5 Things Every Social Work Graduate Should Know

By Amanda Rowan on June 12, 2014

Have you received absolutely no training as far as planning your social work career is concerned? If this is the case then you are not alone. I had the idea of creating this blog post after speaking to an MSW who was about to graduate from her program at USC, here in Los Angeles where I live, and while I was talking to her it became clear that while she had gotten good clinical training in her graduate program, she had no training in how to plan for her own career.

One of the things we aim to do at my company, the Therapist Development Center, besides helping people pass their social work exams, is to actually provide support to therapists throughout their careers. By support I mean giving essential information that is very practical – practical advice. So in this post I want to go through some of the key things that I wish I had known and have learned since I have been out in the field for the past almost 10 years now. The following five points are things I think every social worker should know when they graduate from their MSW program.


1.The Five-Year Plan - Write Down Your Goals


This first thing I want to talk to you about is the importance of making a five-year plan for yourself. What is the idea behind a five-year plan? A lot of times when we graduate, what we are mainly concerned with is getting a job. We may have this idea of ourselves and want a very specific job. We want to work with a certain segment of the population. Most people who go to school for social work go there with this idea that “I want to work in schools,” or “I want to work with the elderly,” or “I want to work with couples or families or adoption.” While this is good, one of the issues that can arise is the inability to get your ideal job right away.

So what’s the importance of making a five-year plan? Whether you have gotten a job or not, if you are in the process of graduating it’s important to actually put some thought into where you want to go. A five-year plan would just be an exercise where you take maybe half an hour or an hour of your time to sit down and think through what you imagine yourself doing in five years. Some questions you might ask yourself could involve:

  • Where you would want to be located?
  • What kind of agency you would want to be associated with?
  • What type of role you think you would want?
  • Whether you want to be a supervisor or would like a private practice or to be teaching?

Take a few minutes. Grab a piece of paper. Think ahead to five years from now and write some goals down. At this point in your life, I would say you would want to have about three to five goals for yourself as far as where you want to be in your career. These goals could include things like:

  • Getting licensed
  • Becoming a supervisor
  • Getting a promotion
  • Making a specific amount of money

Some other things that are very important to consider are your other life goals outside your career. I think a mistake a lot of people make, in both the social work field and other professional fields, is that they don’t consider the level of harmony their personal goals will have with their professional life. Let’s say someone has a goal of living abroad, but they don’t think about that in terms of how it would fit in with their professional life. This causes them to feel really reluctant and disheartened while they take jobs but feel like they would be happier living internationally.

If you sit down and take the time to make a five-year plan you can factor these types of things into it. That can mean that part of your five-year plan would be working as a social worker in an NGO (that’s what they often call non-profits outside the U.S. and non-governmental organizations), so working at an NGO in South America or perhaps England would fulfil this. Certain areas such as the UK have a shortage of social workers and will actually hire people out of school to go be a social worker for a couple of years in that country. These are the types of things you will want to factor into your decision.

Another example of something you want to factor into your preparation is planning to get married or have children. For me, that was an important thing and after I finished graduate school I got married and I knew I wanted to have kids. So when it came to picking jobs I was very selective in the sense that I was mainly concerned with a couple of things for my jobs, which included how close they were to home, the flexibility of the time and getting my hours toward licensure. By developing my five-year plan I was able to weigh the pros and cons of various jobs and also considered jobs that I wouldn’t have thought about taking if I had been narrowly focused on a particular type of work. Having this bigger picture and five-year plan was very helpful for me.

Something to note about the plan is that it is not set in stone. It is unlikely that you will follow your plan exactly since life gives us different opportunities and presents us with things we cannot predict. The purpose of your five-year plan is to help you focus on the bigger picture and put your goals down on paper. This actually allows you to see that you can be working toward something larger and to motivate yourself by seeing a vision for yourself down the road. There is something about the act of putting it down on paper that really solidifies it.

We are going to be developing an online course that can help you to create a five-year plan. It’s amazing – social workers are really good at creating treatment plans for their clients, but they are really bad at creating their own five-year plan, bad at identifying their own goals and then being able to parcel those goals out into smaller steps. Ideally, the five-year plan should function in a way that allows you to backtrack all the way down to a one-year plan and from there down to six, three and even one month periods. This will allow users to see what they need to be doing on a smaller scale in order to work toward the larger goals in their plan.

2. Your First Job Won't Be Your Last Job

The next concept I want to discuss is the idea that your first job won’t be your last job. This ties into the five-year plan because as some people come out of school and feel a great deal of pressure to get a job, it feels like it’s a really big decision at that moment. For many people there is this fantasy that makes them believe this job is going to be forever and that is not true. I think it is a rare occurrence and I would be interested to know if there is any social worker out there on this planet that has stayed in the exact same job that they got when they first got out of school.

