February 21

What I wish I knew before becoming a social worker


By now, it’s a bit of a running joke, isn’t it?

That what you learn in university doesn’t seem to apply in practice.

15 months after qualifying as a social worker, here are 7 things I wish university taught me.

If you’re newly qualified, you may find this helpful in reflecting on your own work after a year in social work. I hope it reveals new ways you might think about your own work.

If you’re not so new, share with us! What was the most important lesson you wish university taught you?

You are first responsible for yourself.

It’s a foggy morning.

I’m riding my bicycle, rushing to the gym, before heading to work.

I head down the roundabout…

And as I lean into the bend, I see a car stopping at the filter lane.

I make eye contact with the driver.

He tries to make a run for it.


I hit the ground with a thud.

My bicycle skids past me.

I try to get up. I can. That’s a miracle.

I feel some aches in my knee, but I still can walk. I pick up my bicycle.

Its wheel is broken.

The first thing that comes into my head?


What’s going to happen to my six-packs now?

Don’t laugh.

That morning, after getting into a car accident, I was more worried about my fitness routine than about my own health.

In social work, that’s common.

You think about your client, your colleagues, before you start thinking about yourself.

You think about all the things you need to do for others, before thinking about yourself.

You neglect yourself.

Here’s the harsh truth. You’re 100% responsible for yourself. No one else is or will be. No one else can care about you.

Your clients? You’re responsible to them, but not for them.

The distinction?

You’re accountable to your clients. You answer to them.

But you don’t do things for them.

Yes, you encourage and empower them. But they take the actions for their own lives.

Not you.

As Henry Cloud and John Townsend argue,

That is the essence of being responsible to someone, to not do for them what only they can do, and to love them by providing the help that would help them do it for themselves.

Your job is to encourage, confront, empower, sometimes give resources, coach, cajole, support, or other things that help them fulfill their responsibility without doing it for them. That is the line.

Townsend and Cloud

In social work, it’s easy to get the lines blurred.

You may think that you’re helping, just once!

But it’s a slippery slope. What differentiates this time from the next?

Set proper boundaries between how you will and will not help.

More importantly, be responsible for yourself. Don’t neglect yourself at the expense of others.

Have clinic hours

I used to wonder how doctors did so many things. Didn’t they see patients everyday?

How then did they write research, reply emails, or even eat?

Then I realised.

Clinic hours.

Have some clinic hours
Have some clinic hours, will you?

You know how your doctor’s clinic is only open at certain times?

You can do that too.

This has by far been the best way I’ve found to manage my time.

You want to see clients, type up your case notes and assessments, and handle all the other projects that come your way?

Have clinic hours.

Pick a routine that works best for you.

A few recommendations that might help.

  • Have 2 days a week when you can devote to admin work. These are the days when you type your case notes, write your assessments, and do the work that comes in between.
    • I choose Wednesday and Friday because the space in between allows for batching.
  • Schedule appointments to see clients (home visits, sessions) during clinic hours.
  • Follow the routine. Be disciplined about it.
How to have clinic hours

Learn good customer service

I never knew the difference between good and bad customer service until I started living in Nottingham.

I once ate in a Chinese restaurant in London. Before I had even finished my meal, the waiter came.

She handed me the bill with a smile.

Contrast this with my favourite restaurant in Nottingham.

How’s the food, sir?

Is there anything else you would like?

Great customer service makes you feel like a person, not a pound-note.

It’s the same in social work.

How do you help the client to feel like you’re interested in him? Not in his problem, but in him as a person?

Small talk can be a way to ease someone into the room. Talk about the weather. The trip here.

Maybe not COVID.

You get the idea. Something neutral, unthreatening, safe.

It’s also about how you sound over the phone.

How do you introduce yourself? Do you sound warm and inviting over the phone? Or does your tone sound harsh and cutting?

How do you put down the phone? Are you the last one to say ‘bye’, or do you cut the line?

Great customer service is not about ‘commercialising’ social work. Rather, it’s about making social work feel comfortable.

Think about it.

You’re meeting someone for the first time… and you’re expected to share your deep, dark secret with him.

Why should you do that, even if he can help?

Customer service is bringing a sense of home to a client, helping the client feel that he belongs.

Have good foundations in theory

Theory? What theory?

I threw that out of the window after university!

My colleague laughed.

I had asked her what theory she used to guide her interventions in social work.

It’s tempting to walk into sessions with nothing more than pen and paper. You’re not sure what you’re trying to do during the session.

I will admit.

