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.

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.