I sat on the chair by the pool, looking at the mark again. 35 out of 100? This must have been a joke! I came into social work thinking: how hard is a social work degree? How hard can it be, really? We are simply looking at emotions, helping people… nah, it can’t be that hard!
But after graduating, looking back, I have realised how hard a social work degree is. I don’t say this to discourage you, but I want you to be aware of the sacrifices you will make and what you are getting yourself into. I would hate for you to come in and quit without completing.
In this article, I want to share about what makes a social work degree hard.
A social work degree is hard because placements and university work are combined.
This is by far the largest difficulty of any social work student. In addition to working 9 to 5 at your placement, you will need to complete your final essay about your placement. This is a huge workload.
The emotional labour of a social work degree is hard, very hard.
Early on in your university degree, instead of studying positive things, you will be exposed to the worst things people can do to each other. Child abuse. Mistreatment of the elderly. Bullying of those with special needs. You might study serious case reviews identifying mistakes that social workers made so that you can learn what not to do in future. This can be emotionally draining.
When I started my first placement, I remember working with a refugee who had been previously tortured. As a result of that, he experienced chronic headaches that never seemed to go away. He would not be able to sleep. Once, after I spoke to him, I remember feeling a headache that very night. That was when I realised the dangers of emotional labour. Often, social work requires you to empathise and connect with the emotions of the client. This means that the possibility of somatic transference is high, whereby you start identifying with the emotions and experiences of the client.
Recognising it is the first key to resolving it.
Being separated from your friends during placement is challenging.
On any traditional university course, you stick with your friends throughout the three years of lectures and seminars. You support and encourage each other. But when you are a social work student, the reality is different. Most social work students go to different placements. This means that the friends you have are often not physically with you. The support they can offer is therefore limited.
When you are separated from your fellow course mates, you might find that it is harder to find people who understand your struggles. There is your supervisor, but she might not necessarily understand all of what you are facing.
Resolving this equates to being willing to open up and continue connecting with your friends from university. Arrange calls with them. Be honest with them. Be vulnerable. That is a key quality of good social workers.
The responsibilities can be overwhelming.
When you are on placement, you might feel that the responsibilities of the whole world are on your shoulders. The responsibility of protecting a child from harm, or of safeguarding a vulnerable adult, or of ensuring a proper care plan…these responsibilities can feel overly burdensome for someone that has just started a university degree.
What’s important is to realise that when you have any doubts, you can always ask your supervisor for help. You don’t have to feel that you need to make those decisions on your own. Secondly, you need to realise that you are responsible to, and not responsible for those clients you see (see Cloud and Townsend’s book on Boundaries for more). You are accountable to them, but you are not responsible for the changes in their lives. Understanding your responsibility is key to maintaining healthy boundaries in the social worker-client relationship.
The traditional support structures of university might not be as readily available.
I remember that as a social work student, I was regularly rushing from my workplace to make it for my university counselling appointments. I would ride my bicycle all the way up the hill, before appearing at the counselling centre, panting heavily.
When you are on placement, the traditional university support structures such as counselling and your personal tutor might not be on-site. But that does not mean that they are not available. During the two concerns process I had, I remember the huge support my tutor was to me. He made himself available to take my calls, and to answer my questions over emails.
We need to reach out and ask for help.
I hope this list of difficulties that social work students will face make you better prepared for what a social work degree will look like. Yes, it’s difficult. But when you walk across the graduation stage in your gown, you will find that it was all worth it.