Save thousands while attending social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 3 minutes

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.

4. Keep a budget. Intuit’s Mint app and website are a great, free way to start. Alternatively, try You Need a Budget, which is also free for one year for college students.

5. Do your own tax. If you don’t expect to have a complex tax return, chances are you can do it yourself, at no expense, using free software or web-based services.

6. Apply for bill reductions. There are programs that you can apply for that can reduce your power and gas bills. Just ask your service provider.

6. Switch to cheaper plans. Call your internet service provider and request a low-income plan. Consider switching to a discount phone service provider.

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.

13. Apply for SNAP. If you’re eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what are you waiting for? Apply.

14. Request reimbursements. If your field placement requires you to travel offsite, it’s worth asking if they will offer to pay fuel costs.

15. Ask for medical debt reduction. Medical care providers don’t advertise this, but you may be eligible for a reduction or total debt forgiveness based on your income. It’s always worth asking.

16. Negotiate lower fees. You can do this with both your bank and your car insurer.

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. 

Wrap up

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.

These tips and more are available in my free guide to surviving and thriving social work school.

Is a career in social work right for you? 7 traits that indicate a personality match

Essy Knopf career in social work
Reading time: 9 minutes

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.

As someone with undiagnosed autism, stories were often my sole recourse from sensory overload and the confusing contradictions of my social environment.

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?

Essy Knopf career in social work

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. 

A potential that, as it turned out, was and is recognized within the social work field

Complete retraining therefore wouldn’t be required, should I indeed decide to pursue a career in social work.

Commitment to a positive outcome

Yet after speaking with people in the field, the fit with my values and goals couldn’t have been more apparent.

Convincing grad school applications assessors of this, though, might be another matter altogether. 

Going from journalism and filmmaking to social work might be regarded as too much of a logical leap—unless I had the necessary bona fides.

A resume revamp was in order. In a bid to bolster my social service experience, I started contacting nonprofits and volunteering my services.

Over the next few months, I undertook two internships. Neither were direct practice-related, yet they granted me invaluable insight into the inner workings of social service agencies. 

With this new experience under my belt, I applied myself with unwavering attention to crafting the most compelling grad school applications possible.

Long story short: a year-and-a-half—and one pandemic!—later, I had quit my job, moved cities, and started a Master of Social Work program.

My six-year-old self could certainly never have anticipated this outcome. And even in hindsight, the course I took to get there appears haphazard.

Consider for example the multiple degrees, a journey to the far side of the globe, playing career hopscotch… Yet all of it had somehow led me back to my first passion and a career in social work.

Casual observers might struggle to marry these many diverse facets of my life, to find the cumulative significance of our choices. 

But I have to remind myself that this is not a task for casual observers, but for those among us who chose to embrace this wonderfully inclusive profession.

Is a career in social work right for you?

Many years ago, I found myself sitting in a welfare agency office, defending my application for unemployment insurance. 

The functionary sitting across from me had remarked upon my decision to return to school a third time. I heard his words as an attack when they were in fact a polite courtesy.

The man went on to remark that life was not a straight road. And if it looked straight, one should be suspicious.

In time, I too came to renounce the image of the straight road, embracing instead the idea of life as a series of left turns.

Such turns shouldn’t be viewed as obstacles that prevent us from our ultimate destination, but rather meaningful digressions that justify our eventual decision to cross the threshold.

Given the broadness of this field and the many roles within it, it is more than likely a diverse career background will in some way serve you, as mine did me.

Being a social worker thus is as much about having the qualifications as it is having the necessary qualities.

If you like me come from a completely different professional background or are otherwise debating undertaking a career in social work, ask yourself this: do you indeed have a desire to serve humanity?

Do you have a thirst for advocacy? Do you strive for learning and self-betterment? 

Are you willing to self-reflect and grow? Are you determined to succeed? Are you committed to positive outcomes?

If so, then welcome home.

Survive the social work career marathon with these 4 secret qualities

Essy Knopf social work superstar
Reading time: 5 minutes

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.

Being a jack-of-all-trades may even leave us with the gnawing insecurity that we are also masters of none…what’s also known as “social work student imposter syndrome”.

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.

Essy Knopf social work superstar

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.

Challenging your perceptions is not a task that needs to be undertaken on your own. You may benefit for example from the support and insights offered by a therapist.

But if blooming where you are planted is something you struggle with, consider building a self-compassion practice. In the words of Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff,

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.

A growth mindset notably is a key ingredient of resilience, an important trait for all social work superstars.

4. A social work superstar is gritty

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. 

Wrap up

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. 

You can read more social work-related posts here.

References

Hartley et al. (2001). A strengths-based communication model: Interpersonal skills for the helping relationship. University of Iowa School of Social Work.

When self-care feels impossible as a social worker, try these five easy tricks

Essy Knopf social work secret self-care tips
Reading time: 4 minutes

Working in a demanding profession like social work, I’m often reminded that self-care is a commitment many of us struggle to make. 

Certainly, there may be factors that interfere with our ability to perform this vital activity. We may for example experience a time crunch at work and miss a lunch break in order to help a client in crisis.

When such a situation becomes routine, we should be worried. Many however refuse to take action, claiming they simply don’t have control over the circumstances.

Addressing self-care, however, is less about external circumstances than it is about certain problematic beliefs we hold to be true.

Common mental barriers to self-care

Chronic overwork usually happens because we permit it to.

For example, boundary issues may convince us we are obligated—if not morally bound—to take on more than our own share. 

This can stem from low self-esteem or distorted self-perception, which are in turn fed by negative self-talk. 

