While I struggled financially during my tenure at social work school, this was hardly a new experience.
As a so-called “professional student”, the many years I had spent prior in college and grad school had taught me one particularly invaluable skill: being thrifty.
Many financial pundits advocate thriftiness in the form of cutting down on “latte factor” expenses. These are unnecessary things such as yes, lattes, which seem small to start with, but add up over time.
So for example, I’m a big tea drinker, but I’ve for example learned it’s way more cost-effective for me to buy my tea in bulk and make it myself.
That said, every time someone mentions the “latte factor”, there’s a part of me that feels like someone is waggling their finger at me for being a “careless Millennial”.
For those of us used to living on a shoestring, the occasional latte can be a well-earned treat. But while in school, frugality generally is a good rule, as is having—and following—a budget.
But there’s one more piece to this: the need to think laterally about how and where you spend your money. Here are my top tips to help ease any strain brought by tight finances while attending social work school.
Saving cash when in social work school
1. Attend food giveaways or attend food banks. While you might not feel quite needy enough to visit a food bank, a free box of food can go a long way.
2. Shop smart. Bulk-buy staples like rice, legumes, beans, and nuts at warehouse-style food and supply stores such as Smart & Final.
Get other food and basics at discount retailers and grocery stores like 99c Only, Dollar Tree, and El Super. Clothes, shoes, kitchen-, and homeware can be bought at discount department stores like Ross.
3. Meal plan. If you don’t know how to cook, teach yourself. Try using an Instapot to simplify the process. If you can, cook meals in batches, then freeze and reheat as needed.
8. Conserve data. Use your phone’s data saver mode and make sure you’re connected to your home WiFi when at home. Download your individual Google Maps in advance of travel.
9. Borrow, don’t buy. Your school may have a loan program for computers or tablets. You can also access ebooks and audiobooks for free on the Libby app or Overdrive website using your current library card.
10. Maximize card benefits. Supermarket loyalty cards offer discounts for free. Use them. Take advantage of credit card bonuses and cashback rewards.
11. Get your rental deposit back. Don’t let big realty companies nickel and dime you out of your deposit. Know your rights and be willing to fight for them.
12. Track savings. Amazon product prices can fluctuate. You can track them using the website CamelCamelCamel, or the browser plugin Honey.
17. Share costs. If you and your friends use an entertainment subscription service, share a family plan. Split the cost of additional training, such as those offered by PESI.
18. Buy discount fuel. Visit budget gas stations such as 76. You can compare current prices at different gas stations in advance by looking up each station on Google Maps. If you have a Costco membership, you may want to take advantage of their cut-rate fuel.
Many of the ideas I shared with you may not be news to you. But if you’ve learned something new, let me know in the comments. If you have any additional tips for saving cash in social work school to share, I’d love to hear them.
When I was six, I got it into my head that I should try and fix the world. Of course, it would take more than two decades before I realized what I really wanted was a career in social work.
At the time, what interested me most was the idea of being some kind of authority; having the latitude to analyze, diagnose, and treat problems.
Naturally, I concluded that I should become a doctor. It was a conclusion that would prove terribly premature upon my discovering that I had a needle phobia.
The night before I was to receive my first vaccine, I dreamed of fleeing into the bushland behind our family’s home.
In this dream, I watched from the cover of a tree as two Secret Service types combed the shrubbery in search of my terrified self, shot through with the conviction they had come to deliver me to my appointment.
Any surprise then that when my parents ushered me into the doctor’s office the following morning I bolted for the door.
I was wrestled screaming onto the examination table, and here I lay, pinned and writhing, as the doctor searched for a vein. His attempt was thwarted by my struggles, leaving a long scratch down one arm.
This ordeal left me tear-stained and exhausted. I sat silent during the car drive home, wondering if I should press my parents for their promised prize.
Their first response was to hem and haw. Finally, my nagging won out, and my mother awarded me the coveted toy medical kit.
But my brief flash of victory was dulled when I found the plastic syringe lying within.
A desire to serve humanity: the first step to a career in social work
My dreams of doctorhood thus deflated, I clung to the theme of wanting to help other people. It was a theme that would persist in the years to come.
