My best career advice

Because there are comparatively few macro practitioners in social work education, and because I make it part of my job to mentor students with an orientation towards community organizing, advocacy, and organizational practice, I am often asked for career advice for students headed in that direction.

I’m quick to say that there really are jobs out there for social workers who don’t want to do clinical work, and that they can really make a living at social change, and that their skills (of policy analysis, and administration, and systems change) will transfer to this work.

Helping students sustain their dreams of a macro social work career is part of my mission, and, in today’s economy, it can be harder to keep that faith alive.

But when a student asks for help making a decision about what job to accept, or how to begin a career in a way that is likely to lead to a rewarding role in organizing or advocacy practice, I really have one main piece of advice, which has, to my knowledge, not yet failed them:

Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.

Some students are reluctant to take a job with a dynamic organization working in their field of interest because it involves too much case management, or too much fundraising, or too little advocacy. Or, conversely, they are drawn to an organization with a poor reputation because the idea of being “Director of Public Policy” is just so appealing.

The reality, confirmed by my own first twelve years of macro social work practice and by the origins of the careers I’ve watched in my students, is that, while there are certainly positions that are poor fits for given social workers, a less-than-perfect job description at an organization you can really believe in is always preferable to the reverse.

Part of this stems from my belief that there are multiple ways to integrate macro practice into one’s social work career, if the organizational support for a radical orientation is there: case managers can get their clients involved in advocacy to address root causes, fundraisers can go after money to support community initiatives, and administrators can weave advocacy into the organizational culture.

Part of it, too, is connected to my own experience working at an organization in a position that, initially, was anything but ideal: me, the person who still can’t read a balance sheet (and, okay, honestly, doesn’t even balance her checkbook), was supposed to create a financial literacy program from scratch? But I believed in the organization’s work, and in the vision of the leadership, and I was allowed, in pretty short order, to create the job I wanted and, in the process, to transform our advocacy work with clients.

I wish I could tell this year’s graduating class that the perfect job description at the perfect organization working in the perfect “niche” is waiting for you (oh, and it comes with full benefits and a company car!).

But your job search to date has belied that.

So, instead, when you’re weighing a job description that sounds kind of “eh” at an organization you keep hearing great things about versus one that sounds textbook (that could be because it is!) at a mediocre agency, choose the former. Be as honest as you can with your supervisor about where you see your career headed, and look for opportunities within the organization to chart that course. Learn valuable skills while you’re there, and make connections with people who have great reputations, and take advantage of the opportunities that come with association with a stellar entity.

That’s my best career advice. What’s yours?

106 responses to “My best career advice

  1. Pingback: Weekly Social Work Links 14 | Fighting Monsters

  2. This is excellent advice, Melinda! It is easy to get caught up in looking for a particular type of job. We sometimes forget to think about organizational culture, and whether there might be the possibility of creating our own niche within an excellent organization.

    As a lifelong idealist, I’ve been slow to accept the idea that there is no perfect job. I guess I would offer that bit of advice. On the other hand, I’d immediately follow it up with a conversation about how we define perfection, and whether what looks perfect in my mind or yours might be really unattractive to someone else. So, maybe there IS a perfect job!

    My next piece of advice would be for job seekers to decide what aspects of a job matter most to them, then focus on finding organizations that can offer those or that offer enough flexibility that they can make it their own in important ways. I’ve been lucky enough to be a first hire in several different jobs. I was able to work with my supervisors to determine the scopes of my duties and responsibilities, and I had a lot of freedom to use my creativity, knowledge, and experience to expand them. I hope to find a social work position with as much latitude.

    • Great insights, Susie! I think that figuring out the elements that matter to you most is super important; if you can hone in on that, you can likely find a fit that is ‘perfect enough’! Awesome that you have had those first hire experiences. Those should give you a lot of the self-knowledge you need. I can’t wait to see where your career takes you!

      Melinda Lewis melindaklewis@gmail.com 816.806.6094

  3. Dawn Clendenen-Moon

    I really appreciate your advice, Melinda (and yours too, Susie!) and will take it to heart. As someone who will be looking to re-enter the social work field soon, I think a lot about the type of job I would like to pursue and the kind of organization I would like to be a part of one day. It makes a lot of sense to choose an organization you believe in over a job description, keeping in mind the learning opportunities and potential for growth that may be available.

    My career advice would be to choose an organization that values and respects not only the clients they serve, but also you, as an employee. I’ve worked for an agency where it was an unwritten expectation that in order to advance, you had to sacrifice your weekends and evenings without being compensated or even appreciated. At first it didn’t bother me as I was so invested in what we were doing, but that expectation ended up stifling morale and leading to severe burn out. In the future, I will definitely be seeking a more supportive environment and culture.

    Another piece of advice that I can’t claim as my own but it has always stuck with me, came from the CEO of the first social work agency I worked for. When he would announce at meetings that someone was leaving the organization, he would always say “Sometimes you gotta go to grow.” It’s simple and catchy but I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. I’ve reflected on it often, especially when making a tough decision about leaving a job I liked for what seemed like a better opportunity.

    • I love that saying–and, even more, the fact that that approach to individual development alongside organizational growth was modeled for you (instead of a leader who posits that individual growth is always at odds with what the organization needs, and vice versa!). Yes, part of organizational culture is absolutely how agency leaders view individual employees, as either indispensable, but not infinitely renewable, resources…or as disposable cogs. I have a post about organizations where the culture values self-sacrifice and busy-ness so much that it becomes part of how they expect people to ask. I think it’s called something about running around like chickens with their heads cut off! I can’t wait to see where your MSW career takes you, Dawn!

      On Sun, Mar 23, 2014 at 4:11 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  4. I like what you said, Dawn, about “you gotta go to grow”. Sometimes it is difficult to change in an environment you have been in for awhile and perhaps settled into a role and uncomfortable with change or expansion. Melinda, while your advice seems simple, I think it is of the utmost importance. I tend to view things in a micro lens, so looking at a job description and examining every detail has been my method in the past, I will always keep your encouragement of a macro approach in mind, because you really do want to work at a place you believe in, not just necessarily a job you believe in. Susie, I agree with your assessment that flexibility is key and that if you get in the right place, you can potentially incorporate your desires with what you want for the job with the duties that already exist. It makes sense to keep that in mind when going in to a position for the first time and getting a feel for how open the supervisor or agency is to growth or flexibility. Back to Dawn, I would also agree with keeping a note of caution in that- sometimes the agency or supervisor absolutely allows you to do extra work that you believe in or think would benefit the agency or its clientele, but it really is at the expense of the employee and could potentially be an advantageous situation if you are constantly going above and beyond your job duties with no further increase in appreciation, recognition, or compensation and potentially leading to burnout.
    I suppose the career advice I would have to offer is that there is absolute value in ruling out something you don’t want to do so that it can narrow the field for your future intentions. Sometimes it is good to figure out what you DON’T want to do. I had a brief fling with exploring occupational therapy with the intention of specializing in mental health, and left my case management position at a community mental health center to go work on the acute hospital side of a children’s residential psychiatric facility, took a pre-rec anatomy and physiology class and explored my career options along that path. I’m so happy I did, because I learned without a doubt that that was not for me. After returning to same position at the same agency, I never regretted taking the time to find out what was not a a good fit because it solidified for me that I was on the right path. Sometimes exploring other options teaches you that you were in the right place all along, and takes away that “what if” feeling of imagining alternative scenarios.

    • Good point, Sarah, about the importance of ruling out what you don’t want to do…I would say that that doesn’t have to just mean populations/issue areas, but also skills and approaches, particularly when it comes to figuring out where you best fall on the micro/macro continuum, as well as organizational styles/cultures that don’t work well with your approach to practice–or life. I am glad that you feel that you may be honing in on some areas that could be good fits for you, by narrowing down some that are not!

      On Sun, Mar 23, 2014 at 7:54 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  5. I appreciate all of your comments on this. In thinking often recently about where I want to end up after graduation next spring, it is so helpful to think about evaluating a workplace by culture instead of job description! I couldn’t agree more that an organizations culture will totally shape our experience there.

    I am also struck by how much the leadership of the organization will in turn shape the organizations culture. Our readings talked about how leadership influences the formation of culture and how it does or does not support clinical practice- and my question is- how does one go about discerning this and figuring this out BEFORE accepting employment at an organization? I mean, to be a little sarcastic, you can’t really ask in a job interview, ” So is your boss crazy?” Nor can I ask to interview the head of the non-profit/business in the hiring process. But after living through the crazy boss thing, or working for organizations that are dysfunctional, that’s really what I want to say and do! So I know better questions are “how does the organization support your clinical practice?” ” How does your organization invest in promoting a healthy work/life balance for staff?” “How does your organizational leadership keep staff morale high and renew motivation for the agency’s mission/goals/purpose?” My take-away from this is that we should feel empowered to interview the prospective organization as much as they are interviewing us, and as Melinda said, to find a place that has a life-giving organizational culture that we want to be a part of. Totally hopeful and do-able. Thanks!