If given too much latitude, our internal critics will demand we constantly prove our self-worth, leading to workaholism, perfectionism, and other forms of grandiosity

This is not a sustainable way of life. We can’t ignore our feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion forever. But in the absence of self-compassion, we will likely dismiss self-care as “unnecessary”, “wasteful”, and “selfish”.

Another contributor to overwork is time anxiety, a phenomenon by which we come to believe there is simply never enough time in which to complete all of our assigned tasks.

Like other forms of anxiety, time anxiety follows a simple premise: 

if you do or fail to do X, Y catastrophe will happen 

If you’re struggling to overcome one or more of these obstacles, or if the suggestions in my previous guide to self-care as a social worker didn’t quite hit the spot, I would suggest the following approaches.

1. Snack on self-care

Incorporate brief, “snack-sized” activities into your daily routine. For example:

  • Watch a humorous segment from a late-night talk show host on YouTube while eating breakfast
  • Check your favorite news website during work breaks
  • Watch a fun TV show while cooking dinner
  • Listen to an enriching podcast while cleaning or exercising
  • Do school readings while enjoying a hot bath
  • Practice a grounding exercise during moments of peak stress. For example: box breathing, belly breathing, or body scans

While multitasking has been linked to higher levels of stress and fatigue, self-care snacking in this fashion is a start…and thus progress.

2. Try gratitude & affirmations

Studies have found that practicing gratitude can significantly boost our mental health

One common example is gratitude journaling. This involves writing down five things you’re grateful for each day. 

Alternatively, you can share this list with a designated “accountability partner” either daily or weekly, in-person, or over the phone.

Another fun way to practice gratitude is with a freewriting gratitude exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, suspend your critical thinking, and start writing down anything and everything you could be grateful for.

When the timer ends, set down your pen and review your work. Does what you write check out? Are you surprised by the number of things you were able to list?

Another proven way to nip stress in the bud is by practicing affirmations. Consider opening or closing your day with an affirmation that emphasizes a positive aspect of your life or celebrates your strengths or achievements. 

Here are some examples of affirmations you can use as part of a daily practice. 

Thankfully, practicing gratitude nor affirmations are not time-intensive activities and can be performed during natural lulls that occur throughout the day.

Essy Knopf self-care ticks social work

3. Lean into self-compassion

Self-compassion refers to the willingness and ability to comfort oneself in moments of distress. This is a vital skill we typically learn by internalizing the soothing offered to us as children by our primary caregivers. 

When our attachment to these caregivers is disrupted, however, through misattunement, invalidation, neglect, abuse, loss, and trauma, we may develop insecure attachment styles.

This impedes future relationships and deprives us of the chance to learn self-compassion, which can bolster personal resiliency.

Thankfully, self-compassion can always be developed through practice. To get started, check out some of the brief guided meditations, videos, and exercises available on Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff’s website. 

Again, these activities can be done almost anywhere and don’t require a lot of time.

4. Get your body moving

Exercise may maintain our general health—but it can also help protect us against anxiety and depression.

As someone who has suffered chronic anxiety, I have found daily exercise goes a long way to helping me manage this condition.

While I don’t always achieve the 30 minutes of moderate activity daily recommended by scientists, I do make sure to take 20-minute walks around the neighborhood at the very least.

Slower exercise should ideally be supplemented by higher-intensity workouts. For instance, I try to cycle for an hour one day, hike for a few hours on another, and do an hour of weights and jogging on a third.

If your mind tells you that taking time out to exercise will eat into your productivity, consider listening to a podcast or audiobook at the same time.

Should venturing outdoors or going to the gym demand too much from your schedule, try exercising from home with free-to-view YouTube aerobics classes.

5. Sleep hygienically

How is sleep a self-care activity? Usually, when we are consumed by work, we may not get our seven-hour minimum.

If our sleep is too short or the quality of it is poor, we may quickly find ourselves running on empty.

Practicing sleep hygiene is how we create the ideal conditions for sleeping. Some examples of good sleep hygiene are:

  • Going to bed and getting up at a regular time 
  • Ensuring our bedrooms are quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable
  • Using our bedroom exclusively for sleeping 
  • Removing electronic devices from our sleeping spaces
  • Employing blue light-free bulbs and the wellness feature on our Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest 

Wrap up

Whatever your career choice, overwork is a possibility that can always sneak up unexpectedly. 

Boundary issues, fierce internal critics, and time anxiety are just a few forms of mental resistance that can leave us especially vulnerable in this regard.

Danger arises when this resistance persuades us that the rightful place of self-care is on the chopping block. 

Over time, such beliefs can become hard to shake. But by making some of the adjustments proposed above, you can take small steps towards becoming a personal wellbeing champion.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

6 key skills that can make or break your social work career

Essy Knopf social work career skills
Reading time: 5 minutes

Throughout your social work career, all of us will be asked to do the seemingly impossible.

Whether working with clients in therapy to repair psychic injuries, or campaigning for social equality, such feats depend upon a set of specific—but surprisingly mundane—skills. 

While some of these skills could certainly apply to other professions, others are specific to the nature of social work, and the demands it makes of us not just as professionals, but as human beings also. 

One obvious example of this is the “use of self” in a clinical setting. From time to time, social work clinicians are called upon to appropriately self-disclose. 

The openness and authenticity with which we present our humanity can go a long way to facilitating our client’s personal growth and achievements.

Serving others in such a fashion, however, requires we first have some ability to self-regulate—one of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence. 

Here are some top skills I believe can help you on your journey towards becoming a better social worker.

1. Goal setting for your social work career

The only way we can ever get to where we are going is by first clearly defining our destination. This is where S.M.A.R.T. goals come in.

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 

This goal tracking system helps break often vague objectives into concrete plans with easy-to-follow steps while accounting for any contingencies and obstacles.

