Guest Post: What a long, strange trip it’s been: The winding job search of one macro social worker

**Graduation at our School was about a week ago, and many of my former students are in full job-search mode. To both honor their accomplishments and equip them for the weeks ahead, I asked one of my favorite former students, whose job search I witnessed, to share his story with us. He has such passion and talent for social justice work, and I know that we’ll continue to see more of his impact on our world. I’m so glad he chose social work, and so glad that I get to observe his journeys. Thank you, Jason!

Several weeks ago, Melinda wrote a blog post with this piece of advice for new grads seeking work: Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good. No nugget of wisdom better sums up my experience job searching last year with a fresh SWAAP (Social Work Administration and Advocacy Practice, our School’s macro social work concentration in the MSW program) degree in hand and a social work job to find.

I was optimistic starting out (which never fully waned). I knew I would be moving to Chicago at the end of the summer so I figured I had all the time in the world. I didn’t. I was working part-time in Kansas City and I spent many of my days drafting cover letters and formatting resumes for positions as a Policy Analyst, Administration Coordinator, Outreach Manager. These jobs sounded wonderful, but I had little experience outside of class time, no connections, and little understanding of how Chicago social services work or look, apart from a couple informational interviews I’d done during a spring visit.
Applying for jobs in Chicago while living in Kansas City was tough. I think only one employer even gave me an interview. And they weren’t even hiring for the position any longer! It turned out that the hiring manager was Mennonite (my particular brand of Christianity) and recognized a denominational service program I had done. This was literally the only reason he (pre-) interviewed me. It went well and it was great practice. I kept in touch with him throughout my job search, but he never did have an opening.

I finally moved to Chicago in late August and for 2 and a half months I was in full job search mode. Most of the time. I never before knew how difficult it was for me to stay motivated on a single task. I had one purpose: find a job. But I felt completely unable to control that outcome. Though energy was much more frenetic than it had been in Kansas City and there were times of euphoria (an informational interview with the director of an advocacy group who had a position that was PERFECT for me and promised an interview; three interviews with one organization; completing my side project: running a marathon), there were also times of despair (the promised interview never happened despite my best attempts to seek follow through; the third interview was a complete nightmare; after the marathon I still didn’t have a job… or a marathon to train for).

In desperation I agreed to work for a friend’s friend’s Halloween store, which had me standing on a street corner dressed as a Smurf for a couple of late-October weeks. It was during this time that I received a second interview (the first had been two months prior, and I hadn’t been chosen for a second at that time) with Inspiration Corporation, a north-side non-profit specializing in job skills, a culinary training program, and services for the homeless. Though I’d initially applied for one position, that had been filled by someone internally, which led to my rejection. After a few weeks passed, another employee (who had the position I have now) decided to leave the agency, as did the person who received the job for which I initially applied and was rejected.

This time I got the job, which I’ve now held for six months.

As a Career Specialist, I meet with 4-6 people every day, each of whom are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, to discuss their lives and provide support, advice, and guidance on their job search or quest for further training. Though it’s work I’ve done in the past (and doesn’t require my MSW or have a strong focus on policy or advocacy), I’m passionate about the mission of the agency and appreciative of the structure and initiatives it has taken to impact homelessness in Chicago. Inspiration has a stellar reputation and I work with the most passionate people I could dream of to deliver services to some of the most talented and underappreciated citizens of Chicago.

It’s not what I would have considered my dream a year ago, but it’s exactly the entrance to social work (and post-MSW professional life) in Chicago I need. My policy and advocacy interests are only strengthened by the exposure to people’s real lives I’m witness to, and I hold on to hope that I will be interviewed for the Policy Analyst and Outreach Manager jobs. Likely soon.

I know the job search isn’t easy, but there are ways to survive. I’ve compiled a few tidbits and learnings here. Some are obvious. Hopefully some aren’t.

● Have someone edit your cover letters, someone from whom you don’t mind receiving criticism. They will be stronger for it, and they’re not as easy to write as you might think. And read them out loud to yourself to make sure everything flows.
● Send your resume as a PDF and your cover letter as the text of your e-mail.
● Informational Interviews matter. Eventually someone I interviewed with told me they’d heard about me from someone else. It’s about networking, but it’s also about sanity. When I was down (and I spent a lot of time feeling down), a good informational interview snapped me out of it and re-instilled hope, knowing someone out there had made a life of doing the kind of work I wanted to do.
● It’s easy to dismiss “networking” as overblown and overrated, but it turns out I met the person whose position I eventually received after he received a job at another agency at a friend’s barbeque for the homeless group she works with during one of my summer visits. Pretty random, right? But those are the effects of making connections in the relatively small non-profit world (especially around issues of hunger, poverty, and homelessness).
● Don’t take it personally when you hear nothing back, even though that’s next to impossible. You’ll usually hear nothing back.
● Give yourself a break. Go to a museum. Find free events. Read a novel. Even watch some TV on Netflix or Hulu. Budget your time wisely, but give yourself some fun.
● Brush up on local licensure policies. I worked with kids in a residential setting in Kansas City, so I thought it’d be a no-brainer to apply for those jobs (and get them) in Chicago. I didn’t learn until much later that all of these jobs required a particular city-certification for child welfare that I did not have.
● Connect with Social Work PRN. They’re completely wonderful (and had I not received this job shortly after I connected with them, I’m confident I’d have received some temp work). They are more focused on the clinical side of social work, however.

Congratulations on graduation and happy job hunting!

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