Is an MSW Degree Right for You?

Wondering if they made the right decisions regarding their education and career are common MSW student concerns.  We are people that are drawn to helping the disadvantaged, so we may worry that time in the classroom is a waste of resources or disconnected from the gravity of social problems.  Also, as individuals attuned to the importance of well-being, we may notice our own unhappiness or distress that stems from everything from poorly instructed courses and time management to identity crises.

I interviewed my friend and former classmate, Caitlin Gorr, to better understand her journey of choosing (and ultimately choosing to stay with) an MSW program while experiencing doubts.

ISC: What was your relationship to social work and social justice before attending your graduate program?

CG: This may sound silly, but when I was little I used to watch those stupid talk shows, like Maury Povich. Whenever there was an episode about sick children, my heart really ached. I think this was one of the first signs that I would probably work with people. I earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and began working as a case manager for women who suffer from mental illness. I was really motivated to be the first in my family to achieve a higher education degree. After working in the field for several years, I thought social work made the most sense to continue my studies. An MSW keeps doors wide open instead of closing them, unlike a Masters in psychology or something really specific.

ISC:  After being accepted into an MSW program, you deferred your admissions for one year.  What happened during that time?

CG: I moved to California and tried living out there for a bit. This trip helped me to realize how significant higher education is as it was difficult for me to land a job that I was satisfied with.

ISC:  When did you first consider leaving the program and why?

CG:  I question everything I do in my life, sometimes to a fault. I have a hard time sticking to one thing because my mind is always on the next. After the first semester of the program, I was frustrated because I had learned all of the material in my undergraduate program. The MSW is designed for someone who has no background in social work or a related field. It makes sense, as there were people from all realms. I should have been wiser and tested out of the primary micro courses. I also felt like a lot of it was common knowledge. I remember reading articles that would literally tell you not to instruct clients to kill themselves.  I also feel that each and every case and person are so distinct and different that specific theories are often not the best approach, but theory-driven intervention was a primary part of first year.

A big part of me wanting to leave was being unsure if I wanted this path for my life, and by this I mean “professionalism.” I was scared that I was just going with the norm and doing what I was supposed to instead of really discovering me.

Although I expressed my doubtful feelings a lot, I never would have dropped out of the program.

ISC: You had some serious concerns and understandable complaints about the program.  What helped to temper these doubts? 

CG:  I really enjoyed the social aspect of it. Never before have I met so many people who I have so much in common with. I realized that I have my whole life to discover myself and an MSW is a beneficial task to have completed along my journey.

ISC: What advice do you have for someone considering an MSW?

CG: I recommend working in the field first.  I think this makes the program so much more valuable. How can you truly know you want to be a social worker if you have a bachelor’s degree in biology and worked in a sandwich shop? Social work is not for everyone, and being a kind and caring person is simply not enough.  Also, keep in mind that social work is a hard thing to study because there is no right or wrong answer.

ISC:  If someone is in a program and begins to have thoughts of leaving, what questions should he ask himself?

CG: I think someone should try and picture him/herself using the degree.  Ask, are you learning or growing as a person because of the experience? I think it is harder to quit a program then it is to stay in it, especially when factoring in the cost of it all.

ISC:  What were the most valuable lessons you learned during your MSW program?

CG: I learned a lot during those two years. One valuable lesson is to think for and trust myself. Just because someone has the title as professor does not mean they are any smarter than you. By the second year, all of my classes were like a small family. We all knew each other really well and it was so comfortable. This was new to me and I learned how to grow and thrive in connection to other people’s energy. A part of me thinks we were a really special group of people.

ISC: You graduated in May of 2011.  What are you up to these days?

CG:  I have been living in Santiago, Chile. I have always wanted to live abroad and improve my Spanish skills. With no job set up and not knowing anyone, I had no idea what I would be doing. Somehow, I ended up working for a social venture. In Chile, and probably most of South America, books are outrageously over-priced. Also, all school books for children of all ages must be purchased by the families. I work with a very small organization called GreenLibros. We collaborate with schools and organizations to obtain donated books.  Then, we sell the ones we can at an affordable price and recycle the rest.

