Are you interested in pursuing a career that will help you make lives better? Social work is an excellent career option for people hoping to make a positive impact on other people’s lives. Social workers are a critically important part of society, whether you are working in a hospital, guiding patients through the healthcare system or helping students cope with difficult life experiences. Before you can start changing lives for the better, you must complete your education and licensing requirements – but what should you expect?
Social work is a unique field in that it requires students to place significant emphasis on out-of-classroom learning. Sometimes this translates to many hundreds of hours of internships, and sometimes it is a class spent shadowing professional social workers. Regardless of the amount of time spent out of the classroom, social work students should be prepared to tackle the practical tasks of becoming a social worker before they receive their degree. Would you like to learn more about social work and what you can expect as you complete educational requirements and work towards a degree? This article looks at the importance of field placement in social work education.
Social workers are trained professionals who work primarily with underserved and vulnerable populations with the goal of promoting social welfare. They help people from all manner of backgrounds to face their challenges and work through them. Social workers also advocate for economic and social justice for everyone, including members of minority communities who might otherwise be overlooked.
Are you curious about the kinds of people social workers help? The list of populations served by these professionals is extensive, and includes:
- Disabled individuals
- Individuals in crisis (homelessness/poverty)
- Medical patients
- LGBTQ individuals
- Aging people
- Victims of trauma
As you can see, the types of people helped by social workers includes many different populations in the United States. The sheer variety allows social workers to pursue their passions and find careers in all industries.
Social work career outlook
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the social worker field is expected to grow nearly 9% between 2021 and 2031. This is a faster rate of growth than average and indicates that the social work profession will likely be looking for professionals in the near future.
Social work is an enormous field with professionals serving in many different capacities across various industries. Before we take a deep dive into field learning, let’s look at some common types of social workers and what they do.
Patient advocates are an essential part of the medical field. They help patients navigate the complex and confusing world of medical care by giving them the information and aid they need to thrive. Advocates sometimes communicate with care providers and insurance companies on behalf of the patient, for example, while others work on locating information about the patient’s health issues and resources on further care and affordable care options.
Healthcare social workers work with both families and patients through terminal, acute and chronic illnesses. This includes educating them on patient rights and working tirelessly to uphold them. Patient advocates ensure that patients’ voices are heard and can even help with Medicare/Medicaid paperwork.
Mental health social workers work with counselors, nurses and physicians to ensure that patients receive the best care possible. From living with hallucinatory mental illness to struggling with substance abuse, mental health social workers are an important addition to many people’s lives. They are trained to provide crisis intervention and psychotherapy to help manage health crises and can even refer clients to outside resources suited to their individual needs.
Note that this kind of social worker will need a solid foundation of psychology and medical knowledge to be successful.
Family and child social workers work to improve the overall well-being of families and children. This is true at many different stages of life, from birth to marriage and beyond. Some social workers help arrange and secure foster homes and adoptions for abused or abandoned children, while others help minors navigate teenage pregnancies, truancy or behavioral problems. This kind of social worker typically works in schools or state agencies where they can interact one-on-one with children and families in need of help.
Social workers focused on community needs often focus on tasks such as planning large-scale programs designed to meet the needs of historically underserved populations. They often administer and manage those programs too, while working one-on-one with individuals needing more personalized help. Community social workers must be able to see both the macro and micro needs of a community to organize programs that boost community well-being and locate resources for individual persons.
Aging isn’t easy; unfortunately, older adults often tend to fall through the cracks. This is where gerontological social workers come into play. This social worker tries to help older individuals maintain their quality of life and, where possible, their independence. Gerontological social workers can help people living on their own and those living with family or in a nursing home or assisted living facility.
Note that this form of social worker will only become more important as the baby boomer population continues to age.
All about field placement
Now that we know a little about some of the roles you can work towards filling as a professional social worker, let’s examine the educational requirements you’ll need to meet.
Whether you are working towards an online social work degree or are attending classes in person, field placement is a critical component of your education. All accredited universities, including Florida State University, which offers a well-respected online social work course, require social work students to complete practicums, internships or both.