    • I think those questions are good ones, Megan, and you might also ask for some examples, so that you can try to get past the platitudes. Like, can you give me an example of when you faced an ethical dilemma in your work here and how the organization supported you in resolving it? You might also ask, how would you describe the culture of your organization to someone coming in new to the organization? Ultimately, too, you’re going to need to use your own instincts, including your clinical skills, to get a ‘feel’ for the organization–very subjective, I know, but, I think, perhaps especially in social work organizations, still very valid.

      On Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 10:06 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  6. Matthew Kelley

    The advice in this post is very enlightening. I believe that I have followed this advice before. When the agency I was working for cut my department, I found myself applying for a lot of places. I definitely steered clear of some places from experiences that I had worked with them in my previous job. I found my current job on craigslist of all places. This was the only advertising that I saw on this job. I usually am skeptical of employers that post on craigslist, but I decided to look at it in a more positive light. I thought that if a company only had to use craigslist to advertise, that maybe this was a company that did not struggle to fill positions. After my interview, I found out that I was correct. I decided to take the job because I liked where the company was heading and loved the drive of the management department. At first, I looked at the pay and the job description and was pretty turned off but I decided to take a leap and love the company that I work for now. I still don’t like the pay or the case management aspect at times but I believe in the company. This was the first company that I had worked for that actually cared about their employees. They showed this in basic acts of kindness. I believe that the experience of the job is more important at this point of my life. The experience I am gaining at my job will help me so much in the future. I completely agree with everyone’s advice in this post. The only advice I would give is that you don’t necessarily have to work for a large company in order to make a difference in the field. Try to look at how the company cares about their employees. This is a good way to assess how the company serves their clients as well.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing that example! I love how candid you are about your initial reaction…and how much you were able to (happily) discover when you set aside that initial skepticism. I appreciate your sharing about your organization, and I definitely think that your point about looking at how organizations treat employees and clients, to get a sense of what (and who) they really value is so important. I am eager to keep learning about this great agency!

  8. Melinda this was a great article. I am a returning master’s level student but have been in social work for 12 years and have worked in many aspects of the social work field. At first, when just getting out of school it was just about finding that first job. Then as time passed, the outlook changed to what jobs are out there that I am truly interested in. Over the years, as social workers it seems we find a passion. The passion for a population such as the elderly has a sub population with dementia and then dementia with hospice, and all can be found in one community. I found working in long term care communities the sub culture of hospice as my passion. The sole purpose in returning for a masters in social work is to seek the administrative position of owning and operating my own hospice house. It has been a great opportunity to take on different cultures and communities to learn where my true love has evolved. It would be difficult to give advice on any type of social work until a variety has been experience has been achieved. I would find, I would be partial to my passion but not as passionate to past professions but welcome and appreciated all the knowledge gained in every position.

  9. I really love this advice and can really relate to it in my personal experiences thus far. I have never chosen a job, because of the money or a prestigious title. I currently supervise a before and after school program for the YMCA. Which is a non-profit organization with a great mission, but not very high pay. Even though I work in the office when I am not on site working on administration of the program, I am seen as little more than a babysitter. My husband has often told me in the past that with a college degree I could get a better paying job. I then have to explain to him, that I don’t really do it for the money. While yes, I love payday (like most people), I also love seeing my kids every day and providing a safe environment for them to play and learn. My boss once said at a staff meeting that we get paid in “warm fuzzies”. Which is the truth!
    As someone new to the social work field I am not sure I will know what a great fit and what organizations are the best, right away. With experience though I think I will find the right job for me.
    I do not think I can give any more career advice than what has already been given.

  10. Tracie Haselhorst

    I love this article that you wrote and the advice that you provided about finding work that you love. I think that often times people look at the job and the income level of the position rather than focusing on what is really important for them and their future career. I also believe that it is important to make connections within your current agency as there is always someone who knows someone that might be beneficial for your career. I was told by my last supervisor how important it is to build positive networks within the agency for a future path. He had told me that our director at the agency knows a lot of people and as long as I had continued to do well within the agency and are dedicated to my work he would be a reference for a future career.

    I have always heard throughout the agency that there are more opportunities for work if you receive a clinical degree vs a swaap degree. Throughout the years at the agency, I was always given the advice of not proceeding with receiving a degree in the SWAAP concentration. There are only two employees at my location that had recieved their SWAAP degree vs clinical degree.
    I have enjoyed learning about macro practice this semester and the need for more social workers that practice in this area. I was not aware of how beneficial community organization can be for our communities and our clients.

    My first advice would be to figure out what is important to you and look at where you want to be in the future. I would make sure that the agency that you choose is family oriented and flexible. I think that it is important for the agency to understand that it is important for employees to be able to spend time with their families when necessary without criticism. I would also think that it would be important that the agency is wanting to do what is best for the community and what is best for their clients.

    • That makes me sad and, honestly, somewhat angry, Tracie–I would never advise a student not to get a clinical degree, unless and until he/she articulated a really clear preference for a macro career path. To know that colleagues are doing the reverse is frustrating to me, because we can’t build the profession we need without encouraging all social workers to find the path to their best fit. I would be happy to help you in that navigation, at any point throughout your career, and I’m glad that this class has aided in that journey!

      On Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 9:22 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  11. This is such great advice, Melinda! I feel that regardless of which level of social work you are wanting to work at, when searching for a job you have to go for something you are compassionate about. It could be a certain population or a particular organization. I know personally, I was so eager to work right after undergrad that I went with an organization (that I had worked for before, in a different position) and I wasn’t excited about it. I was vulnerable. I was carrying a caseload of 125 patients and over worked. I wasn’t allowed time for self care which eventually took a tool on not only myself but my family as well. However, I was very compassionate for the population I was working with as well as the families. Just not the organization. Although, social workers have such luxery in the sense of options to work as a social worker! With that being said, any social worker should be able to find an organization of which they are excited about working with!

  12. **CORRECTION** Melinda, I just wanted to clarify. I was serving as 2 social workers for two different units at a health care facility when I was carrying a 125 paitent caseload. I was doing this for 3 months.

  13. Out of my years of working, I have found that this is so true. You have to believe in what the company does to make the job you want. If it is not something that you believe in than it feels like you get stuck in the mud and no where to go. I know the job that I am at today was suppose to be a great company to work for. However, just recently there has been some major changes in the company’s management. We had a person that had been there for 30 years leave and now there are like 8 vice-presidents to do what she did, really? It is not that big of a company. Lately people have been getting written up over some minor things and it seems like the open door policy is not there anymore. Wow, what a difference this has made. I took this job because it was perfect for what I wanted to learn to help me when I graduate from the MSW program, now I am almost regretting taking the position.
    But I agree Melinda, it has to be the company and not the position at first. I know that you have to believe in your company to make the position you want there. Great advice!!!

    • I can’t wait to see where you end up, Lisa, and where you find the best ‘fit’. I am struck by your commitment to serving military families, and thinking about the very different kinds of organizations where you might be able to do that…from very grassroots to within the military institutions themselves. Where do you think you’ll feel most fulfilled?

      On Sat, Apr 26, 2014 at 10:39 AM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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      • Lisa Garland

        I am looking into the clinical side helping those soldiers with PTSD and substance abuse. I feel that with the many years that my father served in the Army my heart is there. I am a true believer in paying it forward and giving back to the ones that serve this country. I am not saying that I would not take another job because as you stated here it is the company that I believe in not just the job.

  14. Emily Bell-Sepulveda

    I appreciate reading about everyone’s professional experiences and their career advice. As someone completely new to social work and pretty apprehensive about the decisions involved in shaping my career before graduation, I thrive on the experiences of you all. Reading about your experiences in the social work field, mirrors my own experiences in organizational cultures. There are good and bad, and sometimes what might be a really good fit at first evolves into a poor one.
    My professional experiences thus far have left me somewhat cynical about organizational culture. I have a couple of friends who have terrible track-records in keeping a job–and these are college educated folks–who just cannot tolerate any kind of turbulence in their work environment. Sometimes you just have to power through a bad experience until you can find a better environment, and sometimes you can find ways to change the culture.
    Being flexible is vital, as is having a vision for your long-term goals.
    However, learning to know when to “cut bait,” I suppose is the best advice I could give. I still haven’t figured it out. As an individualistic personality, it is hard for me to find positive work environments to grow within, but I can usually find a way to learn and grow despite non-ideal conditions. It is only when the culture is stifling or counter-productive, top-heavy or toxic that it is easy to see that it isn’t a good place to be.

    • You have some really important insights here, Emily. I appreciate your point about how ‘fit’ isn’t a permanent thing–we change and so do organizations, so that ‘fit’ evolves, and we have to be attuned enough to know when it’s no longer working. And, yes, sometimes we absolutely can and should stick through a less than great fit because there’s something else really valuable to be gleaned–important work that makes the rest tolerable, critical lessons, the satisfaction of sticking with something…and then, as you so correctly point out, sometimes the hardest part is knowing when it needs to be over, and having the courage of conviction to walk away. I can’t wait to see where you end up. Any organization will be lucky to have you!