ISC:  Any final words for us?

CG:  Live your dreams, cherish the environment, and don’t eat endangered species!!!!

You can learn more about Caitlin and her work at GreenLibros by visiting their website here: http://www.greenlibros.com.  Also check out this article (in English) and the GreenLibros Facebook page.

Why did you decide to obtain an MSW?  Did you ever consider leaving your MSW program?  Please share your experiences with us in the comments section.

 

 

Using a Beginner’s Mind To Support Social Work Practice

In the summer of 2009, I worked in an urban organic garden that partnered with a youth employment program.  While some teenagers chose specifically to work in our garden, many of them were assigned to us through the city.  In those first program days, I remember the complaints being frequent and loud.  Some of the teens had never worked before, and many (having grown up in an urban area) had never spent three consecutive hours outside in the sun amongst dirt and bugs.  One teenager refused to do weeding.  At first, it seemed like youth defiance or rebellion.  When I investigated further, I learned he did not want to dirty his white sneakers.

When you read that, how do you perceive it?

When I relay this story, a lot of people remark on this young man’s vanity or state this complaint was an excuse for his laziness.  As I got to know him, I realized this was a simplistic interpretation.  He had signed up to spend his summer working, so he was clearly motivated.  The truth, I learned, is that white sneakers cost a lot of money.  This was the only pair of shoes that this boy owned.  It was a symbol of pride, and the whiter his shoes the greater his reputation amongst his peers. Through asking questions and learning his real motivations, we found ways for him to garden and preserve the shoes he had worked hard to buy.

In my later work as a substance abuse counselor, my very experienced, new-to-the-area director constantly told me that the people in our program were addicts and the root cause of their problems was, unequivocally, a lack of love.  I met a nineteen-year-old man from the same community as the teenager from the gardening program.  He had been arrested for selling marijuana and was seeing me while on parole.  This man spoke about the desperation he felt in high school as many friends passed away.  A career path was forged through selling pot, and both comfort and recognition was reaped through the clothing he could purchase as a result of his income.  I thought back to that teen in my summer program, and the parallels between them, both in the similarity of the stories and also in the way that my judgments could have negatively affected our work together.  Rather than employ the single-motivation theory promoted by my supervisor, I tried hard to approach this client with inquisitiveness so that treatments and strategies addressed the needs he was clearly and directly expressing.

In social work programs, strength-based perspectives are often heralded.  This approach asks practitioners to see the positive qualities of their clients, re-envision narratives that highlight these strengths, and use this as the basis of treatment direction.  While this is an improvement from older approaches that contributed to stigmatization and blame, I propose going a step further and employing a Zen principle called Beginner’s Mind.

Beginner’s Mind asks a person to radically shed their preconceived notions.  In our field, many grow accustomed to thinking they know the right course of action upon first meeting a client or learning his diagnosis.  While experience and research can provide us clues on how to approach clients or communities, the true best sources of knowledge and guidance are from the clients and communities themselves.  Beginner’s Mind requires approaching activities with the same curiosity we had the very first time we came into contact with it.  It is important to see not only each client as unique from the last, but also to see each interaction with them as such.  We have all had clients that have made us sigh simply by imagining our next session with them.  If we think that this does not carry over into our interactions with them, we are sorely mistaken.  By employing a Beginner’s Mind, we are required to approach with enthusiasm and to ask more questions, thus receiving a more authentic response and empowering our clients to shape their own narrative and treatment.

 Do you find yourself making snap judgments?  Have you ever tried to employ a Beginner’s Mind?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.