A year later, at my father’s suggestion, I wrote a letter to the Australian Prime Minister. In that letter, I pleaded with Paul Keating to boost international aid to a famine-stricken Sudan.
Imagine my delight when I received a letter some months later bearing Mr. Keating’s signature and acknowledging the importance of this cause.
The spirit of activism thus kindled, I spent my teen years volunteering for community groups and charity fundraisers.
Alongside activism came the desire to tell stories, inspired by the globe-trotting adventures of British broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough.
Sir Attenborough had instilled in my child self a marvel of the natural world—but also a keen awareness of the paradigm-shifting power of narrative.
The rich interior world of my imagination was a place of exquisite and sublime wonders, and one I wanted so desperately to share with others.
A passion for learning & self-betterment
What drove this desire was really a longing for mutual understanding and fellow feeling.
As I saw it, a story was a tool for achieving this…if I could only just figure out how best to use it.
My curiosity put me on a path of perpetual knowledge-seeking and self-betterment, leading to the completion of multiple courses, degrees, and internships in media and related fields.
Over the span of 16 years, I created a staggering amount of creative work rarely glimpsed by anyone outside the confines of my bedroom.
A quick survey of my output during this period reveals the surprising depth of my passion: nine completed novels and 14 short stories, running in excess of 900,000 words.
In addition to this, I had composed nineteen screenplays, in addition to directing 36 short films and one feature documentary.
Recounting this, I am aware it may sound like a low-key flex. But for a long time, I did not see them as evidence of success so much as evidence of misdirection.
The recognition I had sought had never been achieved. My novels went unread, my films unviewed.
Deep down, I was too scared to share them, for fear that they were somehow inferior, or that people wouldn’t relate to what I had created.
For years, I raised my voice in an empty amphitheater, performing before an audience of none.
A thirst for advocacy
If there was anything I learned after my diagnosis with Asperger syndrome at 26, it was that if I wanted to feel connected to others, my inward curiosity would need to be turned outwards.
My decision to do so I credit for helping me land a job as a journalist for a national Australian digital news site a few years later.
While churning the story mill of daily disasters, I somehow managed to find time to pen articles about maternal grief, substance use harm reduction, and race-based stigmatization.
These were issues I believed warranted greater awareness and advocacy. But the busy work involved in sustaining a 24-hour news cycle meant that opportunities for covering them were few and far between.
My desire to do good unsated, I parlayed my training as a film school graduate into crafting documentaries.
The result was an independent feature about three adults with Down syndrome and the challenges they faced as they strove for independence.
Completing the film required that I dip into my savings. It also asked that I spend my free time logging and transcribing footage and cobbling together an edit.
All of these I did without hesitation, even if deep down I knew that juggling both a job and a feature film was not ultimately sustainable.
For what else was my alternative? Could I rarely be expected to rest on laurels I did not yet have?
The determination to succeed
Advocacy through storytelling until then had been little more than a pet project, pursued in the hope that it might one day become my main gig.
But several years into this effort, with this dream unrealized, I felt more unsatisfied than ever.
My commitment to becoming a full-time storyteller would require risks, but of a different kind altogether.
Lively as Australia’s creative arts scene could be, it had a reputation for being something of cottage industry.
Having tried to bloom where I had been planted, I decided it was time I replant myself in a bigger pot.
A request to transfer to a news bureau based in Los Angeles, USA was approved, along with a pay hike and a new benefits package.
Living abroad in a highly coveted position, working for a major news organization represented at least on paper an unrivaled career growth opportunity.
It offered the chance to report on events like the Academy Awards and the 2016 US Election. What more could an enterprising journalist want?
But this promotion brought with it the curbing of my previous creative freedoms. The social impact articles I’d once written were quickly subsumed by administrative duties.
Day after day, I would rise to feed the ever-hungry news beast, my conscience gnawed at by the guilt that I was not serving others in the way I most wanted to.
I fell to considering yet another career change, this time to screenwriting. Given my background in writing and film, this initially made sense to me.
Enamored as I was by the idea that film and TV could serve as a medium for representation and advocacy, the barriers to entry as a screenwriter were high and many.
Worse still, it was not a profession that guaranteed stability, and stability was what I needed most right now.