Sure—the level of detail demanded by S.M.A.R.T. goals can often feel mentally taxing—but don’t let this stop you from using them. S.M.A.R.T. goals exist to help you ultimately work smarter, not harder.

Simplify the process by starting with a free S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet. Set a maximum of three goals. 

Once you’ve decided upon the tasks that are necessary to fulfill them, it’s time to deploy skill number two…

2. Time management

For those of us already time-poor, the very idea we should try to wrangle order out of our already packed day is enough to evoke dread. The following two-step process will go a long way to dispel that feeling.

Using the list you generated from skill number one, begin by organizing each task in order of priority:

1. Prioritize your to-dos 

Create a rank-ordered to-do list by sorting each task into the following order:

  1. Urgent and important (do first)
  2. Not urgent but still important (schedule)
  3. Urgent but not important (delegate)
  4. Not urgent and not important (don’t do)

Action each step accordingly. Any item with a #4 ranking can simply be deleted from the list.

If you’re in any way confused by this method, consider using an Eisenhower Matrix (here’s an array of free templates).

2. Schedule 

Anything that needs to be scheduled should be recorded in your calendar. If you use a service that syncs across all your devices (such as Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar), all the better. 

Next, set reminders so you won’t miss your commitments. I personally prefer to set at least two reminders, one via email and one via instant notification.

Most of us are usually within arms’ reach of our computer or phone, so this can be a great way of ensuring we stay on track.

3. Communication

Communication can play a vital role in connecting, building bridges, and facilitating positive change. This is no less the case during our social work careers.

Whether it’s verbal, written, or visual, good communication is always a question of clarity. 

Be direct and succinct, then elaborate, if required. Avoid drowning the receiver with information. Do away with round-about explanations. Make your requests explicit.

Also, it helps to follow these basic rules of thumb, borrowed from a classic book on personal effectiveness, How To Win Friends & Influence People:

  • Be friendly
  • Respect other’s opinions
  • Do more listening than talking
  • Try to take others’ perspectives
  • Sympathize with their ideas and desires
  • Be quick to admit your errors
  • Avoid arguments, criticisms, condemnations, and complaints

Always try to put yourself in the shoes of your communication partner. Consider the reaction your words may trigger before speaking. 

Finally, collaborate by communicating your projected timelines to relevant stakeholders.

If you think you’re going to miss a deadline, let them know and negotiate a revised due date.

Writing that extra email may feel burdensome, but know that others will always be thankful you kept them in the loop.

Essy Knopf fundamental skills social work career

4. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share others’ feelings. It is the glue that holds individuals—and society—together.

Expressing empathy may come naturally to some, whereas for others, it may need to be developed. 

Listening attentively is one way we can practice empathy. We can start with body language. By making regular eye contact, we convey we are interested in what the other person has to say. 

Uttering “mmhmm” or nodding and shaking our heads are some popular verbal and nonverbal cues commonly used to show one understands and cares.

These responses are also examples of furthering responses, which are the equivalent of asking the speaker to tell you more. 

Reflection responses go one step further by addressing both the content of messages and the emotions with which they are expressed. 

Our goal when offering reflection responses is to mirror what we, the listener, think we are hearing. “So what I think I’m hearing from you is…”

When we use reflecting responses, we are checking that we have correctly understood whatever has just been communicated to us. 

We can also try to summarize or paraphrase our communication partner’s words in a thoughtful and respectful way. 

There will be times when our partner responds with, “Actually…” and goes on to tell us how off-base our interpretation was. 

Know that misunderstandings are par for the course. What matters most is our willingness to keep working with our conversation partner to get on the same page.

5. Self-awareness

Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as ongoing attention towards, observation, and investigation of one’s internal states. 

To be self-aware therefore means to be “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about that mood.”

We typically cope with and respond to our emotions in one of three ways:

  • Becoming engulfed: Being completely taken over by our feelings. 
  • Practicing acceptance: Doing nothing to change our moods, even when they cause distress.
  • Staying self-aware: Mindfully managing emotions and refusing to ruminate on negative feelings.

Whatever your chosen social work career, acceptance, or engulfment can open us to the possibility of countertransference.

Clinicians who fail to reflect on their feelings in such situations may act out patterns of behavior that damage the therapeutic alliance.

We all have our blindspots. But self-awareness can be actively improved, for instance, by cultivating a mindfulness practice.

6. Boundary setting

Bodies, words, physical space, emotional distance, time, and consequences. These are some categories of personal boundaries, write Boundaries authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

A common boundary violation in social work is long hours and high caseloads

Most of us would agree that our ability to flourish depends upon our ability to keep stress to moderate levels. We also require plenty of time to rest and recharge.

When these two things are denied us, however, it is our responsibility to clarify and assert our boundaries. This may mean saying “no” to taking on more work than we can manage. Or it may mean leaving an exploitative situation.

Should we choose not to, we may otherwise succumb to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Another way we can set boundaries is by choosing to not bring work home. This includes refusing to respond to non-essential communication with colleagues and clients outside of work hours. 

Doing this also has the added benefit of safeguarding us against forming dual relationships with clients.

Wrap up

Newly minted social workers are like first-time tennis players, struggling to defend themselves against a volley of balls from a merciless pitching machine.

Faced with such challenges, we may pause to peer into the depths of us our generalist’s toolkit, struggling to find the best—and fastest—solution. 

The result may be decision paralysis. Failing to deliver a return may leave us with the figurative black eye of imposter syndrome.

But competency in social work is rarely the product of quick thinking or specialized education alone. It’s also about building and maintaining core skills.