      On Sat, Apr 26, 2014 at 5:34 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  15. Great advice Melinda! I am glad to say that I have a great job with Johnson County Mental Health working with children and their families. It could be a dream job for me since I love working with children and helping them learn how to accept reality in society’s expectations. This job has great benefits and fairly good pay but the down side is that you work long hours and have to manage a heavy case load. There are always good and bad sides to everything so It is about finding that balance that makes your job worth your time and efforts. Sometimes I can work hard and get absolutely no positive results and then the next week, everything works out perfectly. I have to step back some days and take a breather or I begin feeling overwhelmed. This agency has many opportunities for advancement or even job creation since we are always looking for ways to make things better for our community of client’s The only advice I can truly give is to be flexible as this field is constantly changing by improving services and finding new ways to make a positive difference in the lives of our clients. New information helps us to look for solutions in new and interesting ways. Keep an open mind when working with people since I truly believe that the human spirit is the most fascinating and remarkable entity that is usually underestimated in its power to create healing!

    • What a terrific perspective, Mary! Yes, I think that your advice to be flexible is important; to me, that says that we have to be more tied to the value of working collaboratively with clients to improve their lives than we are to any particular service methodology or any job title…because there may be ways of helping that we haven’t even imagined yet, and we could be part of that revolution! I appreciate your advice to keep a long perspective, too. I can’t think of any job where every day is a good one, but finding something that is rewarding and affirming on balance is a great place to be!

      On Sun, Apr 27, 2014 at 8:54 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  16. When I graduated with my BSW I was searching for my “dream job” but nothing came to be. Instead I was working part-time at an organization in which, I did believe in its mission and goal. It happened that I was offered a position within the organization that allowed flexibility to continue my education. I don’t make what I would like to, but the job has it perks to make up for the income and I am happy with that. Also, I have discovered some opportunities to practice what I have learned in the classroom and this could possibly show my employer my dedication to the cause and possible create my own position one day, similar to your situation, this is a win-win situation for everyone. I am excited for my future career and I am gaining valuable experience on the job. So even though I was not so excited for my job, it has turned out to be a hugh blessing in my life.

  17. Stephanie McGuire

    Melinda I think this is great advice. I am always looking at job postings so I can get an idea of where I might want to apply once I graduate or what kind of agency I would like to work at. I have been asking questions to social workers that work at my practicum agency about their experiences working in a hospital setting since that is the direction I am leaning towards. I see myself working as a clinician and am definitely micro-focused. I think the best thing for me will be not to take the first job I am offered unless it has most of the qualities I am looking for but instead taking my time and researching companies that I share a vision for what the agency mission is. At this point I am not leaning towards one agency or another so I am always listening to my peers who are already working in social service agencies to see what their experiences were like. It is also important for me to look at what benefits my employer will offer such as insurance and supervision hours as this would be a huge expense if I were to pay out of pocket.

    • Have you had any informational interviews, Stephanie, where you visit with people within different organizations, to get a sense of their cultures and how workers within those organizations experience their setting? If not, I would encourage you to do that, before you’re at the point of really looking for a job. It sounds like you have the right mental approach to this important time of exploration and reflection!

  18. I have really enjoyed reading on everyone’s experiences and advice. I am feeling the burnout right now for community mental health. I am very passionate about the families that I work with, but I don’t feel like the agency is doing their part to support the staff on hand. I took this job on because of how passionate I am about working with children and families and I have seen a lot of success in my time at the agency. The best advice I could give would be to find an agency that you share the same passion with and that will take care of their employees. Whether we are in direct service or in more macro social work, there will be lots of stress involved. Employees need to be cared for so that they can continue to do the kinds of work that is so beneficial to the populations we serve. The client deserve the very best that we can give, and if we are not at our best it will effect our quality of work with them.

    • How do you think you’re going to handle this, then, Sasha? Do you think that there are avenues within your current organization for you to share your concerns and get some redress, or do you think that you’ll have to move on in order to find the organizational context that will support your passions and your personal needs? Have you talked with your coworkers to assess how they are experiencing the organization and where you might find common cause? What do you think will be your next step?

  19. Kendra Swartz

    Melinda, I’m with the crowd here that this is great advice. I’m still a student as well, and interested more in the micro-practice side of things, but every time I step back and look at the big picture, all I can think is “Great, I want to do micro practice. That’s fantastic. But I think there’s all these things wrong with the way things are done, and maybe if we tried something different…” and the more I get into this line of thought, the more I get into advocacy and policy changes and organizational culture and structure and all of these macro-level things, as well as the ones that come more naturally to me like, how much would I really be helping a client if I’m not able to start creating change in the community they come from? I’ve got a psychology background, and while I think a lot of the paradigm they come from is too narrow, some of the questions that were asked there got pounded into my head (the big one being nature vs. nurture, of course). And if you admit that the environment can have this huge effect on peoples’ lives, then you have to admit that changing the environment will also have a huge change effect. And that’s macro practice (from my micro point of view).

  20. Ms. Lewis,
    The idea of choosing to work with a dynamic organization under an official title that may not be first on the list was something that resonated with me. I have been fairly lucky up till this point with securing work that was available through agencies that were founded in strong ethical practice, and they allowed me to adjust my functional title and job duties to things I learned to enjoy.
    Being a student without experience, it is often tempting to bite at the job hook with the nice hourly rate or better yet… a salary and benefits (if one’s lucky). However, I agree that associating oneself with an organization that offers quality services to others as well as new opportunities to grow is far desirable to the fancy job description that may pay well but may leave one empty.
    Also, after reading through the majority of the linked articles, I really enjoyed the guest blogger Kavya Velagapudi and the tips given to SWAAP students: https://melindaklewis.com/2009/08/17/guest-post-by-kavya-velagapudi-how-i-landed-an-awesome-macro-practice-job/

  21. Thanks for linking to Kavya’s post, Jacob; I agree that she did a really nice job relating her journey. What organizations in the area are you drawn to? You might reach out to them even before you’re actively looking for a position, to see what opportunities they might have, or even just to check your sense that they appeal to you…those could be informational interviews that help you gain wisdom, in the field, even before you have actual experience. I’d be happy to help you connect to some organizations if there are places where you’re trying to get a foot in the door.

    • I often feel that I am in the same boat as Jacob. I am going directly from my undergraduate to graduate program with only one social work related work experience (current). I got lucky securing my current job through an undergraduate practicum. I often find myself scrolling through the job listings on npconnect.org just to see what type of macro level work is out there. Often I am able to find a couple positions that spark my interest but rarely have I ever taken the next step to explore what the organizations are really like. Typically, they will cover a variety of responsibilities that I think I could be good at and enjoy a lot. However, it is really hard yet to say what type of macro practice seems like the best fit for me because I do not really have anything to base my opinion off of. I am glad to be seeing this advice because I had been focusing on what kind of position I want to prepare myself for in the future instead of what type of organization I want to work for. Hopefully looking deeper into some of these organizations will help me to get a better sense of what my macro “fit” might be.

  22. And I think it’s a really positive sign, Kevin, that you often find opportunities that you think sound at least intriguing. While you certainly may find elements of those that, upon further reflection, aren’t good fits, there’s promise there! I’d be happy to give some more perspectives about practicum and your future, if you ever want to talk through particularly options. I look forward to seeing where your career takes you!

  23. Going into this field I knew exactly which population I wanted to work with, which two areas I wanted to specialize in, and with which agency I wanted to work. (Chosen simply because it is the primary organization that this specific population receives services from) I knew that not all of those things were guaranteed to happen but I had hoped that at least the first two would. While I still want to work with a specific population and focus on two areas of interest, I recently interviewed at the agency I always thought I wanted to work at. When I left the interview, I felt that it went well but I had an uneasy feeling and wasn’t sure that it was a good fit for me. Their values and focus did not seem to match mine at all nor did it seem to match Social Work’s core values! I actually left there thinking, it is no wonder this agency has such a bad reputation in our society! Looking back on it, it was the job description that I wanted and I never took the time to think about the culture of the organization. After that interview, I can see how much more important the organizations culture, values, and mission are than simply the job description. Thank you for the advice!

  24. Kudos to you, Tina, for having the candor to share this experience, the courage to chart a different course than what you had expected, and, especially, the wisdom to discern a less-than-ideal fit. It’s frustrating, I’m sure, to feel like you’re having to rethink at this point, but how much better than if you had spent considerable time invested in that direction already! Now that you scan the landscape around you, what do you see that looks promising? Are there organizations with cultures that you think, upon reflection, would be more in line with your values? With the freedom that comes with discarding long-held plans, what’s newly available to you as a possibility?

