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The Pros and Cons of Placing Students in Internships

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As many of you know, internship experiences are the most important part of a social work program. Since the MSW is a professional degree, having a professional experience that you can apply your coursework is necessary. Internships do more than provide free labor and something to do.

They test the student’s knowledge and help them discover their future goals. Internships are learning experiences, and students should complete as many internship opportunities as they possibly can. I am about to finish my eight internship, and I know I will be completing at least one before I graduate school. Without all these internships, I would not have known the aspects of the social welfare sector that I like and dislike, as well as where I excel.

Considering these points, it is important for schools to be able to provide successful learning experiences. In order to ensure students get these opportunities and abide by the regulations of the Council of Social Work Education, most social work schools place their students at sites. I do not want to state that this is a wrong way to complete internships, especially for graduate students, but there definitely are positives and negative components of this approach. The following points should be considered while we talk about this internship reform.

I’ll start with the positive aspects first of this approach first.

Students are guaranteed some experience.Whether or not the student believes it is applicable, the student will get experience that they will benefit them in one way or another. They may not being doing the work they want to do or end up doing, but they are learning something that will help them in some way or another.

It helps those students who are unsure of their career goals. Even though I believe that students without career goals should not enter graduate work, this way helpful for them to identify opportunities and explore fields of social work, they may not realized existed. Let’s face it. An MSW degree can be an exploratory process, especially for some of the less qualified and motivated students.

The school has better connections than the student. Obviously, the school staff knows more professionals and agencies in the local community than the student. If a student is not originally from the area or went to college in another city, they may not have the connections or know of the agencies to obtain an internship. Agencies also can reach out to the schools and inform of their ability to host students.

There is less worry about abiding by the national council’s standards. Most likely a student does not know the policies and procedures of the CSWE, and they would have to attempt to understand all of them in order to choose a placement. Luckily for students, the schools have staff that know the policies and ensure each experience qualifies.

Students learn to make the best out of situations. As social work students, this the best part of schools placing students at agencies. Social work students are unique and are working with clients who may not be able to change their situations. How are we supposed to motivate our clients to make the best out of their situations, if we cannot make the best out of our own? Our internships are ways for us to experience first-hand what it is like to be given a situation and learn to maximize the opportunity. There is definitely something to acknowledge when a student turns an internship that may not want into an experience they enjoy.

Even though there are many good things, every system has its flaws. Here are a few things that I noticed that are not beneficial:

There is no guarantee that the student will be able to explore their interests. Internships are learning experiences, and crucial for students to figure out what they want to do. If the internship experiences are chosen for them, then they cannot explore their interests. Students should be about learning as much as you can possible while in school, and should passionately follow opportunities that interest them.

Students may not be adequately prepared to obtain a job in their desired field. Most MSW programs have at least two internship experiences, depending on the program. If a student is placed in two internships they do not like or realize they would like to do something else by the time the graduate, they are going to have a difficult time finding a job they do like. For example, my school places you the first year, but you get the chance to choose your placement the second year.

The fact you can choose your second placement is their excuse when students complain that they would like to pick their placement. I honestly do not agree that answer is good enough. For example, a macro student interested in policy will most likely be placed in a clinical internship their first year, then they chose their second year placement. The next year they pick a policy internship, but realize they do not like it or would prefer to do something else like program management. Now what? The student has two internship experiences of things they do not want to do, and are not prepared to have a job they may want to have.

Graduate students should not be babied.By the time an individual reaches graduate school, they should have a specific plan of what the degree is going to do for them. If a graduate student does not have any idea of what they want to do, then they should NOT go to graduate school. They should probably go work for a couple of years, do more internships, complete a public service program or spend time figuring out what you want to do before you spend your money on something that you may end up not liking. Placing students in their internships is treating them like high school or undergraduate students. Graduate students should be more than capable to find their own internships.

Students do not develop the professional skills needed for job searching post-graduation. This is a big flaw I see in this system. Students need to learn in school while they have resources available to develop professional skills, such as resume writing, cover letters, interviews and networking. If the school does all of that for them, students will not have the necessary skills needed when they enter the job market. In some ways, this method promotes laziness since the school is going to do everything for the student. Students need to learn to do the work themselves and prepare for applying to jobs. It is not easy. Ask any graduate. Students need to learn to fail when it comes to job. Every young professional is not going to get every job they submit an application. Learning this now and obtaining support from school services will be extremely helpful when they undergo the arduous process of applying for jobs post-graduation.

Placing students becomes political.Unfortunately, I feel that almost everything is political and social work schools certainly have to deal with these issues. Agencies will expect quality students from the school, and if they do not get them, they may not accept any more interns or even graduates. Schools then have to deal with placing the good students are the sites they want to maintain good relationships with, and then the rest of the agencies get the students left over. If an agency and student both a say in the process, then less responsibility falls on the school if they experience does not work out. Also, schools may focus on the social work areas that benefit the school rather than the student. Students need a voice in these decisions, especially since it is influential factor in their lives.

Honestly, I believe each student should be treated individually. We cannot use a universal system for every student. The students who may have discovered what they want to do and have a strict career plan should be allowed to tailor their education to that field. The students who may not know what they want to do can opt to be placed and the school can take care of it. I completed eight internships and had a job before I started my MSW program. I knew what I wanted out of this program more than the students who did not do any internships before starting graduate school.

I may have been fine finding my own internship, but other students may have not been prepared. Students are professionals or are learning to become professional. If they pick an internship they do not like, then they know that for next time. Without this opportunity to explore, how can a student develop successful career goals on their own with a school holding their hand the entire process?  It seems ironic that a field focused on motivating the individual to make decisions in their life has such strict regulatory standards. Universal methods and social work do not usually go together.

Also View Segments on PBS NewsHour:

Former Interns Debate the Worth and Legality of Unpaid Internships

Will Work for Free: How Unpaid Internships Cheapen Workers of All Ages

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Jonathan Richardson is the Social Work Helper Staff Writer focusing on Students Issues and Concerns. He currently is a graduate student at University at Albany getting his MSW and MPA degrees. Jonathan has a background in a variety of nonprofit administrative and direct practice experience with a specialization in fundraising and development, and he hopes to empower the next generation of leaders and provide them with the motivation to positively impact their local communities. You can also visit his personal blog www.jonathanknowseverything.blogspot.com.

          
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