By mastering goal setting, time management, communication, empathy, self-awareness, and boundary setting, we position ourselves not just for social work career success, but for career sustainability also.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Stop wasting time, social work students. Go digital-only.

Essy Knopf social work go digital
Reading time: 6 minutes

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.

Give your eyes a break and have your content read aloud to you with Adobe Reader’s built-in Text-to-Speech feature

Alternatively, you can convert a text document into speech using free web-based services.

The resulting MP3 file can be played on your computer or transferred to your phone for easy listening while on the go.

3. Use dark mode

If you can’t stand text-to-speech, ease your eyestrain with dark mode.

Calibre will automatically match your current system setting, so turning the dark mode feature on can be as easy as flipping the related toggle in Windows or Mac.

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.

Essy Knopf digital-only social work school

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.

If you don’t happen to have the editions of Office mentioned above, know that you can still download the cloud-based version of OneNote free of cost

I would also recommend checking out Scrivener, which matches the functionality of OneNote—and then some.

Initially marketed as a tool for writers, Scrivener is simple to use but offers an insanely complex array of features. 

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.

You can also create multiple “snapshots” of each document, allowing you to roll back any changes in the event you want to revert to an earlier edit.

For anyone looking to create a “master document” or notes archive, Scrivener can go a long way to helping you efficiently organize your data.

If you’re curious to give it a spin, Scrivener can be run for free in trial mode for the first 30 days.

6. Back up your data

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.

Wrap up

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.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Surviving in the social work field boils down to this single habit

Essy Knopf social work habit self care
Reading time: 4 minutes

What is your number one priority as a social worker? If self-care is not the answer, we need to have a chat.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will emphasize the importance of self-care upfront. It doesn’t take long, however, for this call-to-arms to butt up against reality. 

We as social workers must navigate many competing and conflicting priorities daily. This begins as early as school.

With so much to do during our relatively brief degree, our days are often dominated by assignments and course readings. 

Setting aside an extra hour for “you” time can come to resemble an unnecessary luxury. You may find yourself asking, “How can I afford to stop and relax when I have so much work left to do?” 

It’s a question I promise will continue to challenge you over the course of your career. For this reason, self-care is a habit you would be best served by building right now.

Here are some ways you can get started.

1. Make a commitment to self-care

If you can exercise enough discipline to study for multiple hours every day, you can certainly commit a minimum of one hour to self-care.

In strict cost-benefit analysis terms, your brain may try to argue with you about the necessity of relaxing.

It may feel good to have dedicated downtime. But time away from your desk may also put you behind in your work and feed your anxiety.

This can become a vicious circle: time anxiety persuades there is never enough, and while this might certainly feel like it’s the case, it’s not true.

The issue is not whether you have enough time to take care of your personal wellbeing. Rather, it’s your willingness to re-prioritize it. 

Let’s suppose you do. If you have time anxiety, this may worsen. But rest assured that over time, its death-grip on your psyche will weaken.

2. Block out downtime

Personally, I’ve found there are usually three windows each day in which most people can block out self-care time: 

  1. First thing, straight after waking up
  2. Midway during the day, such as during a lunch break
  3. Before bed, when one typically unwinds

The morning window works best for me (that is, supposing I get to bed early).

This period seems to afford me enough time to do a self-care activity such as meditation before my brain jumps aboard the “work ‘til you drop” train.

Another option is to dedicate a single day of the week such as Sunday to “you” time.

3. Permit yourself a personal life

Work is a hungry beast, and if we continue to encourage it, it will inevitably consume our personal lives. 

We may suspend social outings and quality time activities with our loved ones. Or we may sacrifice a hobby that previously enriched our lives.

Diligence and dedication in professional settings are admirable traits. But when taken to excess, they can lead to workaholism.

Having healthy boundaries quite simply means saying “yes” to all that is conducive to our welfare, and “no” to things that aren’t. And workaholism is definitely something that qualifies as the latter.

Don’t neglect your personal relationships for the sake of your calling. Refuse to become a martyr for your chosen social work cause. 

Instead, strive for a work-life balance. Schedule at least one social meetup a week. Revive that cherished hobby. 

Rather than constantly drawing from your well, take time out to replenish it.

Essy Knopf self-care social worker

4. Don’t go at it alone

Further to the last point, healthy relationships are like armored vans that can carry us through a warzone of difficult times. 

These relationships are thus crucial to our mental health and serve as an invaluable buffer during difficult times.

But they are only as helpful as we allow them to be. In times of need, don’t hesitate to reach out to coworkers, supervisors, partners, friends, and family members.

5. Self-care through the support of a therapist

None of us come to the social work field a clean slate. Each of us has a history, and the work we do can cause parts of it to resurface, both good and bad.

A therapist can help us with processing our experiences, as well as professional challenges like countertransference.

The insights of another professional can go a long way to supporting us in becoming better practitioners. 

6. Start meditating

Mindfulness-based strategies are an effective way to support mental resilience and ward off overwhelm and anxiety.

The most commonly known strategy is meditation.

Guided meditations can be found in person or online. UCLA Health for example has many recordings on its website, and there are subscription-based meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace.

An example of a self-guided meditation I use daily is breath counting. This is very simple to practice.

First, get into a meditation posture. A common one is sitting upright, with your feet planted on the floor, your hands resting on your lap, and your eyes either open or closed.

Next, count one, inhale, two exhale, three inhale, four exhale… Go right up to 10, before resetting to one. 

Every time your mind wanders or you become distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath and resume counting.

The breath counting meditation has the most beneficial effect for me when performed one to two times a day for 20 minutes at a time. 

If you are new to this kind of meditation, I would recommend beginning with a three-minute meditation, slowly work your way up to a longer session.