  25. Reading your advice was spot-on and it took me back to when my dad gave me career advice right after I graduated from college. He told me that there would be companies that would glamorous and inviting and that they would roll out the red carpet for me, and then there would be other companies that would want me that were not rock stars but they would show me the world. I interviewed for both and found a career with the company that showed me the world – at least half of it. Now that I am changing gears in my career and finding myself entering the field of social work I am finding it difficult to determine my career path. My initial goal was to pursue a clinical tract, but exposure to social policy and macro practice has made me realize that there is so much more for social workers to be doing, and maybe just not enough social workers out there to get the work done! Things are going to be very interesting in the years ahead and whatever direction I choose – clinical or macro- I am really looking forward to the years ahead and what they have to offer.

  26. I love hearing other people’s advice on stuff like this, Chris! It sounds like your dad and I do think alike! I appreciate your openness, and I agree that there will be interesting options for you in a variety of venues–hopefully, in organizations that will find ways to use both your clinical skills and your macro interests, as well. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Tammy McCandless

    As someone that is making a career change in their 40’s I really appreciate hearing choose an organization you are excited about. There is nothing to get excited about in my current job. The idea of working in a field that I believe in actually makes me excited.

    My career advice is to stay true to who you are…don’t lose who you are to the company. If a company wants you to manage against what you believe is right don’t give in to your morals. It is important to set boundaries in relationships and a work relationship is no different. Establish your boundaries and stand beside them and act with integrity. Unhappiness at work results in unhappiness in other aspects of your life.

  28. I know that you have learned these lessons the hard way, often, Tammy, and I think your future company will really value the richness of the experience you bring, particularly because you made some tough decisions to recalibrate your career path. Have you identified any organizations you’re excited about, in the social work arena? What draws you to them? How are you going to articulate what it is you have to offer them?

  29. I don’t know how on-topic this response will be, but this post sparked some questions in my mind. Though I’m going the clinical route, macro social work has become increasingly interesting to me. At first I kind of dreaded that there is an overlap between micro and macro because that means politics (ew), and I didn’t want to get involved in that. But I get, now, that it’s more than just politics, and there’s so much you can do with it. And hey, maybe politics aren’t so bad. I’m excited about the overlap. The questions that came in my mind relate to me being a military spouse. I’ll be moving every few years for probably the next fifteen or so years. Occasionally, I browse through social work positions near the bases where my husband and I could potentially get stationed. Sometimes there’s stuff available, and sometimes there’s not. I often feel that I may end up having to work on base because there are always social work positions open, and, as a spouse, I get hiring preference. So my first question is… if I were to obtain a social work job on a military base, how could I incorporate macro social work into it? I feel like there’s so much red tape working for the federal government. And also, what if I’m not super duper excited about the agency? Aka working on base. What actions could I take in the workplace to try to remedy that?

  30. These are really important questions, Annie, and I think the answer is a bit multifaceted. First, I think it’s important for any social worker to think of his/her career as a sort of continuum, or constellation. You’re not necessarily going to find any one job that offers everything you’re looking for, and you’re not necessarily going to be ready to step right into your dream job when you start off. If you’re taking a long and wide view, knowing that your experiences can add on each other and not expecting all of your satisfaction to come from your one place of employment, you’ll be able to piece together a career arc that’s rewarding. That might mean, sometimes, that you’re volunteering off-base to get exposure to what you can’t get in the government. It might mean, other times, that you’re focusing on clinical service, filing away information about the changes you see a need for, so that you can later be an effective advocacy presence. Sometimes it might mean taking a job where you’ll have a great supervisor, or get to work with a Board, or work on a budget, because those are competencies you want to develop, even if there are other elements of the agency that don’t seem like great fits. I’m confident that you’ll navigate your way to a series of opportunities that, together, position you to make significant contributions to the field–and to those with whom you work.

  31. Thank you Melinda, again! This blog is exactly what I needed. I entered this program knowing exactly what I wanted to do because I knew exactly what I shouldn’t do. However, I started climbing that proverbial fence last semester and here we are, the end of Spring semester in sight and I am now sitting on that fence. I am excited to learn more about macro practice and the communities I want to work with. The advice you gave with regard to choosing an organization is very valuable. I have told my children often that sometimes the job description sounds way better than the job actually is so I suggest they do some research on the organization/company. As for me, I know my passion lies with helping people, especially kids, adolescents and young adults. What I did not know was that I don’t need to be a clinician in order to them. Prior to my class this semester, when I thought of macro social work, I thought of bureaucracy and red-tape and I knew I wanted nothing to do with that. I now know that is not the case. However, I wonder, is it possible to be licensed for both clinical and SWAP without further coursework? If not, is the certification process that KU is considering implementing the only/quickest way to attain accreditation for both? If so, how beneficial do you think taking that avenue would be? Decisions! Decisions!

    • We absolutely need more macro social workers interested in cutting through the red tape! I am excited about the contributions you can bring to that arena. There is no SWAAP licensure; you would be getting a LMSW and then practicing in a macro context. If you want a clinical licensure, you would do the clinical concentration and sit for the LSCSW…which would then make it harder to get the competency needed to be effective in those macro skills. I wish there was a better ‘best of both worlds’, but there really isn’t, for now. I’d love to keep talking about how you navigate your way to your ideal career, though!

  32. Melinda I truly appreciate your passion and dedication to this profession, you are an inspiration, I like how you phrase it “I believed in the organization’s work, and in the vision of the leadership, and I was allowed, in pretty short order, to create the job I wanted and, in the process, to transform our advocacy work with clients”
    My advice to my self is to follow my passion, at my current job I provide direct practice but I think of all the things I’m learning in this macro practice class and I’m fired up about implementing it to my work. Community organizing practices, and advocacy not just for my direct clients but also for issues that affect the community as a whole. I’m creating something that has not been done and if I can implement a community intervention and be successful, this opens the doors to other opportunities. We definitely need more social workers that want to be part of social changes. Social workers are part of the social change, Imagine what would our place be without the wonderful work of people who decided to take the macro approach!

    • Your current job is a great example, Gloria, of how the organization’s culture and the approach of the leadership matter more than the official job description…like how you are given opportunities to explore community practice and policy solutions, even though those activities aren’t part of your technical job description. When both agency and worker can find good fits, there is do much possibility!

      Melinda Lewis melindaklewis@gmail.com 816.806.6094

  33. I enjoyed reading your advice. I agree with choosing an organization that I will enjoy versus a good job description. When I go into the social work field I plan on finding a job that I can see myself at for a long time. Although, if it is my first job, I will most likely be more flexible and like you said take what you can from the agency and be as honest with the supervisor about your career path. When I graduate with my Masters and have no prior experience in social work I will need to remind myself not to be too picky. It is going to be difficult to find a job right out of college without experience, but I am hopeful. New social workers have to start somewhere right? Probably not where they hope to be in the future.

  34. Think about your career as a sort of scaffold, Kaitlyn–what do you need, from each step, to construct a career–not in a strictly vertical climb, but in the sense of building a strong foundation on which to stand as a practitioner? And how can you gain that experience as you move throughout the profession, while surrounding yourself with leaders who will inspire you to keep going?

  35. Melinda, I really appreciate this blog and your advice. I have quite a few friends that have MSW’s and are very successful. They all do clinical social work and are happy with their careers. When I was decided to get my MSW, all of them discouraged me from going the SWAAP route. They each had different reasons: licensure, hard to find jobs, low paying jobs, fundraising etc. Although, I made up my mind and knew what I was interested in, their advice still worries me. It’s good to hear that good jobs and experiences are available in policy and advocacy.

  36. Absolutely there are good jobs in macro practice! What matters is where you feel your fit and passion are; you can navigate your way to a successful, fulfilling niche in either aspect of the profession. I look forward to seeing where you land!

  37. Sheria Howard

    I am very excited! I believe policy is my niche:)

  38. Melinda,

    I agree with you! It is very important to find a job that you are passionate about. When I looked for a job 7 years ago I was desperate and took the job where I am now. But, when I looked for a job there were 2 things that interested me: 1. children (which I knew about) and mental health. These made a impact on me life. I like to say that I have been through 7 years of intensive Therapy! Now, I’m ready to give back to those children who had become my heroes with the challenges that they shared with me. When you are excited about a certain field of study or a certain group of people or whatever you are able to make an impact and they will change your life forever. When looking for a job ask yourself: What do I hope to change and where can I make a difference? I’m a Christian and I’d, also, suggest what friends of mine have suggested – Pray about it!

  39. I’m so glad you found a good fit, Chris! Your passion for your work is obvious. Do you think that you’ve found an organizational culture that aligns well with your orientation to work in general and to social work practice in particular? We can love the work but not the context, sometimes; I wonder where you stand on that?

