism as a means to effect social change. During my first year in college, I worked in upstate New York at a summer camp for at-risk youth. The camp had a strong support network that truly helped the kids and set them up for success. Many of the kids in the program had been referred by social workers, and I was able to see the role that the social workers played through their advocacy. That experience had a profound influence on me, and completely changed my perspective. I realized that I could make a big impact through working directly with individuals in need.
Are there common misconceptions about your profession?
Yes, there are misconceptions about what social workers look like and the job that we perform. There is a lot more diversity than what you see in mass media in portrayals of social workers. Social workers also play a much larger role in society than people realize. We work in a variety of different jobs and at different levels. Social workers are in roles such as hospital discharge planners, crisis services case managers, school-based therapists and grassroots organizers. We are not just child welfare workers.
What is a typical day like for you?
My job is fast-paced and I perform a variety of tasks on any given day. Homeless individuals are referred to my agency from hospitals, mental health professionals and social workers with other agencies, to name a few. I assess people for program eligibility and I make referrals for housing programs and mental health services. I perform the intake process for people who are accepted into our program, and I also provide crisis support and basic assistance as needed. I regularly check in with my clientele and help to find them housing. In all, I work about 40 hours each week, including one weekend day.
What are your favorite aspects of your job?
This job can be incredibly difficult, but it is most satisfying when I am able to make the right connections to truly help someone. My favorite aspect of my job is being able to move someone who has been chronically homeless into secure housing.
What are your least favorite aspects of your job?
It can be frustrating to interact with service providers from other agencies because sometimes we all have different ideas about the best plan to help the individual.
Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a social worker?
I wish I had taken more opportunities to volunteer during college, in order to gain more experience and a broader background before I entered the field.
What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?
When I think about it, all of the classes that I took in college are applicable to my job because they helped me to be well rounded. One of the most useful classes I took was my course on social work with individuals and families. All of my research courses are also quite helpful to my job because they taught me about critical thinking and how to decipher information.
What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as a social worker?
Good social workers are creative, because this job requires us to constantly think outside the box. Social workers must also have a lot of tenacity, because it can take a lot of fight and hard work to get people the services that they need.
Besides creativity and tenacity, it is crucial to have the ability to put our own belief systems aside because we can’t let our personal feelings get in the way of the job. Social workers also have to understand that change is slow and gradual, and the people we help have their own limitations.
What personality traits do you think might hinder someone's success as a social worker?
Someone who has a big ego or a superiority complex is not suited to a career as a social worker. Selfishness is another trait that would be detrimental in this job. Conversely, social workers must also understand how to set boundaries; someone who cares too much will burn out because they will neglect to take care of themselves and recharge, while taking care of others.
What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a social worker?
If you are considering a career as a social worker, you should understand that you will interact with all sorts of people and you must keep an open mind. You should also make sure that you are capable of adapting to the environment around you, because this job involves constant change.