Whatever method you choose, know that finding your meditation groove can, at least, initially, be a struggle—especially if you’ve had no prior experience with mindfulness. 

For that reason, I would recommend starting with guided meditations or exploring free resources such as these five mindfulness-oriented phone apps.

7. Explore yoga or prayer as self-care

Another mindfulness-based strategy is yoga. If you can’t make it to a studio, try a virtual class. Many are available free to watch on YouTube.

Another mindfulness practice worth mentioning mention is prayer, which has been found to offer similar benefits to other forms of mindfulness. 

For these reasons, if you are spiritual or practice a religion, it may be worth incorporating a prayer practice into your daily self-care regimen.

Wrap up

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “There is no way I can humanly do all of this,” know that you by far are not the first social worker to feel this way.

Feeling overwhelmed as we so often do in these instances is an opportunity to pause and check in with ourselves.

Are you getting enough time to recharge your batteries each day? If not, maybe it is time you carved out a slot in your daily schedule for a self-care activity.

Sure, it may not always seem practical. But let me ask you this: how much more practical is the alternative…professional burnout?

You can read more social work-related posts here.

These 6 tech-based study hacks will transform your social work school experience

Essy Knopf Technology Hacks
Reading time: 5 minutes

As most attending social work school can attest, stress is the water we figuratively swim in every day.1

It is also a very normal part of being human. In moderation, stress can help us. But when sustained at high levels over long periods, it can devastate our wellbeing.

Strung out between study, placements, and what passes for our personal lives, it is very easy for us to experience the latter.

There are many strategies for minimizing stress, such as simplifying and automating tasks. This is where modern information technologies can assist.

Here are some suggestions as to how social work students can turn them to their advantage.

1. Give task tracking applications a spin

In my previous article, “11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school”, I stressed that prioritizing and calendarizing are key to being a functional social work student.

If you’re in an MSW program, it’s worth considering keeping a running record of all your to-dos with a list-making application.

Apps like Apple Notes and Google Keep save your data in the cloud and share them with all your registered devices, making accessing and updating them a cinch.

Using colors and labels will help you with organizing information into categories. Adding checkboxes allows you to tick off completed tasks one by one.

Here’s one workflow I recommend following when using Google Keep: first, assign two cards to each grad school course you’re currently taking. Title one “Readings” and the other “Assessments”.

Give each card a different color to visually distinguish them. Apply a label titled “Study” so you can easily sort them from cards with a different category. 

Finally, add checkboxes for every pending reading and assessment. Make sure to update each card from week to week.

While Google Keep technically doesn’t have a dedicated desktop app, third-party versions such as EasyNotes are available.

2. Try using a Pomodoro timer

Finding that you’re not taking enough study breaks, or alternatively taking too many

Most MSW candidates will likely fall into one of these two camps. Sitting at our desk, we enter a state of flow, only to emerge hours later, glassy-eyed and ravenous for a meal.

Alternatively, we may struggle and study in fits and starts, interrupted by many a text message and checking of our news and social media feeds. 

Whether you suffer from tunnel vision or procrastination, the Pomodoro technique may be able to help you find a happy medium.

This time management technique works by breaking time up into intervals: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. After four of these intervals, users take a longer break of 15 minutes. 

Pomodoro timer apps, available on both phones and the web, automate the process, prompting users at the end of each interval with a chime.

Some of the more advanced timers can even track your productivity.

Essy Knopf social work school study hacks

3. Take social work school group work to the next level

If you find Apple Notes or Google Keep too simple for your purposes, check out Trello, another free cross-platform service accessible on your phone and computer. 

Trello’s design is comparable to that with Google Keep, with cards organized under vertical columns. But as a tool for collaboration, the app really flexes its muscles.

Trello offers a visual representation of the status of all tasks and subtasks, which can be particularly helpful when working on complex school group assessments.

Multiple users can also access and edit the board at the same time, “tagging” and delegating tasks to each other, while setting reminders.

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. 

Wrap Up

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.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there’s one experience that unites social work school students, it’s a feeling of chronic overwhelm.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program is a generalist degree, meaning it covers a lot of ground, spanning clinical practice, research, and macro advocacy.

Jampacked curriculums are how social work schools prepare students for the reality they will most likely have to wear many hats throughout their careers. 

To fulfill our (well-earned) reputation as masters of resourcefulness, our teachers pile reading after reading upon us, leaving students buried under an ever-growing pile of work.

To make matters more difficult, within weeks of starting their degree, students are thrown into the field placement deep end. 

The rationale here is that the best way to learn is by doing. Without practice, there’s a good chance that much of the coursework—often covered at a breakneck pace—won’t stick.

Struggling to keep up, we let our self-care activities fall by the wayside. Anxiety, study burnout, and imposter syndrome often result.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are 11 tips I believe will go a long way to helping you not only survive, but flourish in social work school.

1. Prioritize with the 1-2-3-4 method

Your workload as a social work student is formidable. The only way you can ever hope to get (and stay) on top of it is by prioritizing.

To do this, organize all your tasks into the following categories:

  1. Do first 
  2. Schedule 
  3. Delegate 
  4. Don’t do

Next, complete each task in order of priority. When another task is added to your list, make sure to continue assigning it a number and an action (if applicable). 

More information on the 1-2-3-4 method can be found here.

2. Learn the value of strategic “nos”

If you’re a perfectionist, completionist, and/or a workaholic, you may struggle with assigning items to the final category, “Don’t do.” 

But refusing to say “no” in this profession can come at a considerable cost to your wellbeing.

In social work school alone, you may be bombarded with invitations to extracurricular events. But between attending class and field placement and writing essays, you’ll probably lack the mental bandwidth to fully participate.