  40. Olivia Johnson

    This is great advice and I am realizing how important an organizational fit can be in finding a job. This topic is popping into the back of my mind more and more frequently as I need the end of my educational process. While I have had no professional social work experience, I have had three different practicum placements during my education. Two out of the three placements lack the organizational support needed to create a healthy organizational culture. They both lacked the the passion and appropriate supervision to create the enthusiasm I want for my personal practice.

    My current placement has a much better organizational culture which is client centered and helps its employees replenish their professional energies by being supportive and encouraging. The pace of this agency is much more exuberant and helps me to feel that I am truly making a difference in my clients lives rather than meeting a quota or gather my practice hours.

    These separate experiences have made me realize how an organization can shape personal practice in a negative or positive manner. I fear that I will choose the wrong organization to join and that it will hinder my social work practice. This advice you have given helps to ease these concerns by knowing what to look for in an organization. I cannot wait to graduate and find an agency that shares my passion so that I can truly make a difference for my clients.

  41. One of the resources available on Blackboard, Olivia, is a list of questions you can ask to better ascertain the culture of the organization, as you’re considering it for possible employment. I would encourage you to check it out, and I’d even be happy to roleplay asking questions related to organizational ‘fit’ and dynamic in an interview, if that would be helpful. It’s so critical to find a place that suits your ‘style’, regardless of the issue addressed, the particular job role, or the daily tasks.

    • Olivia Johnson

      Thanks!! I saw the resource sheet on black board and I am definitely going to hang on to it! I definitely will keep your offer open as I look for jobs next year!!

  42. Jenny D'Achiardi

    This blog really speaks to me because I almost missed out on a great professional growth opportunity at my current position for the very reasons that you mention above, Melinda. The pay wasn’t that great, it wasn’t a role with much room for growth and the title wasn’t one that commanded a lot of respect. In a nutshell – it was a far cry from the dream job I had envisioned for myself. Nonetheless, I accepted the offer because I had done my research and found out that the organization had a great reputation for taking care of its people and also taking care of its customers. My priority was that I work for an organization that cared and beyond that – I could adapt. What I later realized was that this shared foundation of basic values is fertile ground from which to grow professionally and those unattractive elements of the job eventually diminish in importance when you have an organization that lifts you up. I am pursuing my MSW because my current position helped lead me here and I believe that sometimes career success is simply a question of attitude and perspective. I have learned so much at my work that will help me in my role as a social worker even though I initially underestimated that outcome. I stayed positive and tried to get everything out of the experience I could by taking advantage of things like employee educational assistance and being flexible through times of organizational transition. I think the best job advice I can give is twofold. First, do your research because you can’t learn about an organization’s culture through an interview alone. People will say a lot of things but what really matters are their actions. If your values are in harmony with the organization’s then everyone benefits – you, the client and the organization. Secondly, keep an open mind because you never know what you will learn or who you will meet at a job that may not be perfect. All information is important and learning what you do not like or will not tolerate is just as crucial in your professional development as building skills.

  43. Great post, Jenny! I’m so glad that you found a place that helps you thrive, and I love the advice you share. YES, we all owe it to ourselves to look for evidence that suggests what the culture is REALLY like, instead of just taking that at face value. It’s too important, and it’s too hard to discern from just what someone tells you in a brief encounter. Thanks for sharing this.

  44. The ideas in this post prove true time and time again. So often, I hear people tell me how they dislike what they are doing, but enjoy the power or money the position holds at a company that they do not have interest in. Or, on the opposite side, I hear people talk about what wonderful agencies they work in but wish they could hold more power or get paid more. This is the point in which someone would need to decide whether they would like to work at a company with similar interests and missions as them, or if the money or title is more important. For some, the latter holds the most benefit, while providing negative attitudes at work. But for most, it seems that a workplace with common values and missions with an opportunity for promotion or change is a valuable asset to a positive start to the social work field.
    From my experiences, I have found that working somewhere that interests you, but having different missions, values, and cultures than you (the social worker), can cause conflict between the social worker and administration. It is interesting how much the culture of the organization plays a role in the overall happiness of the staff working there. A happy, positive administration and an organization with similar interests and values is essential to generating happy employees.

  45. Yes, how often does a really ‘interesting’ job turn out to be a disaster, because the greatest job description in the world can’t compensate for a toxic environment? I have been thinking about the trade-off you pose in terms of power v. passion, and I wonder if it really breaks down that way or, at least, if it has to. I mean, I can see accruing more power in a place you’re passionate about and whose ideals align with yours, you know? How can social workers forge the ‘best of both worlds’ in this respect?

  46. Brittany Sheets

    Although I am not going the macro route in my education, I believe that this advice is just as applicable and helpful in my situation. As the saying goes, “money talks”. And, so does power for that matter. Sadly, as mentioned in the post, it is difficult to achieve a high pay and power level while also achieving a sense of pride in your organization and strong cultural backing. My experience in working in professional social work positions is nonexistent, so I am not able to speak on my experiences. However, even with my current practicum I have seen the effects of a negative and unsupportive culture on the agency staff. I have seen first hand what it looks like to work at an agency that does not support its employees and respect their needs. I agree with you that the job title is not of importance, but instead the way you feel about the organizational goals is. I, personally, would much rather go to work everyday feeling as if I am making a difference, than come home at the end of the week with a bigger paycheck. I believe that the difficult part is finding the organization that serves as a “perfect match” for you. It is vital that you try to find out as much information about an agency prior to, and during, the interview process to be better ensure the agency will be a good fit.

    • So what do you think will help you to ascertain what you need to know about the organizational culture before you accept a position? What elements are most important to you, and what questions might you ask in order to discover them? What have you learned in this placement that gives you ideas about what you’ll want to look for?

  47. Jessica Facklam

    You make an excellent point here. When we are looking for jobs we sometimes just look at what it is that we are going to be doing every day as opposed to what larger things we will be a part of. I know from experience that many agencies hire from within first, and if you can just get your foot in the door somewhere, you may have a great opportunity for growth in that company. As social workers, I think we are really lucky because there are so many different things we can do and so many different types of jobs to choose from. One of my biggest struggles is going to be choosing what type of work I want to do. Keeping in mind that the important thing is to focus on the mission of the agency, will help me in finding my niche! Thank you for the advice, Melinda!

  48. It’s what I have found, Jessica–the details of a particular work assignment matter, but what matters most is how I feel about being part of an organization, and being in collaboration with this group of people. What kind of organizational culture do you think would best align with your orientation to social work practice? Have you encountered organizations you think you could be excited about working with, in any role? Conversely, what ‘warning signs’ do you look for, to know if an organization isn’t for you, regardless of how good the job description sounds?

  49. Kristina Knight

    I really agree with your advice, and I appreciate that you pointed out that you can “mold” the job description to fit what you want after a while. While I fully want to engage in clinical practice, I can still relate to this advice to only accept jobs that I’m excited and passionate about. My motto about work has always been “The day I’m not excited to show up for work is the day my work here is done.” It’s important, in both clinical and organizational practice, that social workers enjoy their work. This advice is directly related to the burnout rate for social workers in my opinion. A fancy job title and description is nothing compared to a genuine connection to a non-fancy position in a field that is interesting for the social worker. It’s especially difficult for social workers who are new to the field because they (okay, this might just be me) have this vision of having a big, decorated office that clients show up to, receive expert counseling advice, and are “cured” within a short time. I know it will take me a long time to reach this dream of mine, but I will definitely take your advice to heart to choose positions that I’m passionate about on the way to achieving this dream.

  50. I’ll admit, Kristina, that there have been a lot of days when I’m not excited to show up to work (at every job I’ve had), but still an abiding sense–at the jobs that ‘worked’–that my presence is making a difference. So, for me, it’s less about enjoying the work, even, than about feeling that I’m in a place where I have a real chance to make the world better, as Pollyanna as that might sound. Just a reminder, I guess, that there may be days that are less than fulfilling, but, at least for me, it’s the aggregate effect that I’m going for.

  51. Natalie Reeves

    This is something I’m really worried about! I had one awful experience working in this field. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s been a little over a year and I am still getting over it! Taking a job is like starting a relationship! Not only is my happiness and career goals on the line but my ability to support my family and spend time with my family too! Im dreading job searching because I really invested myself in that last job! I believed in that organization and it did not pan out well for me! I know the jobs are there. I guess I don’t trust myself to make good decisions after the last time. But in your class I have picked up on a few skills that I think will help me make a better decision and this blog post will too!

  52. In hindsight, Natalie, what are the clues that should have tipped you off re: this organization? What lessons can you learn from that experience? You’re so right–work is such a significant part of our lives, and it does shape so many aspects of our well-being, which is why getting it right is so important. And, yes, you can absolutely suffer a traumatic reaction from a bad employment fit. I hope you got some help to process what this experience was like for you.