Sliding Scale Insights From a Community Acupuncture Clinic

Many social work organizations seek donations, grants, and medical reimbursement to remain financially solvent.  These funding mechanisms are accompanied by a series of consequences that ultimately affect the work of a given institution.  For example, accepting Medicaid and private health insurance shape client contacts by way of specific practice permissions and the time that must be devoted to subsequent paperwork.  Also, charitable donations and grant availability decrease in times of financial downturn, and the future of an organization may be uncertain.

To remain a viable profession that is true to our historical roots, it is important for all social workers to consider alternative funding structures.  We need not simply look to other social workers or traditional social service organizations for good examples; anyone performing ethical and sustainable work can provide new information and inspiration for the financial direction we choose.  Today, we speak to Leyna Jensen, the founder and lead practitioner at Corvallis Community Acupuncture in Oregon, about her center and her experience of subverting the prevalent payment models by choosing to employ sliding scale.

ISC:  Many people are unfamiliar with acupuncture.  First, can you tell us a little about it and how it actually connects to mental health?

LJ: Acupuncture has been around in some form for several thousand years and continually evolving.  The way we do acupuncture today is simple: fine, sterile needles are inserted at specific points on the body.  The patient rests with the needles until they feel “done.”  Many people doze off during the treatment and wake up feeling refreshed.  Needle, rest, repeat.  One measurable mechanism of acupuncture is a shift in the nervous system from a sympathetic state (fight or flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).  Deep relaxation allows the body to move toward homeostasis, allows the mind to rest and recharge, and creates space for emotional integration.  These subtle internal changes, repeated over time, can add up to a greatly increased sense of wellbeing and quality of life.

ISC: Opening Corvallis Community Acupuncture was a big project. What inspired you to create it and to follow a sliding scale model? 

LJ: I was inspired to open a community acupuncture clinic by Lisa Rohleder of Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, OR.  She created the first clinic to use the sliding scale, group treatment model.  She wrote about it, shared it with other acupuncturists, and here we are about six years later with 200+ clinics around the country.  We operate on a social justice business model; the business exists not to make a profit, but to create sustainable jobs and to provide a service to the community.  Profits are reinvested in the business to create more jobs and serve more patients.  A year and a half since I opened my clinic, I am making a living wage and have hired one employee.  No grants, no funding, no insurance, just patients paying $15-$35 per treatment.  

ISC: The clinic opened in July of 2010. How has the Corvallis community responded to its establishment and payment model?

LJ:  The Corvallis community has welcomed it with open arms.  I don’t do any paid advertising; word of mouth is our bread and butter.  The range of $15-$35 means that more people can afford to come frequently enough to get great results.  I treat 60-75 people a week.  Patients pass out our cards, promote our events, and bring friends and family.  People have gifted us plants, furniture, recipes, artwork, crafts, and all kinds of food.  I do a Free Acupuncture Day a few times a year, just simply free acupuncture for everyone, which gets lots of newbies in the door.  I’m grateful to serve this community.

ISC: It sounds very positive and like the community has played an essential part to the center’s establishment and growth.  However, we know that whenever someone opens a business or organization, there will be obstacles. What are some of the challenges you have faced? Where do you find support? 

LJ: The biggest challenge I faced when starting this business was my own inexperience.  Things like commercial leases, bookkeeping, insurance, licenses, employment taxes, and payroll were all new to me.  It’s important to cultivate business relationships that help me learn and grow, and I value those relationships highly.  There’s always something new to learn, and there is no real “comfort zone” for a business owner.  The vast majority of inspiration, support, and guidance has come from The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA), our professional network and my fellow community acupunks. 

ISC: Linking with likeminded folks who are doing the work is a great way to learn and gain support.  Now, what advice do you have for people and organizations wanting to implement a sliding scale payment model?

