Whatever form their service to others takes, social work is not for the faint of heart. It is a profession where the caseload can be heavy and the work can be upsetting. Additionally, there is a high-degree of personal accountability required of social workers. The result can be tremendous stress.

Most Masters of Social Work (MSW) graduates report that they entered the field because they loved caring for others and wanted to make the world a better place. However, the work of social workers can be emotionally challenging. In some cases it may cause heartache and disappointment. Many social workers say this is not something you can fully understand until you are out in the field, and experiencing it for yourself.

MSWs who perform direct services work in a range of settings and institutions. These include hospitals, mental health facilities, and hospice homes. Others may perform work on a more administrative level, or in a corporate setting such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Some positions present less stress by virtue of the work and duties involved — the EAP is a great example of this. But many situations in which MSWs must intervene or provide support do involve hardship, emotional upset, or even trauma. Settings may also include such challenges as poverty, addiction, abuse, mental illness, homelessness, or terminal illness.

Fieldwork Feedback – Learning How to Be a Social Worker

Fortunately, an important part of the supervised fieldwork experience, a key component of MSW study, involves learning how to manage the feelings involved with social work. Part of an MSW’s professional development will be learning how to cultivate a professional persona and manage emotions. It is important to make sure that, no matter the circumstances, a client’s situation does have an undue impact on your life. Developing self-awareness, along with a positive mindset, is critical to remaining mentally healthy and being effective at your job.

When MSWs meet with their field supervisors as part of their practicum, assessing how the therapeutic experience went from the social worker’s perspective will be an important part of the discussion. For example, if a client became angry, made personal attacks, or crossed boundaries, how were those interactions handled? And how did it make the MSW feel?

Many behaviors are likely to be expressed by a client during a social worker’s professional career. Learning how to manage a client’s interactions therapeutically, and practicing self-awareness of one’s own feelings, is the mastery required of this profession. Regular supervisor sessions are important in helping any MSW assess their cases and reflect on their work and feelings — not just while in school, but throughout the course of a social work career.

Without a doubt, you will occasionally bring the work home with you. On top of the stress of your cases, being a grad student can be overwhelming by itself. Between coursework and personal responsibilities, and the added demands of the MSW fieldwork experience, it can be easy to become stressed and overloaded.

Learning how to manage it all, and how to balance the intense demands of school, is what will propel you to success and get you through those tough times.

Here is what you need to think about to become an MSW:

  • Are you good at time management?

  • Can you handle pressure?

  • Do you practice a healthy lifestyle?

  • Do you have hobbies, activities, clubs or religious organization that you can turn to de-stress?

  • Do you have a solid support system?

  • Are you at good place in your own life at this time? Is your life relatively stable?

  • Are you by nature self-aware?

  • Can you manage a complex network of relationships, and communicate with colleagues who may be stressed and unreceptive?

  • How do you manage disappointment and setbacks?

Conclusion – MSW Mindset

Helping others can be challenging work. In particular, the social work profession comes with many high risk factors for personal stress. If you believe you can handle the emotional impact of supporting clients, along with a high degree of personal accountability an MSW requires, then you just might have what it takes.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.