  53. Julie Thompson

    Solid advice, which already served me well during an interview this Spring! As I recall, after getting a B.S. in Psychology, I was more concerned with finding a job in general than I was with finding an ideal organizational culture. In fact, I’m fairly certain that organizational culture wasn’t even on my radar until I was knee-deep in an agency culture that openly valued self-sacrifice, to include unreal amounts of unpaid comp time and “days off” that weren’t really days off. There were many lessons learned from my time in this culture, many of which motivated me to go back to school and position myself to be a bigger part of the changes I really wanted to see. Fortunately, I was able to make connections with persons of influence and good reputation, develop skills that would serve me in my future career, as well as learn about my needs and limits as an employee and a human being. I am looking forward to taking those lessons with me as I enter my practicum with Operation Breakthrough this fall. I really enjoyed getting to hear about all of the wonderful wrap-around services offered at OB, and I especially loved the culture of the organization which I was able to observe both during the interview and throughout the tour. I spoke with several staff throughout the building, and it was clear that each and every one was thankful to be a part of OB. My field instructor and the team of advocates I will be working with were very open about their experiences and expressed a lot of pride for their mission and the work they do. It made me very excited to dive in and work alongside the OB team.

  54. I will be so interested to hear how you experience the culture at OB. I know that staff there are similarly very committed to their clients–the organization started, after all, with people who took children into their own home–so I wonder how they live this commitment without asking staff to compromise their own well-being. What practices and values can you glean from that experience that will serve you in future practice contexts? I wonder, too, how the changes in practice and policy that you mentioned in your former employment are, perhaps, affecting these issues of staff burnout and workloads, too. Do you have a read on whether those have improved?

  55. Brittaney Miller

    I liked your advice, Melinda. I have always wanted to work with children and when I was placed at my first practicum I was thrilled. Unfortunately the dynamics of the agency itself were terrible. I ended up hating it and I thought I had to rethink my whole career path. After this year I had no idea where I wanted to go. While choosing my next practicum, I paid more attention to the agency itself and even reached out to an individual who worked there. I loved what they did (even though it was adults only). That surprised me but I am looking forward to being part of the work they do there. I will also have a lot of different experienced by time I am done with school.

    • Great story and perfect example! I bet you have learned from this experience and will take skills with you that will help in your work with kids, if that’s where you end up. I’m glad you found a good fit!

      >

  56. This makes a whole lot of sense to me as someone who deeply believes in company culture and what that does to a person’s work ethic. I believe that a company that you truly believe in will motivate you to do well and also motivate you to make changes that will benefit the company as well, even if it includes transforming your job description into something that includes what you want to do and what fulfills your job title.
    Now that being said I also wonder too how that could translate as a clinical social worker. Would it be important to also look into the company culture and the mission of the company and believe in it even though the job description isn’t something that you quite enjoy? Maybe.
    I believe that social work job positions allow for the social worker to put their character into their job so if that includes sprucing up a few responsibilities you wish you had, I would imagine the company if it’s a good one wouldn’t be opposed to you doing more work?

  57. I think that organizational culture is at least as important for clinical social workers. Think about what a difference it makes, for example, if a social worker is encouraged to spend as much time with a client as needed, versus being limited to the number of visits that are allowed. Or, how different it is to be a social worker in an organization where workers are encouraged to take respite leave to deal with trauma, versus where they are expected to ‘push through’. All of this matters, for how well a social worker can thrive and, by extension, how well clients do, too.

  58. This advice resounded with me – even a year plus from graduation, I peruse NP Connect for job openings and feel generally confused and overwhelmed about what to do when I do start searching for a job. Understanding the search as looking for an organization rather than a job description makes sense to me, especially due to my nature – I am often quick to question the motives and mission of organizations when I find it doesn’t align with my values. I’m a Taurus, so perhaps it’s stubbornness, but I prefer to think of myself as principled when it comes to working for an organization I believe in. I wish to be intentional about giving my time to an organizational culture who sees the humanity in all people, and works towards social justice. I do not feel this has been reflected in some of the organizations where I have worked – not that they haven’t done great work, but rather they have done great work at the risk of excluding some folks from their advocacy priorities. I am still mentally creating my list of principles which I will not compromise in an organizational setting, and I know there are many organizations in which I would feel comfortable carrying forward their mission. Something you said in class last week about understanding your own boundaries and what you will and will not advocate for stuck with me. Ultimately, I feel my career goals are fairly open, which is conducive to finding an organization I trust, not necessarily duties I wish to task myself with.

    • I think it’s really smart, Leslie, to be starting the discernment process so early, and to focus on organizational mission ‘fit’, rather than alignment with tasks on a job description. What do you look for as indicators of an organization’s values? Principles can be ‘squishy’; how do you know whether or not an organization feels like one you can trust to practice in a way you can live with?

  59. I still am unsure about all that macro practice entails, yet, after reading your blog, and reflecting on my own job experience as well as thoughts and conversations with friends and family around searching for not just a job, but one that is the right fit, I wonder underlying if I am headed in the direction of macro practice, or like our class debates, if macro and advance generalist practice are somewhat one in the same. Based on my thoughts and ideas about how my vision and how my degree/experience in social work will unfold to benefit the surrounding community, I agree that a less than perfect job description at an organization that may seem less ideal or fitting is actually sometimes the best fit.
    Taking for example my intern experiences this year, I learned more than expected, especially in areas that support my vision, which is to essential bridging the community off of the basis and idea that we all share something in common, despite differences. Being able to make connections, learning how to advocate, and growing from within the work environment was a part of what I gathered in my experience. And to think that where I interned this year was not even my first choice. I gained such a valuable experience and made a few lasting connections, which may be beneficial to my future vision.
    So my best career advice would be to be flexible and be open to possibilities. That one job that may not seem to pay what you would prefer, or meet those other preferred expectations. However, you never know if there’s something more within to help harvest your vision and unfold your dreams.

    • I totally see this in you, Sandra. Yes, you want to work directly with clients, but you also see connections in issues, want to address underlying causes, and have an abiding commitment to social justice…and I think all of those things will lead you to at least some involvement in macro practice, even if the bulk of your work day continues to focus on direct service. I look forward to seeing where your career takes you!

  60. I completely agree that choosing a job based on the organization rather than the job description is really important. Even if there are aspects of your actual job description that you don’t particularly excite you, if you believe in the organization and mission, you will be more motivated in your work, because you know you are contributing to the organization’s success. I want to add that I think that it is also really important to choose a job with open-minded leadership, because receptive leadership will allow you to take on projects that cater to your personal goals and utilize your strengths. Without open-minded and leadership that supports your professional development, you can get really stuck in a role and end up losing motivation.

  61. Good point, Lucy–usually, culture is reflective of leadership, but not always, and if the culture is really positive ‘except’ for rigid or toxic leadership (which can happen)…that’s not going to end well.

  62. Excellent advice, Melinda! I find it much more appealing to work in an agency that I can stand by, than having an appealing title at one that I cannot. It feels silly to give advice after just my first year, but I would definitely advise social workers to know the culture of the agency they have been offered a position at. Granted, much of this is discovered while on-the-job. But it would be helpful to have conversations with those who work in the agency and potentially tour the job if the agency allows. Questions to ask employees could be: Why do you believe people succeed or fail in this organization? Who is a “hero” around here and why? What is one thing you would like to see changed about this organization? Furthermore, I would advise the job-seeker to notice whether new policies and procedures are being considered and put in place, or whether the procedures and policies are the same ones that worked well for the agency 40 years ago. Are they open to new ideas? Are they eagerly engaging in “lifelong learning”? Also, what are the assumptions, values, norms, and behaviors of those who work in the agency? Does it have a culture of respect that supports fairness, open communication, and shared values? Do employees generally enjoy work? Is there a sense of cohesiveness? Is the turnover rate high or low? are different points of view welcomed?… (i.e. is it a “safe” environment for employees to share their experiences?) Are employees productive–i.e. is there reduced presenteeism? What would supervision look like in this organization? Does the organization value trust, respect, and commitment? Asking some of these questions can help determine if the culture of the organization is one that you can stand by in agreement and support.

  63. I really like your questions, Julia, and I think they could tell a social work job-seeker a lot, actually, about a given organization’s culture. Some are harder to gauge (like productivity), but what about asking about how the organization handled a recent conflict? What the organization sees as the greatest threat and opportunity to its future? Why employees choose the organization…and why they leave? Great list!

  64. Yvette Martinez

    Great advice, this makes sense even for a clinical social worker….”Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.” I have been doing small research here and there, so after reading this…I need to take a different look at how I am going to pick my future career. It was helpful that you included the example of the balance sheet, given the fact that you are excellent in your job position… you were able to create something from scratch and create a career you wanted. My advice would be similar… you have to relate to the organization so that you are passionate and excited. Your advice is 100% because now that I am reflecting back on my practicum, during the interview the job description made me feel nervous, but because of the holistic values that the organization believed in, I was excited that my practicum placement was at a hospice house. It was not the job that I want after I graduate but it was the organization that excited me to go back every week and not dread the 45minute drive to topeka every morning. I really appreciate your advice, even though it was directed more toward macro students, it did open my mind to a new direction when it is time to choose my future career. Another thing I would add is that you have to be open minded and flexible because not everything is going to go the way you want and it may take time for you to get to your ideal career but if you work in the organization that excites you, the beginning stages won’t be that difficult adjusting or dreadful. Lastly, to communicate with your supervisor, that is something worked in my favor while working at the hospice house, this created a empowering bond, my supervisor was able to create opportunities and experience that directed me toward my ideal career.