Having asked my job to go part-time, I now had the necessary time and mental bandwidth to explore my options, but I had quickly burned through my meager savings.
I was now walking a financial tightrope. One misstep and I would go plunging over into the abyss.
The ability to self-reflect
The catalyst proved to be a sport-related injury. Major surgery was required, the expense of which was scarcely covered by my health insurance premiums.
Confined to my room and crutches, the nervous energy that had been fuelling my years’ long search for career fulfillment was suddenly without an outlet.
No longer did I have something to keep me busy and thus distracted. My career aspirations collapsed like a house of cards, plunging me into a blinding fog of despair.
For a time I wondered, trying to find my way through the haze. At last, after weeks of meditating and journaling, shapes began to emerge.
My discontent working in news aside, I recognized that it had allowed me to serve as a mouthpiece for the quietly courageous.
Many an interviewee had opened up to me about their fears and anguish, often on short acquaintance. The instant intimacy it conferred was both an honor and a privilege.
For someone who had struggled to forge empathic connections with others, my job had provided readymade opportunities in which to do so.
These stories also offered a certain therapeutic value, as much as for those who shared them, as for me.
They were a chance for silent suffering to be acknowledged, for a sharing of experiences that often resonated with myriad others.
But as a journalist, I was always working against the clock. There was always one more story to file, another duty to attend to.
This had made sitting and being present with people and their stories difficult. In the role of a therapist, however, I wouldn’t have had to contend with such considerations.
Slowly, the fog began to clear, and in the distance, I glimpsed the helping professions.
A willingness to embrace growth
“Social service” was not a term I would have used when describing my work as a journalist, and yet it spoke to the essence of what I was trying to accomplish.
My career dissatisfaction had its roots in the fact that I had often felt thwarted by the limitations of this role.
Becoming a clinical psychologist however would require a significant investment of time—and money. Having already completed two master’s programs, I didn’t feel in any way prepared for such a commitment.
Obtaining licensure as a clinical social worker on the other hand could be accomplished in a fraction of that time.
The question was, was my sudden interest in becoming a therapist a logical progression of my work thus far—a refinement of my longstanding interests? Or was it a clean break from them?
Could it be interpreted as a marker of personal growth and insight or a left turn into more busyness and distraction?
Perhaps not. My previous work as a filmmaker and journalist had been motivated by a hunger for social justice: one of social work’s keystone values.
Then there was the fact it had enabled me to develop interviewing and analytical skills—an invaluable foundation for clinical training.
This didn’t stop the snide self-critic from taking the occasional potshot, however.
What about my master’s thesis in a largely obscure humanities department labeled “studies in religion”, he demanded? How did that tie into my newfound desire to enter social work?
No mental gymnastics were required here. My thesis had been an attempt to understand storytelling’s potential as a source of collective meaning and individual transformation.
The Master of Social Work (MSW) is a terminal degree. Terminal, as in “final”, not fatal (although some students caught up in the struggle to complete an MSW program may argue otherwise!)
For most social work practitioners, no further education is required. As a generalist degree, the goal of the MSW program is to equip students with the knowledge and skills required to undertake a variety of roles.
At the same time, this generalist focus may run counter to the goals of those students who aspire to specialization.
Whether your aim is to become a clinician trained in DBT, to run support groups for homeless youth, or to advocate for renter rights, you may emerge from graduate school feeling ill-prepared for the rigors of your profession.
Regardless of your chosen path, know that your success does not depend so much upon access to specialist knowledge and training as it does certain qualities.
Here are four I believe are key to becoming a social work superstar.
1. A social work superstar has an attitude of service
It’s fair to assume that most of us were drawn to the social work profession by the desire to serve others.
But a desire to serve and an attitude of service are not the same. A desire implies an intention, whereas an attitude implies a mindset.
A social worker with an attitude of service does not reserve “unconditional positive regard” for clients only. Rather, they see it as their mission to find, accentuate, and celebrate the best in everyone.
A social worker with an attitude of service contributes to the flourishing of all. They are gracious, empathetic, and collaborative.
They abide, in short, not by the ego, but by humility. Practicing an attitude of service means being guided as much by a professional code of conduct as by a higher ideal.