My suggestion would be to say “yes” only a handful of events you are certain will advance your learning or professional goals. As for everything else, feel free to ignore it.

Remember, even if you can’t attend the desired event, you can always ask the organizer in advance for access to a recording or slides. 

If neither is available, ask if a peer may be willing to take notes on your behalf.

3. Calendarize

With so many responsibilities to juggle, the only way you can stay on top of it all is by making liberal use of your smartphone’s inbuilt calendar. 

When scheduling items in this calendar, only add those from categories 1 and 2. Consider using a free service like Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar to help you keep all calendar items synced across all your devices.

Next, make sure to set reminders. My suggestions are to use both instant notifications and email reminders to ensure you never miss an assignment deadline or another commitment. Find a system that works best for you.

When calendarizing assessment due dates, you may find it helpful to break the task into baby steps and set mini-deadlines for each. 

Before you can write a paper, for example, you’ll need to complete some often lengthy “pre-work” tasks. For example, conducting literature searches, reviewing readings, and completing an outline.

Allocating time and due dates to each of these activities can help keep you on task. It can also convey a sense of progress and positively affirm your efforts. 

This brings us to point four…

4. Reward yourself

All human endeavors are ultimately driven by the promise of reward. It makes sense therefore that when setting out to accomplish a task, we need to have first identified the payoff.

Rewards can be intrinsic: completing the task may be in itself an affirming experience. They can also be extrinsic, such as buying yourself a small gift upon completing a school semester. 

This may sound like self-bribery, but everyone can benefit from a much-needed boost to our motivation levels from time to time. 

Rewards don’t have to be anything huge. They can be something as simple as treating yourself to a coffee. 

Just finished a grueling paper on social work policy? Go out for a walk. Spent the morning poring over a stack of readings? Take the rest of the afternoon off to relax in the park. You’ve earned it.

5. Maintain boundaries

Boundary setting is crucial to remaining sane in the social work field. This applies as much to interpersonal relationships as it does to managing your time, especially where schoolwork or your field placement is concerned.

As you plan out each day, don’t forget to set limits on the amount of time you dedicate each day to work. Make sure to pencil in time for unwinding.

Set a window each day to reply to all non-urgent emails, calls, or text messages that relate to school and your placement. Once that window closes, don’t reopen it.

Treat “you” time as sacrosanct. The only thing you should be prioritizing during downtime is rest and rejuvenation. 

Maintaining boundaries in this fashion can help protect you against burnout, both as a student and as a fledgling social work professional.

6. Self-advocate

Our lecturers drill into us the importance of self-advocating. Social work school and your field placement present numerous opportunities in which you can hone this invaluable skill. 

If there’s something you need to know or want to learn, ask a teacher or field supervisor.

Given you are paying for access to their expertise (through either school fees or your own labor), you have a right to advocate for as many learning opportunities as you feel you need.

If you require an extension on an assessment due date, ask for it. Your lecturer will likely be more than willing to accommodate your request.

Should your requests go ignored, persist, but be sensitive to the reality that what you’ve asked for may not always be possible.

Exercise the fine art of picking your battles, and be prepared to switch gears should the situation call for it.

Essy Knopf social work school

7. Manage up 

Fieldwork supervisors are usually torn between many competing responsibilities. What can this mean for you? Inconsistent supervision.

Meetings may be rescheduled at the last minute, or supervision sessions may be interrupted and even canceled. For social work students, these situations can be frustrating and demoralizing.

In such instances, I recommend managing up. Keep reaching out, asking questions, and making requests. Send emails to your supervisor daily, outlining your priorities and any tasks or activities you plan to undertake. 

Solicit your supervisor’s input, but should you not get it, be prepared to take initiative.

Keep your appointed field liaison apprised of the situation. Be accountable by keeping a log of all your activities, interactions, and communications as proof you held up your end of the field placement bargain.

8. Live and breathe win-win

Like any situation in life, we should approach the social work profession as an opportunity to champion both our interests as well as that of others. 

Invite the input of all with whom you work. Collaborate to find solutions. Embrace differing viewpoints, and always disagree without being disagreeable. 

Never leave anyone feeling like they’re “one-down”. This is a sure way to breed resentment and burn bridges.

We have all at some point encountered difficult people. We have all seen firsthand how their behavior hinders their success. We can learn from this by striving to model our personal best. 

See it as your job to leave a positive impression with all whom you cross during your educational journey. 

You never know if you will rub shoulders with these folk again later on—or if you might find yourself in the position of asking for their help. 

9. Elevate your classmates

All social work students are united by a common struggle…to survive school!

Try to grow your social work community by performing acts of service for classmates. 

Lend a hand when needed. Celebrate others’ wins, praise their achievements, and give without expecting to receive.

Again, there may come a time when you have to call in a favor. Now’s the time to start collecting brownie points.

10. Raise your voice

Whether it’s conducting a one-on-one therapy session, facilitating a group, or advocating for social justice, confidence is key to our success as social workers.

If you think confidence is something we are all born with, think again. Confidence is a trait that can be cultivated through practice. You can get the ball rolling while still in social work school by speaking up.

Sharing our thoughts and experiences in front of our peers is an act of courage. It requires that we be emotionally vulnerable and open ourselves to the possibility of being ignored, judged, or criticized.

Given many of our classmates are little more than acquaintances, we may have little cause to trust that what we say will be heard and respected. 

Still, there’s no better forum in which to make mistakes than in school. Mistakes are, after all, how we best learn.

Consider the fact that you have a unique perspective that others may from hearing. Silencing yourself thus deprives others of the chance to grow and learn. 

Speak your passion, and chances are you’ll energize others to do the same.

