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

work experience and getting into social work
Relevant work experience is a condition of entry onto most postgraduate social work courses. You'll be hard pushed to kick-start your social work career without it, so read on for some handy hints on how to make the most of it.
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 relevant work experience under your belt before embarking on a postgraduate social work course. Prior work experience will give you insight into whether you are really suited to social work as well as helping you to develop relevant skills and broadening your understanding. It will also enable you 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 experience 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. A portfolio of different sorts of experience can be useful.

What is relevant experience?

When researching and applying for work experience opportunities, consider whether it will be possible to relate what you are doing to the practice of social work. 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, you could contact the admissions tutors for the course you are interested in before taking it on.

It will help you plan your work experience and make the most of it if you think in terms of the skills employers will be looking for. Good listening and problem solving skills, empathy, advocacy and valuing difference are all important social work skills. Practical skills such as lifting, first aid and health and safety awareness may also be relevant.

You could gain experience that will help you get onto a social work course either by volunteering or through paid employment. You could gain relevant volunteering experience through helping out at a youth club or advice service or victim support organisation, or any voluntary agency that seeks to help people. You could find suitable opportunities through Do-it, a national database of volunteering opportunities, or vInspired, which connects 16 to 25-year-olds with volunteering opportunities in England. You could also explore opportunities available through VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas).

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 newspaper for vacancies.

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. You could keep a reflective diary: this is often recommended for students on practice placements. Interviewers will be keen to find out what you have learned from your work experience and how you responded to it.

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.

Reading newspaper or journal articles that have a particular focus on social work is also a good way of keeping up to date with current issues, and will help you view your experience in the wider context of current social work practice.