2. They practice authenticity
Social workers are real people with their own thoughts and feelings, and authenticity asks a social work superstar to be congruent in their expression of those feelings and thoughts.
One way we can be authentic is through self-disclosure. Hartley et al. (2001) offer these two simple templates for self-disclosing about our own learning experiences:
“When I (past life experience), I felt (past feelings elicited). I wonder how that fits for you.”
“When I did (past behavior), I experienced (effect of past behavior). I wonder how that fits for you.”
It is essential of course that such statements not be self-serving. The goal is to share comparable or relatable experiences as a means of building rapport.
Being authentic refers not only to staying open, honest, and genuine. It’s also a powerful philosophy that can also enrich our daily life.
Brené Brown defines authenticity as choosing to cultivate “the courage to be imperfect—and vulnerable. We have to believe that we are fundamentally worthy of love and acceptance, just as we are.”
Rather than concealing our authentic selves behind a sterile mask of professionalism, we can choose to emerge as our imperfect, genuine selves in the knowledge that this creates conditions for others to do so as well.
3. They adopt a growth mindset
Do you believe all your qualities are set in stone? Do you measure your success and self-worth based on the outcome of every situation you face in life?
Are you constantly striving to prove yourself over and over? Do you fear losing positive labels, or believe you may deserve negative ones? Do you have, in short, a “fixed mindset”?
Or do you hold fast to the belief that everyone can change for the better? Are you dedicated, strategic, and willing to accept others’ support?
Do you adopt flexible perspectives? Are you willing to accept some of your imperfections? Do you embrace a “growth mindset”?
Carol S. Dweck in her book Mindset outlines how those with a growth-oriented outlook are more likely to engage in optimistic self-talk and therefore to push on in the face of opposition. Those with a fixed mindset on the other hand have the opposite experience.
The good news is that mindsets are not permanent, but rather paradigms we can adopt or remove, like pairs of tinted sunglasses.
Transitioning from a fixed to growth mindset involves retraining our brain to recognize hope, potential, and success where it might otherwise perceive threat and failure.
It also means not seeing intelligence and talent as preset qualities, but rather ones that can be developed. And it involves the regular use of optimistic self-talk.
Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?”
Only by nourishing a state of internal safety can those of use with fixed mindsets develop greater mental flexibility.
To have grit means to be passionate and willing to continue pursuing our passions—no matter the circumstances.
According to Grit author Angela Duckworth, being “gritty” means seeking an
ultimate goal in an abiding, loyal, steady way. You are not capricious. Each day, you wake up thinking of the questions you fell asleep thinking about. You are, in a sense, pointing in the same direction, ever eager to take even the smallest step forward than to take a step to the side, toward some other destination.
When obstacles appear, gritty people do not abandon their goals. Instead, they chase them with even greater tenacity.
Grit is all about being quietly determined. Like the growth mindset, it isn’t some inherent, unchangeable quality, but rather a question of self-discipline.
We can come by grit through deliberate practice. Duckworth explains there are four components to this:
Setting a clearly defined stretch goal
Applying our full concentration and effort in pursuit of that goal
Seeking out immediate and informative feedback
Reflecting and refining our approach as we repeatedly apply ourselves to the task at hand
Being gritty in summary means caring deeply about, and committing to, the process and the outcome.
Many of us will go through social work school with nary a mention of the four qualities I outlined above. I believe however that they are indispensable to our quest for professional excellence.
Regardless of where you stand, one fact is certain: we will be tested throughout our careers. Oftentimes, we may find ourselves lacking much-needed skills and know-how.
Yet with grit and a growth mindset, we can bounce back, applying ourselves with fresh enthusiasm to overcoming obstacles.
Likewise, a social worker with an attitude of service knows their role is not to empower some, but all.
Wise social workers know that understanding and personal growth can only occur only when we choose to embrace our vulnerability.
We as professionals can choose to pave the way for clients, colleagues, and other stakeholders by showing up as our authentic selves.
When I started my undergraduate degree, virtual study platforms like Blackboard were very much in their infancy, and digital-only learning was still a fair way off.
For example, tests were still paper and pen-based, and textbooks and course readers were only available in hard copy format.
Today that’s all changed. Most reading material is now accessible in PDF or eBook format, freeing us from the burden of toting around massive textbooks.