I do that many times, thinking that I’m being ‘client-centric’ or person-focused.

I tell myself that I’m led by the client’s agenda, not mine.

I’m sure you don’t do that, right? (Wink.)

It’s easy to rush from session to session, client to client, without thinking about what you’re trying to do.

After all, there isn’t much time, is there?

No time to sit down, reflect, and figure what you’re trying to do.

Recently, a mentor sat down with me and taught me how to do it.

In every session, have 3 objectives you wish to fulfil.

  • What are the lines of questioning that will clarify your hypothesis?
  • What can support your plan of action in alleviating the problems raised?

Going in cold and trying to ‘wing’ it is not going to work.

Even if you have to tear up your session plan at the start of the session, your plan reminds you of where you are trying to head to.

As Timothy Geithner, Treasury Secretary during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis once said,

Plan beats no plan.

You didn’t cause the problem.

I confess.

I look at where I am today, and I can feel that I won…


Facing the problems your clients face daily, you feel part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t treat the people who serve me with more grace and dignity than they currently receive.

It’s easy to take the waiter for granted.

Or to be absorbed in your phone as the cashier serves you at checkout.

Or to complain when you see an overflowing trashcan.

My sister once yelled at me,

How can you call yourself a social worker?

When you’re a social worker from Monday to Friday, it’s easy to take that role into Saturday and Sundays too.

As you look at your own life today, it’s easy to feel a sense of responsibility for what’s happening.

You see it happening in your consumption choices. You ask yourself,

Do I really need to buy this fancy shoe if someone can’t even afford shoes?

Do I really need to spend $X on this meal if someone doesn’t even have meals?

Your clients start whispering in your ear. You see problems everywhere.

The problem of human suffering is as old as Earth itself.

You didn’t cause it.

Nor can you fully resolve it.

You can only try.

And you’re trying your best.

That’s enough.

You can’t change or control anyone.

One thing I often hear students say when I ask them why they do social work is:

I want to help people.


You know you can’t change anyone right?

You can’t control someone too. Especially difficult clients.

If you want to help people, hold these two truths in mind.

It makes life far, far easier when you stop trying to change people.

Your role is to facilitate that change.

Not to force that change.

As Sun Tzu in The Art of War said, the highest triumph of strategy is to ‘win the war without fighting’.

Sometimes, you can feel like you’re fighting against immense institutional barriers to help the clients you see.

You’re fighting against thinking habits that are decades-old in the clients you counsel.

Stop fighting. Start flowing.

Someday, you will realise that it’s not the best argument which wins. Nor is it the one with the fanciest job title that pushes through the change.

Rather, it’s the one who loses some battles to win the war.

It’s the one who stops trying to change the client, but instead tries to change his lens towards the client.

It’s the one who stops seeing the binary of win-lose, but wonders if there’s a win-win.

Validate, always validate.

A simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way.

Social work can feel like a thankless job.

You feel like no one appreciates the work you do.

That’s not the truth.

People may be too busy to say so.

When you’re emotionally overwhelmed, tired, and out of time, saying thank you is the last thing on your mind.

It’s not about the external clients you have. It’s also your internal clients.

Your colleagues and bosses.

Thank them.

Save more money

You might have started with a noble purpose. But I soon found myself having to save money on everything – from finding cheaper smart phones, to having to figure out a side hustle to make more money, like design annual reports, and websites, to making PayNow QR codes for people who didn’t know how to do it… 

You would have expected that I would have quit much earlier.

But I didn’t. Because I believe that what we were doing had purpose.

You might have to clamp down on the spending though.

From the bright and idealistic person you were…

When you first entered social work, you may have been bright and idealistic.

Today, you may have lost some of that fire.

When I worked previously in statutory settings, it was easy to tell the social workers who had lost ‘it’.

The zest. Fire. Passion.

For them, the client was just another case. Another crisis to attend to. More of the same.

You hear it in the weariness of their voice.

But one day, I saw someone different. Someone who went to every corner of the U.K., trying to bring hope to social work.

Once, she told me,

Life is not about darting from the rain.

It’s about dancing in the rain.

Making the leap from university to real, social work, is like hoping from a safe shelter, into a pouring rain.

Are you ready to dance in it?


What is the one lesson you wish university taught you in social work? Share it below!


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  1. I see you and hear you. Also I thank you. I’m heading to college again at 43 to pursue a career as an art therapist. Your words have solidified my resolve to follow through and work on me before I work with others. My own therapist said similar words to these so thanks for the confirmation.

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