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work experience and getting into social work

Work experience: a crucial way to get 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 kickstart your social work career without it, so read on for some handy hints on how to make the most of it.

Work experience is essential if you're planning to take a postgraduate course in social work. It'll help you decide whether this career path is right for you, and it's a prerequisite for many courses.

It'll also:

  • help you to build skills that you'll develop further on the course
  • broaden your understanding of key topics
  • help you to make sense of the taught content of the course
  • give you an idea of whether social work is the right career for you. While you might not be getting experience in exactly the same field, you should find out whether you enjoy certain aspects – including working closely with and helping other people.

What is relevant experience?

Your work experience must be relevant to social work – and the good news is that a wide range of experiences are generally acceptable. In fact, a portfolio of different sorts of experience can be useful. This could include both paid and voluntary work.

Voluntary work experience

Look for volunteering experience via youth clubs, advice services or victim support organisations, or any voluntary agency that seeks to help people. Your local volunteer centre might also connect you to nearby organisations needing volunteers. Your university is likely to be involved in community projects, too.

Volunteering as a university student: what are my options?

Alternatively, you could find suitable opportunities through Do-it, a national database of volunteering opportunities, or search for social media pages that provide details of local voluntary positions (eg the Colchester community volunteer group or the Birmingham voluntary service council Facebook groups). If you want to travel, you could also explore opportunities available through Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

Volunteer your way to a graduate job

Paid work experience

Social care work is also relevant. For example, you might be able to find paid work in a residential home or day centre. Check your local authority website for vacancies and look for adverts in local newspapers or their websites. You could also take a look at the CharityJob website, which lists both paid and voluntary opportunities.

How long does my social work experience need to be?

The length of experience required by most social work course providers varies from around four months to a year. You'll need to check individual entry requirements for each course carefully, including whether the work experience should have been undertaken before interview or by the start of the course.

What sort of skills can you expect to develop on your social work experience? 

In order to make the most of your work experience, it will help if you consider the skills you will work at building beforehand. Important skills and qualities for social work include:

  • good listening skills
  • problem-solving skills
  • empathy
  • advocacy
  • the ability to value difference
  • first aid training
  • health and safety awareness.

Match the work experience to the area of social work that interests you

When you're researching and applying for work experience, consider how it relates to the area of social work you want to focus on. This could open up new options: for example, teaching in a special needs environment might be directly relevant, even if teaching in itself is not.

If you're unsure whether a particular voluntary or paid position would make you a stronger candidate, contact the admissions tutors for the course you're interested in before taking it on.

Making the most of your social work experience

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 for a place on a course.

Use our work experience tracker or keep a reflective diary to keep notes on what you do, the skills you build and the areas that motivate you the most. You'll be able to use your notes to recall what you've learned, both during your interviews and applications and later when you're studying.

When the time comes to apply for jobs, you can draw on your pre-course experience as well as your placements and any post-qualification experience in your application form. Use your experience to provide examples of the competencies and requirements set out in the person specification. This will help you to convince the employer that you have the necessary skills and the ability to reflect and learn from situations – an important skill aptitude in a social work career.

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