Going digital has brought other benefits. With the right adjustments, device-based reading can actually be a timesaver, thanks to the inbuilt highlighting and notetaking abilities.
If you are yet to purchase your textbooks and have a functional tablet or tablet, here are some reasons for going the digital-only route, plus tips for an optimal study experience.
Comfort vs convenience of digital-only study
If you, like me, grew up reading books the old-fashioned way, you may drag your heels when it comes to reading off a screen.
But course readings are increasingly being provided in PDF format, so going digital-only may be a natural conclusion.
Given the difficulty, expense, and environmental cost involved in printing these materials out, it might be worth exploring how to make screen-reading a more enjoyable experience.
But first, it’s important to understand some technicalities. e-Textbooks are usually made available in PDF, EPUB, or MOBI/AZW format (Amazon’s proprietary eBook file format).
Textbooks in AZW format sometimes have limits on the amount of content you can highlight and save as notes due to digital rights management (DRM).
These restrictions will vary from publisher to publisher. In recent years, many have recognized the importance of notetaking and relaxed DRM restrictions.
To save yourself hassle down the line, read each e-Textbook’s product description page before purchasing. Alternatively, contact your online bookstore’s customer service department for more information.
1. Take notes with e-Textbooks
While not all eBook reading apps or devices offer notetaking abilities, most do. And this is one of the advantages of going digital-only.
If you’re using a computer, you can access EPUB or MOBI files with Calibre, a free eBook library manager. PDFs can be accessed using Adobe Reader.
Supposing there are no DRM restrictions, these readers will allow you to select passages of text and copy them straight into a Word or Google document.
Should DRM prevent you from highlighting and recording your notes, you can always just manually type them out.
To do this, open two window panes on your computer—one for your eBook reader app, and one for your notes document—then transcribe any content you need directly into the latter.
For those using an Amazon Kindle, know that anything you highlight is automatically recorded to an internal document, which will then need to be accessed using this method.
2. Try text-to-speech
“But I don’t like to read things on the computer,” you say. Fair enough.
In the case of Adobe Reader, you will need to tinker with the settings first in order to get dark mode working.
To do this, go to “Edit”, followed by “Preferences”. A new window will appear. Under the “Categories” column, click “Accessibility”.
Under “Document Colors Options”, tick “Replace Document Colors”. Tick the “Custom Color:” box. Set “Page Background” to black, and “Document Text:” to white.
Finally, tick the “Change the color of line art as well as text” box. And you’re done!
You can also enable dark mode in your browser using the free extension Dark Reader.
If you find dark mode disorienting, at least initially, know that it will ultimately add an extra level of comfort to your digital-only study experience.
4. Convert readings to PDF
Typically when lecturers provide URLs to readings hosted online (such as articles), I find it worthwhile to convert them to PDF format for easy reading/notetaking.
Several free services can assist with this. Note that in some cases, one service may break text formatting or produce excess white space. For this reason, some experimentation using all the services listed here may be required.
The first service is Print Friendly. To access it, paste your link into the main field, hit “Preview”, then “PDF” and “Download your PDF”.
The second is Simple Print. Paste your link into the main field, click “Create PDF”, and click the image that appears.
A PDF will appear in your browser; all that needs to be done now is for you to right-click the page and hit “Save”. Note, you can also install this service as a Chrome browser plugin.
Once you’ve installed the plugin, navigate to the webpage you want to convert, tap the Simple Print icon next to the address bar and let the plugin work its magic.
The final PDF conversion service is Mercury Reader, available as a Chrome plugin. The process is much the same as that involving the Simple Print plugin.
5. Keep a master notes file
To manage all your school notes in a single Word doc would be unwieldy, and devoting a folder to multiple notes documents can also get messy.
OneNote, which is included in Office 365 and Office 2016 suite, is a note-taking program that can help you keep all your notes organized within a single document.
With OneNote, each sub-document is separated by individual tabs, which are searchable using the search bar (shortcut “CTRL + F”).
Where one might spend minutes thumbing through a notebook in search of specific notes, with the OneNote app it’s never more than a few keystrokes away. This is one of the many benefits of a digital-only approach.
