First, take time to develop a specific goal about your career direction. Ask yourself these simple questions: What type of job do you want to obtain after completion of your program? How do you want to make a difference in the field of social work? What are you passionate about? Taking time to think about what your goals are gives you a direction and baseline for developing a plan of action.
After you have a career goal in mind, the next step is to research how you will get there. Taking time to investigate the market will give you some insight into the job itself and the skills needed to be successful in that job. One highly effective way to research the market is to conduct informational interviews with key social work professionals doing the job you wish to obtain. Informational interviewing is the act of interviewing professionals about their pathway to obtaining their job and what skills they use every day. This can be done by phone, in person, or via Skype.
Be prepared with about five questions to ask during the interview. Take time to interview several people. The best ways to connect with social work professionals are through your school’s alumni association and career services office, social media sites such as LinkedIn, developing connections at your field placement, or through faculty, and by attending workshops and conferences held by professional organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers.
Once you have an idea about what career you want to have and the skills needed to be successful in that area, make an inventory of your current skills and experiences. Then list those that you have discovered you need to obtain. Many of you already have some skills and experiences that are transferable and useful for your future career. This exercise also gives insight into what skills and experiences you need to build upon and learn in your program.
There are many ways that you can gain the skills and experiences needed for your dream job. Take time to discuss your career goals with your faculty advisor and field instructors. Your advisor may be able to suggest specific courses, special studies or ways to become involved in the school community that will help you along the way. Your field placement is a great opportunity to incorporate activities that will develop your skill set. Just ask! Do not forget that experiences can also be learned through volunteer and part-time work. Keep track of your accomplishments and learning as they relate to your goals and development as a professional. This makes it easier to re-assess and reflect upon your growth in skills and experiences as you progress through your program.
Now that you have spent time recording what skills you have obtained, you not only have an idea regarding your competency, you know what experiences led to your growth in those areas. You are now in a better position to communicate your strengths (skills and experiences) to prospective employers through your resume and cover letters and at interviews.
Knowing what career path you wish to take in the field of social work, how to get there, and what skills are needed to be successful in that position, is the best strategic way to land the job you want. It’s also a great way to navigate and get the most out of your social work program. With some careful planning, research, and assessment, you will be able to make the most out of your academic career and not lose sight of your goal – a great job in the field of social work!
Michelle Woods, LMSW – Macro, Director of Career Services, University of Michigan School of Social Work. This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of The Bridge.