  65. I love that example, Yvette, about your job interview. I can really imagine you embracing the step into the unknown with the particulars of the job description, because the values of the organization were ones you felt like you could embrace! I think this idea, of orienting to the organization’s culture rather than to the more technical aspects of the job, absolutely fits as much in clinical as macro practice. I am glad it resonated with your experiences, and I look forward to seeing where your career takes you!

  66. This was really refreshing. I struggle a lot with choosing what is best for me or even asking for what I want, especially when it comes to work. I’ve always conformed because understanding poverty through personal experience, just getting the money was what I was told to do. Now I know that money is not everything because it may cause trauma being poor but being in a horrible organization can cause trauma too.
    My only advise career wise is not letting anyone move you away from the path you paved for yourself. You might fall down, you might get derailed but you should never let those things stop you from reaching your goals. I was told by mentors, professors and friends alike that I would not make it in a graduate program. I was told that I was not going to thrive in college after my first semester. I was told that I could not have a job, run track, do 5 student organizations and get decent grades. I also was taught to do the opposite of any negative comment that came my way as a black man in society. It has got me where I am today and praise from professors is still very new to me but it is refreshing. Shoot, none of my undergraduate professors gave me there best career advise and it sure isn’t available on a blog either!
    So thanks for sharing and letting me share with you.

  67. I am beyond thrilled that it spoke to you, Isaac. And so very glad that someone planted a seed so that you would privilege your own voice rather than be swayed by those who spoke to you without seeing you.

  68. Clinical work has always been a passion of mine, without even the slightest thought in organizational practice. But I do believe your advice goes both ways, as I recently had a somewhat similar experience:
    I found a job online in which I was perfectly qualified to a T for the job description, and I thought why the hell not, but not too overly excited by some of the information I was reading about it. After just two weeks, I had quit. I specifically remember turning to my partner and saying “I’m just not even excited to go to work”. Being placed at WEN, I was thrown into the macro side of social work and I felt as though I was starting completely from scratch and I didn’t want to even learn anything about macro practice because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But since then, after being honest and open with my supervisor, its been a bit easier and the knowledge I have been retaining also goes well with much of my clinical practice as well. It’s cool being able to distinguish how one practice can apply to the other. It’s made me actually try harder and work towards gaining more info rather than pouting and not making an effort.

  69. This is a really powerful example, Lauren, of how the ‘wrong fit’ almost always stays wrong, even if the opportunity looks, on paper, like it should totally be ‘right’. I am glad that you are placed for practicum in an organization that is proving to be a valuable learning opportunity, even if you might not have thought, at first, that it would be somewhere you could thrive. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  70. My focus is on the clinical side of things, and I can see how your advice is applicable to clinical social workers as well. “Choose an organization you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good” really made me reflect on the practicum placement I’m at now, and the search for one for next year. I knew absolutely nothing about the organizations in Lawrence, and actually ranked my practicum on the low end of preferences, so when I found out this is where I would be I was quite nervous. I didn’t want to be on the phones, I was told since I was a foundation year I wouldn’t be able to do one-on-one therapy, so I had no idea how this practicum was going to benefit me. Once I got here, though, I completely understand your advice. I love what the organization stands for, the stigma fighting as well as suicide education they provide all over the state, the people here are one of a kind, and although I don’t look forward to being on the phones (it’s anxiety-provoking for me to talk on the phone), once I get into work I find being on the phones so rewarding, enjoying every minute I’m in the office, and rooting for the agency at all times. I find myself being an advocate when I’m having regular conversations (last week, while visiting my uncle, he asked me how school was going — I found myself launching into a 15 minute “lecture” of the importance of suicide education, the NSPL, and how HQ is awesome). I also think about this when thinking about my practicum for next year — am I fully on board with the organization I may be interviewing for? I have mixed feelings with that, so more reflection with this advice is needed, I think.

  71. This advice is stellar, and I will definitely be passing these “words of wisdom” along to my friends who are currently on the job market, but in different disciplines. This advice is certainly generalizable across different fields of work. I have personally struggled with trying to find a job that met every criterion on my checklist, essentially limiting me to an ideal that simply did not exist. I struggle with dichotomous thinking, so I feel that if a job does not meet certain high expectations, then I will not be happy, and vice versa.

    For example, when I lived in Lincoln, NE and I was on the job market, I was trying to find a job that would provide me with ample experience in the medical or psychological field so I could translate my experiences to my clinical work in graduate school. I originally applied to work as a clinical research associate at Celerion (a clinical pharmaceutical company), and I would be responsible for interacting with participants and carrying out research procedures. The job description seemed extremely intriguing, especially with my research background. However, the HR person that I interviewed with informed me that I was not an ideal fit for this position, and she recommended a position in the data management department. When I looked at the job descriptions in this department, it did not spark my interest because I had previous work experiences in data entry that were less than desirable. However, I still interviewed for the job because at this point (let’s be honest), I was desperate for a job. When I interviewed, I was surprised to learn that the job description was not completely accurate, and it downplayed a lot of the things that I would actually get to do. I later accepted the job as a data entry assistant, and was able to grow in the company – they even created a remote position for me so I could continue working for them from Lawrence while I was in graduate school.

    My experience with Celerion has proven to be a valuable learning experience when it comes to keeping an open-mind to career possibilities, and I will use this experience when I start looking for jobs in the social work field after I graduate next May. I was open-minded when it came to the data entry job because I had heard such great things about Celerion as a company and the people who worked there. I am so glad I gave it a shot because I genuinely love doing data entry now (who would have thought!). Therefore, I completely agree that you should choose an organization that reflects your interests and values because opportunities within the company could arise that would allow you to grow individually and professionally.

  72. Thank you so much for sharing this example, Jennifer! It really illustrates how important it can be to just ‘get into’ an organization that you’re excited about (and that is excited about you–I’m so glad you found that HR person who was able to steer you to a Plan B, with them)…so that, together, you and the organizational leadership can find ways for you to grow, and for the organization to benefit, simultaneously. I’m so glad to hear this story!

  73. Thank you for this advice, Melinda. As you already know, I have been struggling with imagining my future as a macro level social worker and how to plan my career. I appreciated the time you took to sit down with me and explain the multiple paths open to me and this concept about choosing an organization over a job description. I think it is important to be passionate about our work and that passion should stem from our personal missions as social workers and the professional mission of the organizations we work for. Most jobs aren’t full of excitement 24/7 and our mundane duties can weigh us down, but I think if we’re passionate about our mission then we can stay excited in our work. Most of us didn’t get into social work to get rich or gain a prestigious title, we did it to make change and improve lives. Even the most mundane and under appreciated job duties can be a small part of a big change. I read Heather Bradley-Geary’s entry that you linked and her own personal journey as a macro level social worker is a great testament to this message.

  74. Any time, Whitney! That’s a really important insight about the inevitability of moments of disappointment and frustration, in any context, and the importance of finding a sense of meaning and purpose and connection, to sustain any social worker through those periods. I look forward to seeing where your social work journey takes you!

  75. Ashley Richard

    Your best career advice is stellar career advice (that I wish I would have known five years ago)! After I received my BSW in 2013, I dabbled in a couple of organizations, hoping to find my niche. The first organization was your “typical” social work agency, where the workers do VERY hard work with WAY too high of caseloads, being SEVERELY underpaid. My supervisor was great, but I could tell that she was tired. Fresh out of college, I wasn’t tired. I felt animated. I wanted to make a difference. That difference didn’t happen. I became burnt out at that agency in a matter of months. The only reason I was never behind on my casenotes was because I was constantly bringing my work computer home; I’d bring it to the dinner table, and I would wake up early just to stop at the nearby coffee shop to do more before I went into work. I was losing as much hope as I was sleep. I then realized what I knew all along, but didn’t want to think about; I had chosen a much-needed position (that I was very excited about) in an unorganized agency whose workers were underappreciated. I went a few months without working (oh, the life lessons you learn when you move back in with your mom in your 20’s), and I was finally hired to perform a government-contracted community corrections position in three rural counties in Kansas. I believed in that job description and what it represented. It gave juveniles second chances. It provided services for underserved populations. The agency sounded amazing and the job description seemed perfect. But I do believe in the right opportunity at the wrong time. Life had different plans for me and I moved to Southwest Florida with the little savings I had, without a house, and without a job (I will never do that again). I finally found a house and got hired to work at a substance abuse agency that focused on opiate addictions. It was one of very few substance abuse providers in the area, and the job description sounded extremely overwhelming, which made me extremely nervous (especially having little experience with substance abusers), but after doing some research, it sounded like this was an important and put-together agency. I initially took the job hoping to bide some time until I found something I REALLY wanted to do. I soaked up information like a sponge, I was the only one to take notes at weekly group clinical supervision, I learned how to advocate, and eventually, I wasn’t the new kid anymore. People were sending their clients to me for tips on self-advocacy, asking me how a new law would effect their treatment, and I eventually became the Family Education counselor for the organization, and met with families to teach them how to be advocates for their loved ones experiencing addiction. I believed in my clients who lived in rural areas and could not make it into the treatment center, so I helped pilot a telemedicine/telecommunication program where I was able to provide services for clients 45+ miles away through a computer screen. The DEA came in to see how the program works, and while my supervisor was in a meeting with them (taking credit for my work), I asked them if they would like the see the program in action. They agreed, and they left the agency after shaking my hand and telling me that I have created a groundbreaking program. I left that position to return to Kansas for grad school, but the feeling of being on the forefront of the development of a new program, and seeing its success brings me to tears. Melinda, I took a job that sounded “eh” at an organization that was truly needed and appreciated by clients and staff alike, and I was awakened. The supervisors were “eh” (okay, worse than “eh”; completely unethical), but before I left, I was offered a supervisory position for the program that I had helped pilot. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I believe that the opportunity to create change will happen again, and I believe that will happen at the right time.

