Life as a Social Work Student 1

NB: This is a guest post from the now-student who contributed previously about her pre-course  observation of a social worker. I hope she’ll continue to update me as long as I can persuade her to . I sneaked in the ‘1’ part of the title as a hope that there may be a continuation of this series in the future!  Thanks a lot to her for fitting a post in amid the essay-writing Smile – cb

The First Few Months

Well what a difference a couple of months makes. When I last wrote here I was mulling over my experience shadowing a social worker last summer and thinking how strange it felt when she introduced me to people as ‘a social work student.” Now I’ve actually officially been a real student since the end of September and … it’s brilliant! I even handed an essay in the other day, I was quite pleased with it (it actually had an introduction and conclusion, and was around the right word count) but I think that like a singing dog, the wonder is not whether it is good but the fact that it exists at all.

Back in the Jurassic Thatcher era when I was an undergrad, I remember going on demonstrations against the ending of the student grant. Our slogan was, “A grant is a right, not a privilige,” (sic) and we had to redo one of our local student union’s banners after someone noticed that privilege was spelled wrong. (Those were the days.) But it also seems oddly resonant that students are on the march again today about cuts to student finance which are far worse than we ever faced back then.

I’d be there on the demo myself if I didn’t have a child observation to attend! And unlike lectures which probably will be suspended, since I arranged the observation myself it’s just extra hassle for me if I want to change the date. To me, this sums up life as a mature student in a nutshell.  Suddenly your life revolves around university timetables, the library, and the other students on the course. Until you get home and are back in the familiar zone of household chores and family commitments. It’s a balance. I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who have young children to manage on top of everything else, handling the demands of a masters degree on top of that is a very tough row to hoe.

What they don’t tell you is how much you will learn just from sitting around and chatting to the other students in between lectures and seminars. Between us, we have a vast amount of experience in social care with multiple client groups and at many levels — we have some people who were paid carers, others who were managers, and others whose experience is from the voluntary sector (like me). The masters in social work requires students to already hold a first degree and even there, we have a wide range of backgrounds. Some did their first degrees in relevant subjects like Psychology, others from widely different fields, not to mention a few higher degrees scattered around the field. And there’s also a wide mix of ethnic backgrounds represented as well — far moreso than among my usual group of friends (and that’s probably true for everyone else also). So when we discuss social capital (for example) people chip in with examples from communities as far afield as Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, and council estates in Leeds.

Studying social policy and social work theory has had an effect on all of us even after 5 weeks — people have commented frequently that they have started to read the news more critically, to be more aware of power imbalances in society, and to appraise what effects the recently announced cuts package might have on people they know or have worked with in the past.

And although I sense that there’s some expectation from the lecturers that if students are not radical, they have somehow failed in their duty, I’m not sure if that is the prevailing mood. There’s dissatisfaction and great willingness to criticise the current system, yes. But this is too big a burden for us to bear on our own. And, radicalism worked so well when we were protesting about getting rid of student grants, didn’t it?

At the moment, we’re finding out where we are likely to be on placement in the new year. It’s a nervous time. When you haven’t heard yet, everyone else’s placement sounds brilliant. All I can say is that when I do find out, I’ll see who else on the course has previous experience in that area and have them on speed dial!

I thought I’d share some hard won tips for other students:

1. TALK TO THE OTHER STUDENTS ON YOUR COURSE. I cannot imagine doing this course in a distance learning environment; when I say I’ve learned so much from just chatting to the other students I’m probably understating things, if anything.

2. When you get your book list, head straight to the library. Run, don’t walk. You see, not all library books are the same. Some are available on long loans and those are the ones which will go first. A lot of library related material will also be on computer these days (I feel old now!). Many of the books might be available in electronic copy  and many of the journals definitely will. If you have any library questions, ask a librarian. They’re really nice, and are also experts in how to actually locate information and use libraries.

3. Read. Whenever you aren’t doing anything else, have something to read. When you finish one book, find another one. Scan the library shelves around the books on your book list. If something grabs your eye, pick it up.

4. Make good use of the staff. It’s perfectly OK to ask a personal tutor or course tutor if they can give you some feedback on your essay plan.

5. If your college offers any courses on essay writing, library use, or study skills then take them up on it.Do it sooner rather than later.

6. You will get essay questions and be expected to pick one (don’t laugh, this is radical stuff to someone with a science background). There are several strategies to picking an essay title. I have already experimented with:

a) Pick one that looks easiest. Some essay titles will be very explicit about what you are expected to do. If you’re asked to describe a theory and critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses, it’s likely more straightforwards than writing a fully fledged argument as to whether student social workers should be radical. Similarly you might find an essay title that lets you draw on something you already know.

b) Pick one that looks interesting. Maybe you were really engaged by the lecture where this subject was discussed and want to know more.

c) Pick one that looks useful. Maybe you already know which client group you want to work with, so writing an essay about some related aspect will give you a good excuse to read up and do some research in the area.

d) Pick one that looks challenging. Maybe you’ve never written a formal essay to argue a point before (again, science background!), so you could pick the most classic ‘argument’ essay title in the list on the basis that this is the best way to learn how to do it. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

e) Pick one your friends are doing. That way you can all discuss it together. Just beware of plagiarism.

7. Look at the marking criteria when you are writing an essay. Aim high. Don’t give them a chance to mark you down by forgetting to include something that they specifically told you was part of the schema.

8. If you do have any issues that come up in your personal or family life, let the college know as soon as possible. No one wants you to fail. And there will probably also be a student counselling/ advice service available as well as extra support in the department if you need it.

9. Work. But don’t flog yourself,  this is a marathon not a sprint.

One thought on “Life as a Social Work Student 1

  1. Good luck! I completed a social work degree as a mature student in Australia, and enjoyed it immensely. It is a marathon, certainly. And it was about 25 years since my first degree (law) so there was a lot of catching up to do in how universities had changed. Like you, I thought the range of work and life experience we all had was a learning resource itself, even just in our four residential schools in a distance degree. Online forums are essential, too, if you study by distance.

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