11. Be a proactive learner

We are all ultimately responsible for our own professional development. So any time you identify a gap in your knowledge or skill set, think of ways you can close that gap.

If you don’t understand course content, approach your lecturer after class and request clarification.

If you need to brush up on your clinical skills, ask your field supervisor for more in-depth training. Reach out to faculty members to see if they have additional resources that they can share. 

Should your budget allow, purchase additional trainings from a reputable nonprofit organization like PESI and split the cost with your classmates.

Failing that, a quick Google search can yield an array of free manuals, demonstrations, and tutorials.

If you think you’d benefit from constructive feedback, don’t be afraid to request it from someone you trust and know has your best interests at heart. 

Finally, consider finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey. You can start by identifying someone you admire within your social work school. 

Cultivate a relationship with this staff member, then seek out their insights and support.

Wrap up

Social work school is a challenging experience, but engaging fully with that experience is sure to pay dividends.

The degree to which you exercise curiosity, organization, dedication, and resourcefulness now can help determine your ability to overcome many of the obstacles you’ll encounter later in the field.

Treat your MSW as a trial run; a chance to internalize and embody principles so often preached by this profession. You can do this by advocating for yourself as you also strive to empower others.

By setting good habits and establishing best practices now, you’ll both ease your way and lay the groundwork for a happy—and healthy—career.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

The first step towards an anti-oppressive social work practice? Understanding intersectionality

essy knopf intersectionality
Reading time: 9 minutes

Intersectionality teaches us that identity is complex, made up of a variety of factors including race, gender, class,1 ethnicity, age, sexuality, and physical ability.

How these aspects of self interact with power structures and cultural interpretations2 and shape our experiences of privilege and power, oppression and disadvantage, are the crux of discussions about intersectionality.

Critical Race Theorists argue that having a minority identity, such as being Black in a society in which White dominance and structural racism is the norm, will lead to some level of oppression while being the dominant identity—White—will result in the opposite experience.3 4

Racism, just like ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism are all forms of oppression. They are not universal, but reflections of power differentials produced by those with dominant identities. In North America, these typically are “White”, “male”, “heterosexual”, and “Christian”.5

The oppression experienced by a Black person is only further exacerbated when they also share additional “targeted” identities such as “having a disability” and being lesbian, which brings its own share of minority stresses.6

But say you were all three of these things and a member of the upper-class. This would complicate matters by adding some degree of privilege to the power differential equation.

Selfhood thus is the result of “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”.7 This is the puzzling truth of intersectionality: nothing is ever as clear-cut as it might seem.

In the following paragraphs, I will use my own experiences as a case study about the intricate—and sometimes contradictory—nature of having intersectional identities.”

An introduction to intersectionality

I identify as a person of color and someone who has a disability (autism). I also identify as a gay male.

My identity thus is neither single nor unitary, but the product of innate traits such as genetics, gender, and sexual preference, as well as self-selection and social construction.8

To elaborate: while I was raised in Australia, I never felt anchored to this nationality, nor to that of my parents, given I had limited access to their home countries and cultures: Iran and the US. 

I was raised in what I perceived to be a White dominant culture, and knew that my olive skin color led people to view me as non-White, or at the very least an “honorary White”.9

My awareness of being non-White was only heightened through conflict or oppressive microaggressions—“small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetrated”10—such as being called a racial slur by a stranger at age six.

In the wake of 9/11, some high school peers began altering my name until it resembled either “Saddam Hussein” or “Osama bin Laden”.

While motivated by the desire to order the world, these categorizations marked me as both inferior and outsider, imposing upon me a racial identity that conformed with a racial essentialism stereotype.11

According to this stereotype, all Middle Easterners are Muslims, and therefore terrorists, patriarchs, misogynists, and anti-Western.12 These post-9/11 racial scripts13 were reductive and failed to respect the unique and multifaceted nature of my identity.14

My racial identity, in this case, was not an “objective, inherent, or fixed” quality corresponding to a “biological or genetic reality”, but the product of social construction;15 a shaping through “social and cultural contexts, public discourses, national myths, and intergroup relations”.16

In being identified as Middle Eastern, I was grouped with a devalued “target”, to be dominated, oppressed, and marginalized by “agent” groups.17 

the thoughtful gay intersectionality

The social construction of oppression

The oppressive experiences I described here were not the product of mere individual prejudices and attitudes, however, but rather a cycle of socialization designed to reinforce racist patterns of privilege and oppression.18

This socialization triggered in me a sense of shame and guilt about the way I looked, in turn giving rise to internalized racism. Those drove me to shun all aspects of my own perceived “otherness”19 during future social interactions.

Growing up in Australia, I learned in school that these racist patterns were the product of legislation, such as the cultural assimilation policies of the 1940s and 1950s.

There was also the White Australia Policy, which limited immigration of all non-British people and was only abolished in 1975 with the Racial Discrimination Act.20

Despite the Australian government’s subsequent embrace of multiculturalism, it seemed to me that the commonly held social expectation remained one of assimilation.

If you failed to speak English with an Australian accent or to use Australian slang, if you subscribed to “foreign” religions such as Islam, or if you refused to embrace tokenistic aspects of Australianmui culture such as enjoying barbeques, the beach, and sports, you faced possible mockery and marginalization.

This I now understand was more than standard “ingroup” behavior, whereby members’ identities are reaffirmed by their exclusion of “outgroup” members.21

It was, rather, a process of socialization oriented towards sustaining “White, male, heterosexual, Christian institutional and economic power”.22

The tyranny of heteronormativity

This process began in school, with the daily enforcement of rigid gender scripts.23 Males were expected to have a keen interest in sports, to regularly prove their athletic prowess, to speak in clipped, monosyllabic sentences, and to limit their facial expressions.