    I believe in your best career advice, and I would like to add mine to it:

    Once you take the job that sounds “eh” at a great organization, don’t stop pushing. Push yourself to learn more. Push your clients to be the best they can be. Push your supervisors (kindly ;)) to support you when you want to make the organization better. Stay aware. Take time for yourself (I went home for a week every year and explored new restaurants in Kansas City every time; it was very therapeutic for me), and never lose sight of your goals for yourself and for your organization.

  76. Oh, YES, Ashley! I love your advice! Job descriptions aren’t static, and great organizations will absolutely find ways to utilize talented and motivated individuals. Advocating for yourself can open up new opportunities, and those can often serve both your interests and the needs of the organization. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your truly incredible practice journey. I can’t wait to see what’s next for you!

  77. Choosing an organization because you genuinely believe in it rather than for the job description is very important advice. If you don’t believe in what you are doing and what your work stands for, you will be much less likely to do a good job and much more likely to get burned out quicker. It is easy to get hung up on the job title and having a position that sounds good. Like you said, the perfect job working for the perfect organization with the perfect job description likely does not exist. With that being said, we must identify what is most important to us about a job and seek a job that satisfies these requirements we have identified. Although it may not be “perfect” by others’ standards, if it meets these non-negotiables that you have identified, it can be the most perfect fit for you. I agree that believing in the mission of the organization is the best place to start, and this will definitely be what I emphasize most in my job search. At the school that I am doing my practicum at, the teachers do not have it easy (not that any teachers anywhere do). These teachers must deal with multiple crises every day and are regularly hit, kicked, cussed at, have things thrown at them, etc. When you put this together with the salary, this would not be a very enticing job description. However, I have been thoroughly impressed with their unwavering desire to help these children, no matter what it takes. Although some days are really hard, they always maintain this attitude that they are going to get it done. This is because they firmly believe in what they are doing; they believe that they can make a difference for these kids. Part of this positive culture that they have developed at the school is also a result of the strong leadership that they have, which is another important thing to consider when considering organizations.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this story about the school, Summer! It sounds like a really inspiring team to be a part of. What about where you’ll be next year for field? What do you know about its culture?

  78. I can be the first to say I was lost as an undergraduate. I juggled between majors in education, speech pathology, and occupational therapy. I knew I wanted to help people but didn’t know how, or in what way. After all of that I ultimately studies Human Development and Family Science (and graduated in 4 years by some miracle). I explain all of that to say that this advice you give is REAL and so APPLICABLE in anything we do in our lives. The job description is not everything, but the reason behind your job, the mission, vision, core values, is why we practice. I appreciate your willingness to be open and honest about this field and your line of work. Even though I aspire to be a clinical social worker, I love macro practice, and know how important this is. As a future clinician, I think it is vital to still love the organization you work for, not the job description because I may very well end up in a more macro administrative position within that agency. I have many friends who graduated with me and have gone on to pursue social work at other universities. I will be referring them to this blog, because this important for new social workers to consider.

  79. I am so glad you posted about this because it puts into words what I have experienced and it’s great advice. For me, it’s very hard to do well if I only feel so-so about what I’m doing and what I am doing it for. If I take a job and feel like I do not have the skill set, I have learned that you can always get up to speed, but if you do not have an organization that supports you as an employee and does not execute its own mission well, then that gives you bigger issues to navigate through as you are learning a new position.

    I currently feel like I work for a great organization with a good reputation and the support I feel and the training I have received makes me feel valuable and competent despite the fact that my job is incredibly stressful at times. This advice is applicable to so many fields.

    I’ve also experienced the value of this advice in the past. Right after graduating with my bachelor’s in journalism, I took a reporting job instead of the copy editing job I thought I wanted. I am so glad I did. I had so many enriching experiences and I was not stuck to a desk. I worked with great people and the publication I worked for felt small but mighty. I was initially worried about not going for the position I wanted, but ultimately, the job I did take was very valuable experience.

  80. Yes, Bethany–we can do such hard work when we feel that we are supported and surrounded by those who share our vision. And, even a much more manageable job can feel overwhelming when that’s not the case. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with this, too, because it’s one of those pieces of advice that can feel much easier said than done. I appreciate your candor in retelling some of your own journey.

  81. This was very helpful for me. I have been struggling with the decision to quit my job to focus on school, and only work part time. It was very refreshing to receive the advice not to do a job just because the description is good. I feel that even though the work I do now does in fact have a good job description, I struggle to be excited about the agency I work for and the services they provide, so thank you for that advice moving forward.

    I also appreciate your dedication to showing that social workers can do more than just clinical work. I think the macro role often gets ignored or seen as part of a corporation. I love being a social worker, and I am so excited to get to branch out into more macro work.

    • I am helping someone right now write their job description, Brin, for a position in state government–which to me is both a fun opportunity to help someone envision what they want their job to look like (it is!), but also a valuable reminder that job descriptions are really just pieces of paper, constructions that don’t necessarily carry a lot of weight. So, yes, you should absolutely base your decisions on how to proceed with your career on considerations other than the job description…and, in my experience, a good fit with an organization whose culture you feel passionate about is a good barometer for navigating to the right ‘shore’. I wish you all the best and look forward to seeing how your career unfolds!

  82. This post took me back to my first “real” job interview after grad school. I was nearing the end of a master’s degree in college student development, trying my best to narrow down job postings that sounded doable and would pay enough to support my daughter and me. I remember being fairly nervous during the multiple interviews, feeling caught between selling myself (I know, yuck) and looking for cues that would tell me if this place and these people would be good for me. Following years of reflection and growth, your words ring true as ever: “Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.” That’s gold…no no no…that’s platinum advice, right there!

    I have felt drawn to clinical social work practice for a few years, and now that I’ve been accepted into an MSW program, I find that while I still want to practice clinical work, I will also want to be involved with macro practice. I know I can make a difference in peoples’ lives with one-on-one therapy, however, I also want to feel connected to a community, and to know that I’m making an impact on a larger scale. There are a couple of local organizations with which I would love to collaborate, and the more that I think about them, the more I realize that what draws me to these particular organizations is the shared mission among members.

    The “mission” isn’t so much the statement on their website, but how these beautiful people unapologetically celebrate their identities and encourage other folks with marginalized identities to fight for justice. Remarkably, as people come-and-go and the organization experiences shifts in leadership, there is a consistent buzz of energy. This energy fuels hope for change that I find very infectious. I can’t speak on whether the energy or hope that I feel would sustain me financially, but I don’t have to decide upon that…yet.

    Thank you for sharing, Melinda. I’ll be back for more guidance, no doubt about it!

    • That is a really poignant illustration of the power of organizational culture, AJ–as people come and go…there is a consistent buzz of energy. Culture can sustain organizations through changes and even times of turmoil, because it becomes something more than just the collection of individuals in a place. I am so excited for this next step in your career journey!

  83. madison noyes

    Melinda, this blog post really resonated with me! I am in the midst of choosing a practicum for next year, not a career, but the pressure still feels the same. Your advice to choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good is really helpful. I get very caught up in the description and the overall status of the organization, which makes me very indecisive. But when I go back to what I actually am passionate about and look at how willing the supervisor is to accommodate and allow opportunities for growth, it makes choosing a practicum simple. Thank you for the advice 🙂

    • I’m so glad it was helpful! I am interested, though, in what you mean by the overall status of the organization? It sounds like you were already asking important questions about what your experience would be like. I look forward to hearing more about your plans. And, yes, your placement is just as important as a job decision!

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