LJ: The sliding scale payment model is at the heart of our success. The most important element of a sliding scale model, in my opinion, is that it be offered the same way to everyone.  We never ask for income verification, never ask questions about a patient’s finances.  I would feel humiliated if I had to prove my poverty in order to receive care; no one will feel this way in our clinics.  The only way to successfully implement a sliding scale is to be sure that you can afford to stay in business if everyone pays the lowest amount.  Figure this out before you open your doors, and then when people pay more, great!  Our average payment is higher than the bottom of our scale, but it doesn’t need to be in order for us to operate.

ISC: What is your favorite part of being an acupuncturist, small business owner, and social change agent? 

LJ: This is the toughest question; I love everything about being a community acupuncturist.  People trust us to create a safe space, treat them with kindness and respect, and do our best to relieve their suffering using the simple tools at our disposal.  I need lots of compassion and patience on a daily basis, and of course those are healthy qualities to cultivate, so I feel healthier and happier the longer I do this work.  It’s incredibly exciting to be involved with POCA and this innovative approach to affordable healthcare; I believe that this model will help change the face of healthcare in this country.  Learn more about it (and get involved!) at www.pocacoop.com.

To learn more about Corvallis Community Acupuncture, visit the website at http://www.corvalliscommunityacupuncture.com/

Staying a Social Worker While Practicing Privately

When I ask MSW students about their ultimate career goals, I am most often met with answers that involve private practice.  This is only one of numerous social work paths, and it is one that intersects with many other disciplines including psychology, mental health counseling, marital and family therapy, and coaching.  I wonder, how can we remain connected to social work values and offer our unique perspective in the diversely trained field of therapy?  I invited Sharon Goldblum, LCSW, PhD, a practicing psychotherapist of over 25 years, to discuss her experience. 

ISC: Why did you initially pursue a Master of Social Work degree?  What was your relationship to social work and social justice?

Dr. Sharon Goldblum

SG: I started college in 1969 during a time where there was, I believe, a major shift in consciousness. Whereas our parents were locked in the values of the system, our generation seemed united in the ideals of fairness, equality, justice, peace, and unity. It was the oxygen of our times. Working in areas of social justice – helping those who had less and realizing the plight of others around the world – was part of our times. The wish to help and to create a fairer society was part of what we believed. A career in social work meant that I could combine these ideals with an actual job.

ISC: You went on to earn a PhD.  Did you notice any major differences between your MSW and PhD programs?

SG: My PhD program was individualized.  There were some mandatory courses, but many courses I could design myself and get approved. My doctorate was on Successful Aging in Women. The women’s movement informed many women of my time, but I wondered how these very women move into the later ages of their life with integrity.  I wanted a road map! My study was qualitative and I got to interview many women to find the qualities that led to a successful life.

ISC: You have been in private practice for over 25 years.  How does your training as a social worker inform your practice?

SG: I chose to focus on therapeutic techniques during my education.  My general sense of fairness and equality of others was emphasized in social work, and this led
to a style of working with others that is non-diagnosis based.  Professionally, I can use those categories and present to colleagues, but I do not work that way with clients.

ISC: You are involved in professional organizations, schools, and more.  By having an MSW degree, what unique perspectives or information have you been able to bring to these collaborations and institutions?

SG: When I was a supervisor for a post-graduate institute, I was known for developing a training group style that led to great growth for students.  Simply, it was creating a totally shame free environment with the attitudes toward others that are inherent in social work ideals.

ISC: In what way does spirituality inform and affect your work with clients?

SG: I have a deep, wide range of experiences with many forms of spiritual expression. This helps me to tailor practices to clients that might be helpful. It can be simple breathing exercises to more elaborate meditation.

Lotus Lodge Retreat Center in upstate New York. Here, Dr. Goldblum hosts training opportunities and retreats for individuals, families, and groups.

ISC: Some people may describe these approaches as alternative.  Do you consider yourself an alternative therapist?

SG: Actually, I consider myself a clinically-sound therapist who is grounded in theory and practice, and even medication. From that base, I can integrate other techniques and experiences.  However, use of any technique – spiritual or otherwise – is based
on knowledge of who the client is and what he needs for his growth.