There are a few reasons why practical experience is such an important part of social work education. Firstly, field learning helps teachers and other educators better understand how students develop and learn on the fly. This makes it easier to create effective training programs to better equip them for a long career in the industry. Field learning is also critical to the acquisition of values, knowledge and skills necessary for long-term success.
Social work is a practice-based industry. Many of the skills required, such as interpersonal communication, improve the more they are used. Field placement allows students to learn how to communicate with the people they are helping and their fellow social workers before they graduate. This, in turn, helps them hit the ground running and offer effective aid right away instead of struggling while they pick up all these skills post-graduation.
Students who fully engage in their practical education are more likely to become ethical and competent social workers in any of a wide variety of positions. Field learning allows students to practice their book education in a practical manner too, ensuring that they remember the important steps once they graduate and move into full-time work.
There are two main categories of field learning: internships and practicums.
Once students have completed most of their coursework, if not all of it, they begin a social work internship. Internships can be completed either part-time or full-time, although the options may vary from program to program and from one educational institution to another. Regardless of the exact number of hours students spend in the field, internships must be completed on a regular basis. This often translates to daily time spent in the office, and as the amount of time spent working accumulates, the intern’s responsibilities tend to increase.
The goal of an internship is to produce social workers who are ready to begin working on their own. Internships can also make it easier to find a job, as many employers favor students with practical experience.
Practicums are typically a required part of a particular course. Students shadow a professional social worker for a limited time, often once a week. They sometimes take on responsibilities under the professional’s supervision, but these are relatively minor tasks. The main reason students participate in practicums is to reflect on what it means to be a social worker and how the job requires many different skills and extensive knowledge.
The difference between internships and practicums lies primarily in the regularity of instruction as well as the point at which each field learning component is carried out. As discussed above, internships are usually the last part of a social work program and typically require students to take on significant responsibilities. On the other hand, practicums can take place at just about any point in the curriculum and expose students to social work on a less-active and less-intensive schedule. Internships require regular attendance, typically daily, while practicums are usually much more limited.
What kinds of things will I do in the field?
Social work internships and practicums offer a wealth of experiences and opportunities. Students work closely with professional social workers to learn the skills they need in the real world. Tasks can range from assessing client needs and locating necessary resources to providing counseling, maintaining client records and collecting medical histories. The exact responsibilities vary, but you can expect to complete at least some of the above during your time in the field.
By the end of an internship, many interns have closer interaction with patients than they did at the beginning of their stay. The better work an intern performs, the more likely they are to progress.
Where do field assignments take place?
Field placement locations vary. Students might find themselves working in settings ranging from schools and correctional facilities to community service agencies and counseling practices. The exact placement depends on a student’s professional goals as well as the internships and practicums available to their educational facility. If your goal is to work with school-age children, then your internship and practicums will likely take place in a school, or another environment with children who could use your help. If you’d prefer to work with adults working through substance abuse, your field learning might occur in a hospital, social service agency or therapy practice offering alcohol and drug counseling.
How long do practicums and internships last?
Practicums and internships vary in length but generally continue for a single semester. This is not always true as they can last longer if the school’s field learning requirement is especially robust. In general, however, students can expect to complete anywhere from 100 hours in a practicum to 400+ hours in an internship.
The best way to learn more about the length of time you can expect to spend in an internship or practicum is to reach out to the university in question for additional information. It is a good idea to learn more about field requirements before registering for classes or enrolling in a program.
Do internships and practicums pay?
Since practicums are a required part of a class, they do not pay. Students spend a limited amount of time with the professional in question and spend more time shadowing than completing any practical responsibilities. Internships, however, are sometimes paid. This is not always true, so it’s important to do your research before applying to, or accepting, an internship offer. Some universities restrict paid internships too, so thorough investigation is required before signing up for a particular course.
Are you interested in pursuing a career in social work? Don’t let the field learning requirements scare you away. Working under the supervision of professionals is a great way to learn the knowledge you need to become a great social worker in all sorts of communities. Invest in a good education, and you’ll be well on your way!