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?