Social work internships—also known as field placements and fieldwork—are an integral part of an aspiring social worker’s education.
As the associate director of field education for the Online MSW at Yeshiva University, Mary White makes a career out of helping students find the right career path in social work through highly valuable field experiences. Here, Mary discusses why fieldwork is so important in social work, explains how the fieldwork placement process works in Yeshiva’s Online MSW and covers the top benefits of studying online.
What is fieldwork?
Fieldwork is the place where you can apply the academic work you’ve learned in the field. It’s where you get to try it on in a supervised way. We work with people and really practice “Do no harm.” Fieldwork is how you can learn how to do that before you graduate, and then you’re going to do it on your own.
Why are social work internships such an integral part of an MSW education?
In addition to being required by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), an internship is a great time to figure out what you want to do and what you don’t want to do professionally. Sometimes students end up doing therapy with people with major mental illness, and they might love it or they might hate it.
I’ve had students say, “I don’t really like working with that population.” So I’ll really work hard with that student to celebrate that and say, “That is so great that you’ve figured that out, because now, you’re not going to waste your time being miserable in a job.”
That’s what an internship is all about. The thing about the social work profession is that we can do anything. There are so many populations: medical, hospice, outpatient therapy, crisis, community practice, macro work, adults, children, geriatric, and on and on. I really encourage students to try something new in their internships to rule something in or rule it out, and both are just as valuable.
You need to walk the walk before you can sit with somebody. These are real people. Social workers do not see people at their best. We see people who are marginalized, victimized. You need to be able to look confident in your skills. They will grow over the course of your career, but you need to have some level of confidence and experience when you start out.
For students in Yeshiva’s Online MSW, it all begins with Intro to Fieldwork. Can you walk us through this course?
Intro to Fieldwork is a non-credit course that every student is required to take. They take it simultaneously with other academic courses. The course is divided into two components.
The first four weeks are dedicated to the students doing exercises to think about their goals, what they want to learn, where they want to go and what they want to avoid. They build a professional resume and practice interviewing skills. Students do that work across the first four modules.
Module five is where the rubber hits the road. Students seek out field placement experiences in their own communities and communicate their plan to me. There’s an understanding right from the get go that there’s going to be a lot of back and forth with me to settle on the right place. Canvas, our learning management system, helps out with communication here.
The last step is a meeting between student, MSW field instructor, and me. Everyone meets via Zoom (video conferencing) to get on the same page. Then I vet the organization and make sure they understand all their responsibilities to the student.
I’ve been doing this for more than eight years, and it’s a rare occurrence to disapprove the placement. Because of all the back and forth in the beginning, I am 99% sure the field placement will work by the time the meeting occurs.
Are students able to take their fieldwork component at their current place of work?
Any student can have a place-of-employment internship, but these internships have certain parameters.
First, a place-of-employment internship cannot be your current job. The purpose of an internship is to learn new skills. If you’re already doing it for your job, that’s not applicable for learning new skills. It’s not educationally sound.
Another parameter is that you cannot work with the same clients across two positions. Let’s say you’re a case manager for an agency, and you’re going to do a place-of-employment internship and act as a therapist. You cannot work with the same clients you’re working with in your job as a case manager, and then see the same people as a therapist. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, and it would get really confusing if you say, “Monday I’m your therapist, but Tuesday I’m going to help you get food stamps.” That’s not how that works.
Finally, your MSW field instructor can’t be your employment supervisor. That’s because we want you to make mistakes—that’s how you learn. You don’t know what you don’t know. We want the student to be in student mode and for the field instructor to be in teacher mode, not a supervisory role. In fact, dual relationships are a violation of the NASW code of ethics. Someone can’t be your boss and your field instructor—that’s a conflict.
How do students in the Online MSW receive feedback during their fieldwork?
When a student is in a field placement, they’re also enrolled in the seminar course in which they’ll upload videos saying what they’ve done that week or their ethical concerns. The expectation is that every student must respond to this video (i.e. “I’ve had similar experiences” or “Why don’t you try this”). The seminar instructor does the same and give direct feedback and guidance that way (i.e. “Try this,” “Research this,” etc.)
What are some of the top benefits of studying in an online MSW program?
The seminar class has been present since the dawn of time. When I went to school years ago, I was in a room with about 20 other students, and we sat in a circle and talked about what we learned that week. The class lasted maybe 90 minutes, but not everyone had time to speak. And I only got to hear from people who were teaching or learning social work in my area.
The great thing about learning in an online program is you’re learning from social workers, potentially, from all over the world. How cool is that? Social workers in different locales face completely different challenges.
Another really cool thing about an online program is that everybody has to talk; you can’t hide in an online program. An online program is a really safe way to have a voice and be heard, because that’s the expectation. You will get feedback, and you will give feedback to everyone.
I personally think online is better than on-campus because you can’t hide and you have to participate. Not everyone is as assertive as everyone else, and you need to be comfortable expressing your voice and being confident in your skills and what you have to say.
How do you foster communication in the Online MSW?
There are a lot of discussion boards, but we use videos, not just words. That way students get to hear my voice and see my face. Students upload videos, too. And I would challenge a person who says “That’s not the same as face-to-face” and ask “Do you ever FaceTime your friends? Is that less authentic?” Probably not. It’s the same.
As Mary explains, online does not mean impersonal. Stay engaged with your Online MSW classmates and professors through innovate digital media while honing your interpersonal skills in career-shaping field work. Explore the Online MSW curriculum today.