The app presents all content in a binder format, much like a file directory tree. Each document you create within a Scrivener project can be sorted into folders with unique icons.
All documents are organized and stored inside a single master archive file.
Like OneNote, all Scrivener content can be searched with a quick CTRL + F. The app also offers the ability to split your display between two documents, which helps for referring to notes when writing an essay.
Computers crash and hard drives fail. This is the reality of digital-only work in the Information Age.
Thankfully there are measures you can take to avoid losing all your work, should a data-loss disaster strike.
A simple way of doing this is working exclusively in the cloud using a free service like Google Docs. The downside is that you will need a constant internet connection in order to work, although there is a way around this.
While it doesn’t appear likely that Google cloud servers will suffer a catastrophic failure any time soon, it’s best not to bank upon such a possibility never happening.
According to the 3-2-1 rule, we should regularly make and keep a total of three backups at all times.
In my case, I use a modified version of this rule. Firstly, I make a physical backup of all my files on two different external hard drives.
Note that USB thumb drives can be unreliable so I would recommend avoiding them completely.
Secondly, I keep all essential working documents synced with free cloud-based backup services like Dropbox and Google Drive.
For extra protection, I would recommend using both of these services at the same time.
If there’s one educational trend we can be certain of, it’s that classroom integration of digital technologies will only continue.
Whatever your feelings about this new norm, it’s still worth leveraging the unique strengths of digital mediums to your benefit.
The tips I’ve included here are a small sample drawn from my personal experience. If you’re interested in going digital-only, I recommend also checking out these tech-based study hacks.
To familiarize yourself with the app, you can create a personal “board” and set a title e.g. “Course X”. Create titled columns for each school course and another called “Completed tasks”.
Under each column, add cards for individual assessment pieces and homework tasks. Tag cards with a color and assign definitions. Red for example can represent “To do”, orange “In progress”, and green “Complete”.
When completing each task, drag the associated card to the “Completed tasks” column. Or right-click it and hit the “Archive” option.
For brainstorming, virtual whiteboards like Google Jamboard can come in handy. And when working on shared papers, Google Docs can also be a godsend, thanks to the collaborative, real-time editing feature.
If you are organizing a meeting in-person or virtually, try using a Doodle poll to identify everyone’s availability.
4. Communicate and community-build online
If emails are too arduous, why not switch things up with a feature-rich instant messaging app like GroupMe?
WhatsApp alternatively provides a more secure service, with end-to-end encryption.
If you struggle to keep track of text messages with other social work school students, check out Slack, a phone and desktop app that offers persistent chat rooms organized by subjects.
While this level of functionality may be too complex for the average group assignment, Slack can be especially useful for students looking to community build, share information and resources, and organize on campus.
5. Lift your grammar game
If you’ve been relying exclusively on Microsoft Word or Google Docs’ spelling and grammar check, there’s a good chance you’re not catching every typo.
Don’t believe me? Install Grammarly, a free service that can be accessed as a browser extension, Microsoft Office plugin, or desktop app.
Grammarly stands head and shoulders above most apps’ standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation proofreading features.
If you’re willing to shell out for the paid version, you’ll also get additional features such as guidance on writing with clarity and automatic plagiarism detection.
6. Jazz up your social work school presentations
Lack the design finesse and can’t be bothered scouting the web for inspiration?
Transform your lackluster Google Slides presentation in a pinch with one of the many free presentation templates available for download on Slidesgo.
Editing these snazzy predesigned slides is as simple as drag-and-drop and cut-and-paste.
As a bonus, most templates include unique design elements at the end that can be adapted for any purpose.
You may be comfortable with your current social work study workflow. And yet it’s possible that there are some inefficiencies that are costing you time and effort.
Many of these can be addressed with a few tech tweaks such as the ones I suggested above.
But if you’re intimidated by the prospect of learning new systems, don’t worry—I completely get it.
My suggestion would be to start small. Try one of the hacks I’ve mentioned for a few days and see if you notice any improvements.
Give yourself enough time to get familiar with the new method before making any final decision. Also, try to keep in mind why you’re making a change in the first place. What do you hope to gain?
If eased workloads and relaxed time pressures sound like your cup of tea, then maybe the risks are ones well worth taking.