I tell you this because I want to take the pressure off as far as getting your dream job when you first step out of your university. What you will probably be dealing with is learning about yourself and about the types of environments and work that really interest you. There is a really cool book called, Stumbling onto Happiness, and it’s written by a psychologist who studies how good people are at predicting their own happiness. Although people have an idea of what is going to make them happy, when they actually find themselves in those circumstances, it is rare that they achieve the level of happiness that they anticipated. The reason I bring this up is that one of the things I have learned in my years as a social worker is that the environment in which I work, the people I’m working with, make a bigger difference than anything else as far as how satisfied I am with the job.

When you take your first job, understand that it is probably not going to be your last job and that in addition to learning clinical skills from on-the-job training, you are also going to learn about yourself and about the type of environment you enjoy working in. Different agencies have different cultures – they really do – so when you go into these cultures pay attention to how the office works, take note of the kind of leadership you see from the upper management and whether it’s supportive or punitive, if the clinical stress of the job is taken into account. Make sure the therapists are feeling well supported and supervised. The main thing you will get from your first job is a learning experience. It’s going to be a place where you will hopefully gain some good clinical skills but also get to know yourself and how you function as a social worker.

3. Your Journey of Learning Has Just Begun


The next point I want to bring up is your journey of learning has just begun. What I mean by this is that we go to grad school, we are there for two years and we take in a lot of information. For most people, this is the first time they are exposed to all this material unless they have had their BSW to begin with. A good deal of these ideas, the different theories, the program development skills you receive or administrative information is mostly new information.

However, my friends, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What we get in graduate school is minimal compared to the amount of information and education we get out in the field, especially if you are someone who wants to be a really good social worker. Most people go to school wanting to come out on top and this requires a constant investment in yourself and your own learning. There are many different options for furthering your education such as online CEU’s but stay on the lookout for things you are really passionate about. In particular, individuals that you feel really know their stuff that you think you could learn from.

This is related to the topic of your first job. One of the mistakes I see social workers make is to come off as if they know it all. These people start out as fresh and new but think they have the answers to everything. There is a difference between having enthusiasm for your job while participating in discussions and refusing to acknowledge that there are things you may be unfamiliar with. I think there is a misconception that causes these people to believe that if they don’t act as if they already know everything then they will demonstrate that they are incompetent in some way. So there is definitely a fine balance between telling a supervisor “I have no idea what I’m doing,” and “can you explain that to me in more detail because I’ve never heard of that concept before and I really want to be clear that I’m getting this.”

My experience has shown me that individuals who are supervising you like it when you show up on time, do your job, have a positive attitude, and ask for more cases or more work if there is something that needs to be done. As well as being very open to supervision and getting guidance, asking questions and trying to learn as much as you can from your supervisor. One of the things I think is always an effective thing to ask a supervisor is, "If you were working with this case, what do you think you would do? How would you think about approaching this case?" Because then you are actually going to get the supervisor to give you more concrete, hopefully, interventions.

The other way of learning and continuing to learn is doing self-learning with books and articles. As we go along I'm going to talk a little bit about networking, but one of the really effective ways to continue your learning is to form a group, like a book group. Say you want to learn family therapy, more like structural family therapy, you could get a couple of colleagues and say, "Hey, do you guys want to order this book from Amazon and read this book and talk through our cases and how we would apply these different concepts." That is a kind of self-learning.

The last thing I want to mention besides the self-learning and the supervision, is really being on the lookout for postgraduate training institutes that do a specific theoretical orientation. This is going to be a little more money out of your pocket. It may not be something that you do right away, but if you are actually thinking that you want to be a clinical therapist who has a private practice, to have a successful private practice, you are the commodity, so you have to be really really good at your job. It's just not going to cut it if your only training has been what you got in graduate school.

For me, I was lucky enough in my second-year internship to come across Gestalt therapy. My supervisor was trained as a Gestalt therapist and was a trainer at an institute. He was giving me different articles to read and I just really loved it – it really aligned with my values. It is very much about supporting client self-determination and working in the here and now, and it also lined up, in my opinion, a lot with attachment theory, which was something I also really liked. I ended up signing on for this year-long weekend training that meant six weekends a year. I think the cost at the time was about $1500. So it was a pretty substantial amount of money, but the training I got from it was phenomenal and I am still part of that training group and now I am an assistant trainer with the group.

I have gone through about 10 years and it has been by far the most supportive and intellectually stimulating environment that I have ever been in. It was truly a gift. It really is what made me want to become a therapist. I really strongly recommend that you do your research and try to find a learning community that does postgraduate training. There are a lot of different psychodynamic institutes, there is different structural family therapy, narrative therapy, and Gestalt therapy is my personal favorite. But there are a lot of different institutes.

The other kinds of things that are out there, if you are interested in couples' therapy, Sue Johnson has emotion-focused therapy for couples and the John Gottman Institute does training for couples. If those kinds of populations are things you are interested in working with, I would recommend really looking into it, because it's going to be the best investment you ever made. When you get out of graduate school and do some of these more intense trainings, they really are focused on fine-tuning your actual clinical skills. The programs at graduate school are kind of like going to a cafeteria and getting a bunch of different buffet-style food. The food is decent, it will feed you, but if you actually want to have a really good meal, you are going to have to seek it out and find something very specific to your tastes.

