Work experience: a crucial means of getting into graduate social work careers

Relevant work experience is a condition of entry onto most postgraduate social work courses. You'll be hard pushed to kick-start your social care career without it, so read on for some handy hints on how to make the most of it.
Gaining work experience for a graduate social work career
Work experience in social care is essential to enable an applicant to experience the sorts of difficulties that people encounter.

You will need to get some experience in the social care sector under your belt before embarking on your postgraduate social work course. Mark Lymbery, associate professor in social work at the University of Nottingham explains that prior work experience in social care is 'essential to enable an applicant to experience the sorts of difficulties that people encounter and to make practical sense of the taught content of the course'.

The length of experience required by most social work course providers varies from around four months to a year. You will need to check individual entry requirements carefully, including whether the work should have been undertaken before interview or by the start of the course. A wide range of work experience is generally acceptable, including paid work in statutory, voluntary or private settings, or voluntary work in any social care setting. Mark points out that a portfolio of different sorts of social care experience can be useful for applicants and that the most important criterion would be that any work experience undertaken should be 'demonstrably connected to the practice of social workers'.

What is relevant experience?

Relevance to social work is not always easy to define, however. For example, Mark says, 'experience of secondary school teaching might not be relevant experience, whereas teaching in a "special needs" environment would. Similarly, parenting would not normally count as relevant experience, but foster-parenting would.'

So if you're unsure whether a particular voluntary or paid position would be relevant, contact admissions tutors before taking it on. Once you've found a paid or voluntary position, it's important to make the most of the opportunity, both to help you decide whether social work is a career you definitely want to pursue, and, assuming it is, to help you at the interview stage. According to Mark, interviewers will be 'seeking to explore the sense and meaning that each applicant has taken from prior experience'. Mark explains that applicants who appear to have made best use of their pre-course experience tend to have received 'active support, supervision and guidance in the workplace'. 

Keeping track of your experience

However, if this kind of support is not available, there are useful things prospective students can do. Mark suggests that 'keeping a reflective diary - often recommended for students on practice placements - can assist an individual to keep in touch with his or her emotional responses to issues. Reading newspaper or journal articles that have a particular focus on social work is also a good way of keeping abreast of current preoccupations.' He adds that 'The essential point to remember is that interviewers will ask you questions that are intended to elicit information about what you have made of your work experience. Always remember the key lesson: it's not what you have done, it's the learning that you have taken from it that will count most.'

Mark offers the following ideas to get you started: 'One source of good quality experience can be gathered from paid work in a residential home or day centre - these will be advertised in your local newspaper; each social services department will also have its own internal job vacancy bulletin, which will be well worth perusing. If you are looking for voluntary work, there are a range of both national and local organisations that co-ordinate such activities. For example, time spent undertaking voluntary work overseas - through an organisation such as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) - will certainly be of great benefit when seeking to convince sceptical interviewers of your commitment to the wider goals of social work!'