Any kind of weakness was not tolerated. Expressing emotions or empathy was frowned upon. Judgment, dismissal, or exclusion among boys and men were the three methods by which I saw this toxic masculinity socialized.

In this sense, one’s gender “membership” often felt uncertain—prone to being retracted by one’s peers at the slightest infraction. 

Every aspect of how one presented or conducted oneself felt open to scrutiny. If you had a lisp, gestured too much, or walked in a certain way, you could be declared “girly”, “pansy”, or even a “f****t”.

To be called gay was to be ruled an abject failure as a male, a dirty sexual deviant, and a threat to the social order.

Once accused, you would invariably find yourself pushed to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Given my various autism-related traits, such as my unusual gait and style of speaking, I found myself excluded and bullied by members of privileged agent social groups; specifically, White, neurotypical, heterosexual boys and men. 

How oppression can accumulate

This “othering” I think was also the product of ableist assumptions that those with disabilities lack intelligence and are helpless and incapable of assuming care for themselves.24 

In a culture that codes masculinity as being self-sufficient, people with disabilities accordingly fail the acid test. 

Consider that when my impairment was revealed—upon committing a social gaffe, for example—some people would respond by calling me “stupid” or “r*****ed”. 

While my disability might seem mild to some, my different style of thinking and behaving was nevertheless picked up by the finely attuned senses of agent group members, who would cut in line ahead of me at the cafeteria, turn away upon my approach, and exclude me from social gatherings. 

Where I had internalized racism as a survival mechanism, I also learned to internalize ableism and homophobia, hiding my struggles and my sexuality where possible.

I endured sensory sensitivities that made sitting in a classroom difficult, but fear of inviting victim-blaming25 however kept me from ever complaining or seeking support.

For to be perceived as disabled or gay would mean I would lose certain privileges, such as the social acceptance afforded to my “normal” and straight peers,26 and even incur their hostility and oppression.

A toxic masculinity cocktail

My aversion to revealing any vulnerability was the product of a socialized script of self-sufficient masculinity.

This script in turn stemmed from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps/equal playing field” beliefs that have come to define both North American27 and Australian culture.

Australia for example has long conceived of itself as the land of the “fair go”, where everyone has a chance of getting ahead, with the nation priding itself for its apparent egalitarianism.28

The bootstrapping/equal playing field beliefs value self-sufficiency, as well as a formal conception of equality, whereby everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

That same conception however fails to acknowledge that people operate within power structures that either inflict disadvantage or fail to make adequate accommodations for those who face it, such as people with disabilities.29 

While I reconciled with my sexuality in my early 20s, it was not much later, after my autism diagnosis at age 26, that I was able to name the problem identified above.

By calling out this ableism for what it was and recognizing how it pervaded all aspects of my life, I was finally able to embark on the road to liberation as described by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.30

My reality was no longer grounded in the belief that I was a bad person who deserved rejection. Instead, I now saw that I was someone who had been oppressed and disadvantaged.

Without a diagnosis, I had never had an adequate way of explaining my difference, or of receiving the therapeutic interventions that might have otherwise helped me overcome my interpersonal challenges. 

Intersectionality: sometimes a target, sometimes an agent

I recognize that for all these difficult experiences, there were instances in which I nevertheless enjoyed some power and privilege.

In some instances, I was a target, but in others, I was treated as an agent. As a male, I had unearned advantages and conferred dominance over females31 which, historically speaking, had enabled the former to objectify, sexually harass, and menace the latter.

Besides never having to fear such treatment, I enjoyed other privileges, such as never having to devote much attention to maintaining a gender normative appearance. Nor did I ever have to fear that the way I dressed might be blamed for my later rape.32

My male gender identity has also meant that where it comes to employment, I have a better chance of securing higher pay and a managerial role. As someone with lighter-colored skin, I also enjoy skin privilege.33

Identifying as cisgender means I have never been subjected to the kinds of everyday and major discrimination and prejudice that many trans individuals have faced,34 sometimes even from within the LGBTQI+ community.

For instance, I can successfully “pass” as my chosen gender and can use public facilities without fear of intimidation or attack. The humiliation and hurt of being dead named or having my gender identity questioned have never been a reality for me.

Growing up as a member of the middle class, I enjoyed other privileges such as a stable home, three meals a day, the occasional vacation, and so on. My parents at one point were even able to secure a private education for me and my siblings. 

As an Australian, I never had to endure disadvantages and dangers other people of other nationalities might, such as extreme poverty, civil rights abuses, war, famine, water/food scarcity, natural disasters, genocide, totalitarian dictatorships, energy shortages, a lack of public infrastructure, rampant corruption, deadly pollution, and environmental degradation.

Like other Australians, I have been blessed with a home country renowned for its cultural diversity, fresh air, intact natural environments, low population density, strong public healthcare and welfare systems, low-interest government college loans, a low unemployment rate, and low crime rates.

My nationality has granted me the comfort of knowing there was always a safety net there, waiting to catch me in the event of personal disaster.

The conflicts and contradictions of intersectionality

In short, I experienced disadvantage as a person of color who had a disability and was gay, while also enjoying privileges as a lighter-skinned cisgender male, a member of the middle class, and an Australian.

Understanding that we can have cumulative disadvantages, or simultaneously face privilege and oppression, is what intersectionality is all about.

The contradictoriness that appears during intersectional inquiry reveals the problem with assuming what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. 

Intersectionality invites us to ask and to listen, to adopt a position of humility.

From such a position, we all stand a better chance of truly understanding and empathizing with one another’s experiences.

Such an understanding is crucial to our struggle as human beings for collective empowerment.

You can read more social work-related posts here.