4. Get Licensed

The fourth thing I want to mention is getting your license. If this hasn’t crossed your mind already, and this can happen with people who are more focused on administrative and policy work, it is something you should seriously consider. I feel that it is very short-sighted to fail to get licensed since it is one the best things you can do to get that extra job security. One of the most useful things I was ever told when I was in school was “Get your license.” Your goals out of graduate school should include getting your license as quickly as possible. Once you get your license you are going to have a lot more opportunities. Some reasons you may want to consider getting licensed include:

  • It is necessary to have your license in order to supervise people. This means that if you want to get promoted and run a program you are going to need your license.
  • It is becoming more common for many jobs to require that you be licensed if you are going to qualify for a position.
  • In California, and several other states, there is a substantial pay difference between being licensed and unlicensed. At my old job, once I got licensed my pay went up 20 percent, which was the equivalent of about $10,000.

I recommend that anyone who is in graduate school, or about to graduate from school, to find out what the licensing requirements are for the specific state they would like to work in. Questions you will want answers to can include:

  • What is required to get started?
  • How many hours of clinical work are necessary?
  • How many hours of supervision you will need?
  • Prerequisites that you need from graduate school?
  • Do you need to apply to be an intern to be able to start accruing your numbers?

Before you even start earning your hours you will need to send in your fingerprints, a picture and an application to get an associate’s number. There are certain states that won’t even hire people until they get that associate’s number or have a number that’s registered with the state. Whenever I talk with anyone who is about to graduate school and they ask, “What advice do you have?” I always say, “Get licensed and get your paperwork going right away.”

 5. Networking is the Key to Your Success

social work networking

The last topic I want to mention is networking. It is essential for all social workers to know when they will be graduating from school. Networking is the key to your success. The people you know, and the social work colleagues that you meet, will have a large impact on the support you have in the agency you work for as well as your long-term plan.

If we go back to the first topic regarding a five-year plan, one of the things that should be included is building your network. How do you do this? For those of you who are just graduating from school, you have an immediate source of people in your network right now. Your classmates and others who are graduating with you are a great foundation for your network. One of the things I recommend is to make a list of 10 people from your class that you respect. It can be very beneficial to have a diverse network so don’t be concerned if they are not in the same field as you are. In that sense, you won’t be competing for jobs.

Let’s say one of your social contacts is a woman who works in hospice and you work with children. If she needs to make a referral for a family whose children recently lost their father who was in hospice, and she needs to find a social worker to provide services for these children she is going to have you in mind. Likewise, let’s say you are working with a family and the father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. You have a friend who works in hospice so you can connect with that person in your network.

So make a list of those 10 people and if you want you can share this article with them and say to them: “Let’s stay connected. Let’s share our five-year plans and let’s try to meet up once a month when we first graduate. Maybe when we get busy with our jobs we’ll move to just meeting once every six months, but let’s stay connected and send an email if we see trainings or job opportunities or different things we know the other person may be interested in.” This is an easy and comfortable way to start off your network. Once you get out of school you are going to want to try to continue building up your network. I think it should be the goal of everybody in social work, during that first two to three years, to really try to add an additional person every month to their social network.

We are going to be creating a networking workshop that you will be able to access to give you more tools to teach you how to do that. It’s amazing to me how many social workers and therapists lack networking and marketing skills. The two are related, especially if you want to go into private practice, and also if you are thinking about marketing yourself for future jobs, networking and marketing go hand in hand.

Often people think that networking is exchanging business cards. They don’t really understand how you engage with somebody, the importance of actually getting to know somebody as a person. So it’s fascinating to me, and it’s ironic because I feel like as social workers we know the value of social supports. We really see that with our clients and know with our clients that their social support is a huge index in their overall wellbeing. Yet, we aren’t very good at all at building our own social supports and our own social network.

One of the things that is fascinating to me is I went to school for social work where I learned about how important social contacts were, how important social support was, but I didn’t learn at all about how to get those for myself. My husband went to business school where they learned all about making money and an individualistic, capitalistic viewpoint of the world, but the main thing they learned during school was networking. It was always networking events. Every week the program put out some type of networking event and even since he’s graduated, I would say every quarter there is an email put out about a networking event for his business school. They push the networking because the business world knows, just like the social worker knows for individual clients, that success comes through networking. Yet, as far as us social workers we aren’t very good at it.

Start with your list of 10 people and invite them to be in a networking group but please don’t exclude anyone. If somebody hears about it and wants to be in it take them. There is no reason to ever exclude someone from a networking group. I just want to make sure I highlight that. Never exclude someone from your networking group. What you really want is to get a committed group of people and if you are organizing it yourself then get people who you really want to stay in touch with.



Social work is potentially a very rewarding career but only if you plan for it. I learned these lessons through trial and error.  I hope you find them helpful.  Learn more about how to become a licensed social worker. Also, check back for more helpful tips and contact us if you have any specific career questions.



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April 27, 2015


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February 8, 2019

This information is very helpful as well as inspiring.

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