On starting a Social Work Course

As the universities start on their teaching paths and the summer fades into autumn, I turn to reflect on my own years since I arrived at the university on my social work course what advice I’d give to me if I were starting today.

Here’s what I would tell the younger me who entered the social work training, unsure what to expect.

I’ve indulged myself a little and hopefully some will find this useful and add to the list in the comment section.

1) Seek opportunities, don’t wait for them to arrive.

This goes for learning/reading/finding articles as well as opportunities at placement and eventually in job seeking. Sometimes it can be a real change of focus moving from further education to higher education as the focus needs to move to self-direction. Self motivation is crucial. In the words used by Stephen Hawking

“Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,”

Personally I combine the courses I’ve studied, both my qualification degree and my post-qualifying training with the motivation to seek out information, read related texts and ignite discussions around policies and politics outside work as parts of my professional development.

2) Build strong relationships with your peers.

I am still close to some of the people I trained on my social work course with and have been since we were students. We’ve travelled down very different professional paths and had very different personal experiences along the way but the support we’ve been able to give to each other through treading a common path at that point in our lives has been a valuable strength through the good, bad and wobbly periods. Peer support is crucial and those on the outside will find it hard to understand the pressure you are under while you are training.

3) Be the social worker you would want to have

This is quite a simple motto. Never see the user – whatever area you are working in as the ‘other’. It could be you, your child, your parent, your friend. You might not see that now. But imagine it if that’s too difficult and think about the interactions you have and how you would change them if you were receiving them. Sometimes you will be hated and resented. It’s the role and (usually) isn’t personal. You won’t often be thanked but you will be paid. Knowing you did your best and treated people as you would want to be treated or would want a close family member to be treated can be reward enough.

4) Reflect

This is a chestnut but it took me a while to get it.

In the words of Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

Know yourself. Know what makes you react the way you do. Know how you respond and what experiences in your life have led you to those responses. Know what you might have to do to change those reactions. Learn from them. If you have not been used to it reflection can be hard initially to ‘get’. It is a self-examination that tempers responses and allows them to be learnt from. When you do ‘get’ it, things will become easier. Reflection also builds resilience when you know what your own strengths and weaknesses are.

5) Remember the feeling of presumed powerlessness for when you are in a positions of power.

This is one I didn’t really get for a while either. When I was a student – particularly on placement, I felt meek and lacked confidence in my actions. I wasn’t a ‘real’ social worker and had (quite rightly) excellent supervision and guidance by the team around me. I didn’t feel like I was in a ‘powerful’ position however even as a student with those doubts, I went into the homes of others and carried out reviews, fed the information back to my team and helped make decisions about packages of care. I did have power in respect to the people I was allocated to work with.

In relation to my practice educator, I felt she held all the cards. She was wonderful and positive but it could have been different and I’ve heard many stories about oppressive practitioners with students. I’d say remember those feelings of powerlessness and think how the users who come into contact with you both as a social work student and eventually as a practitioner will feel. Power is something that can take a while to appreciate – particularly if you have it – but not acknowledging it can be dangerous.

6) Distractions

Sometimes distractions, hobbies, external interests can be vital. One of the things that kept me going through the very intense course and my career post qualification is having interests that are nothing at all related to the work that allow me to mix with and meet people from different backgrounds and attitudes that have allowed me to grow in different ways and ‘get away from it’ from time to time. Don’t neglect other interests/people/friends. You’ll likely need them later.

I wonder what advice other people would share with their younger selves?