1.) Be Visionary
Ever hear the saying, "When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there?" Does this mantra guide your social work career? Have you thought about where you want to be five or ten years down the road? We are trained to ask this of our clients, but how often do we really ask this question for ourselves?
When developing your career path, you may find it helpful to think about a few things. You took the $13 an hour youth counseling job because that is the only one you could get at the time. Look around you. How many of your coworkers said the position was just temporary, only to be in the same spot, burnt-out, five years later? Are you where you thought you would be when you decided to become a social worker? What was that original passion and vision that moved you?
Have a future vision that motivates you and outline all the small roads that will get you there. Start with one road at a time (with time lines of course). Though following your passion may at times be difficult, just remember what Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." Believe you can!
2.) Who is in your Network?
As social workers we know everything is about our network, from finding our dream social work job, to creating social change. So, what area of social work do you want to be in and who do you know associated with that field? Perhaps more importantly, who don't you know that you need to know to get your break? How are you going to meet them?
Tap into your social network to get leads. Let EVERYONE know (by direct phone calls, emails, or visits) you are searching and what social work position you are searching for. You never know where an opportunity might come from. It can be helpful if you have an in to get acquainted with an organization, but if not, consider an internship or volunteer work. Many social workers have landed jobs through these opportunities. It's a win-win scenario. Perspective employers get to see a sample of your work and you get to see if an agency is a good fit for you.
You may want to consider the internet as an option for networking. You can find and introduce yourself to social workers on sites like LinkedIn or Facebook. Social Work Network is a similar site, but more specific to social work networking needs. You can find social workers by location, degree, school, company, and expertise/interests, as well as search thousands of social work jobs or internship and volunteer opportunities. These sites are free resources, so why not take advantage of them?
3.) Be Assertive
Ever want to say to an employer, "Don't call me, I'll call you"? You have the chance to do this at the end of your cover letter. Simply let the employer know you will contact them in a few days to discuss the position further. In a time where competition for social work jobs is fierce, such a technique may give you the edge.
Prior to calling, jot down a few things you want to know about the position, as well as a few points of value you add to it. Common questions are, "How did this position come to be open?" and "What is your hiring time line?" When you call, make sure the employer knows the call will only take a few minutes of their time. Here is a sample intro, "Hello Dr. Smith. My name is Andrea Ricci and I am calling about the Adult Advocate position listed on Social Work Network. I'll only take a few moments of your time [Shy away from asking whether or not it is a good time to talk, you might get shut-off immediately. Instead, get straight to the point]. I am interested in this position because I have my Master's Degree in Social Work and worked for seven years as the Adult Advocate for Yourtown Court [Just added value to the position and probably peaked employer's interest]. How did this position come to be open? [Nice open ended question]."
At the end of the phone call, ask for an interview. You don't want to leave the phone call open ended with the ball in the employer's court, so keep it in yours! Say something like, "It seems like my experience and this position are a good fit. Would it be possible to discuss this more in an interview? I have a portfolio of my work I would like to share for your review." You have nothing to lose by asking for an interview and now the employer is put in a position where they might say yes -especially if you're offering them a portfolio they may be interested in seeing.
4.) What's in your Portfolio?
Portfolios are excellent tools to showcase your skills and set you apart from the competition. It is generally a sampling of the work you have done during your social work career. Include, in a three ring binder, a label on the front with your name and contact information using bold, clear, traditional fonts. Use plastic sleeves to hold all of your documents and include a Table of Contents.
Here are some things to include in your portfolio: a resume (specifically tailored to the position you are applying for), grant proposals, press releases, media relations, anything that documents computer skills (presentation with PowerPoint, research with SPSS), research proposals, policy analysis, a professionally written letter, reference letters, supervisor evaluations, public testimony, certifications, etc. If it is not clear from looking at the document what it is, include a typed written white label on the lower right hand sleeve that includes the purpose, your role, and date of the project. Make sure to change the content of your portfolio for each job you interview to reflect competence in the skills necessary for each position.
Once you have a portfolio, hurl it in all your cover letters, phone calls, and job interviews. It is an extra incentive for employers to interview you and can sometimes make or break getting a position. When you leave your portfolio with a prospective employer, make a plan to pick it up. You may wish to ask the employer how long they would like to have the portfolio or you may choose to set a time line yourself, "I would like to leave my portfolio for your review. Would it be convenient if I stopped back on Friday to pick it up?"
5.) Check Yourself
Job hunting in the social work profession can be overwhelming. Make sure to take care of yourself through the process. Some people find it helpful to develop check-boxes of personal and professional tasks they wish to accomplish the next day. You may want to apply for three jobs, go to your son's soccer game, wash the car, and go to the gym. Include them all in one to do list, mixing them up if needed. The truth is...we only have one life. If one part of it is lapsing, it will affect the other. Tend to your personal needs equally with your professional ones so that both your private life and career are rising together and mutually benefiting one another.
Michelle Bussolotti, MSW, has worked in the social work field for seven years as a counselor, community educator, and policy/legislative analyst. She graduated with her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Eastern Connecticut State University and earned her Master's Degree in Policy Practice Social Work from the University of Connecticut. For more information on social work networking and social work jobs, please visit her website at http://www.socialworknetwork.com.
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