ISC: With the movement towards evidence-based practice, graduate education is often limited to specific therapeutic approaches (such as cognitive-behavioral or solution focused).  For students and professionals interested in spiritual methods, what advice can you offer them regarding where to find information and professional support?

SG: I would advise a person who wants to integrate spirituality into her approach to deeply follow her own spiritual path. It is from this base of inner knowledge and experience that she will share with her clients.  Empty techniques are just that: empty.

ISC: What should a person consider and look for when choosing continuing education or additional training programs?

SG: A person should feel that she identifies with the philosophy, teachers, and student body.  I went for advanced training at the Gestalt Center of Long Island, for example, because I felt comfortable and at home with the people.  Also, I felt that their therapeutic approach was cutting edge, so I would recommend looking for innovative institutes that are leaders in their field.

To learn more about Dr. Goldblum, visit her website at http://www.sharongoldblum.com/

Journal Article Access After You Graduate

Like all accredited MSW programs, my university continually hyped evidence-based practices.  While I have mixed opinions about this emphasis and the way it is promoted, I adore the access to journals we students were provided with because of it.  Whenever I was working on a paper at the library, I would find myself stumbling across articles (and even whole journals) that covered compelling topics, along with new theories and interventions.

Then I graduated, and with my new non-student status I lost all of my online database permissions.  Le sigh…

However, my curiosity is unstoppable and I have found alternatives.  In this post, I share some ways to gain access even after the campus IT department revokes your privileges.

Steal information with the assistance of students and faculty – Know someone who is still a student at your university?  Have a professor to whom you were close?  Ask her to forward the articles you need.  Be sure to supply her with the journal name, volume, and issue so that she can acquire it painlessly.  If you are particularly chummy, she may even “loan” you her library login information.  Remember, you can ask any student or employee at almost any university (and not just your alma mater) to help you since schools subscribe to a range of databases.

Check out the library of local campuses – Major universities still carry the print editions of popular journals.  Typically, you do not have to be a student to browse the racks.  You may even be able to ask a librarian or research assistant for help accessing online editions, either by finding a kind soul or not mentioning that you aren’t a student.  You may resort to browsing the computers and seeing if anyone forgot to log out too.

Become an internship supervisor – If you can take on supervising some students, do it and reap the perks that the affiliated university will provided (typically library membership is included).  If you don’t have the time to be a good supervisor or an appropriate position is unavailable, do not forget to ask colleagues who are supervisors whether they can help you with your access issues.

Browse your interest areas on Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) – Occasionally you get lucky and find free articles.  If you can’t, you will at least find abstracts that you can provide to your helpers.

Search for the specific journal you want – Some publishing houses will allow you to download free copies of their journal, especially if you are seeking the most recent issue.  Find an example by going to the following address and clicking on “Free Sample Copy.” http://isw.sagepub.com/

Check out the following links –

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedPubMed is a search engine from the US National Library of Medicine and the NIH.  Search a topic, generate journal article results, and then use the “Free Full Text” filter on the right to find the accessible pieces.

http://www.thecommunityguide.orgThe Guide To Community Preventive Services compiles evidenced-based intervention information in subject areas and provides some copies of related articles.  The intervention presentation attempts to consider various factors, from population differences to implementation costs.

http://lib.adai.washington.edu – While the Evidence-Based Practices for Substance Use Disorders includes only a few free articles and helpful links, the most powerful feature is its search engine where specific criteria outputs relevant evidence-base practices.  You can find many free, downloadable treatment manuals that include summaries of the articles that inform them.

Also consider checking out The Campbell Library at http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/library.php  While the goal of this site is not to share journal articles, there is a wealth of information presented in systematic reviews that are informed by the latest intervention research.

 What resources and methods do you use to find social work journal articles?  Let us know in the comments!

Photo by Vijay Paruchuru.