15 Job Search Lessons for Social Work Grads

It’s that time of year! My Masters’ in Social Work students are ready to graduate and enter the workforce. Their efforts to secure employment pose new considerations courtesy of the pandemic. Here are 15 lessons to activate the job search for my students past and present.

Lesson 1: Organize 

Set up an electronic folder on your computer, with subfolders:

·       References

·       Cover letters

·       Interview questions

·       Submitted applications

·       Recruiter contacts

·       Key info about jobs applied for  

Develop an excel spreadsheet to track positions with information including application dates, if you heard back and when, job details (e.g., salary, key benefits, virtual or in-person, multiple sites), contact information. How to organize is up to you, but do something!

Lesson 2: Keep your resume focused, comprehensive, and competency-based.

A resume is your professional face. In your zest to post and send it to potential employers, you can easily include too much info, be too wordy, or use unprofessional language. Think:

·       Formatting: Use a resume template, plus career planning offices at your college or university, and: 

o  Indeed.com

o  The New Social Worker 

o  ResumeGenius  

·       Use competency-based language: Professions have competencies that viewed as pillars of practice. Use that language to describe roles for practicums, internships, or professional jobs; for example, ‘intervened with adolescent population’ instead of ‘worked with adolescents’. Another example is, ‘engaged in counseling’ instead of ‘provided, or did counseling’. Competency-based language also lives in course syllabi and licensure regulations for your state.

·       Attention to detail matters: A resume is your first impression to perspective employers. If there are errors, they will wonder, ‘if you can’t take the time to proof your own resume, why should they believe you’ll do better on the job?’. Do spelling AND grammar checks!

Lesson 3: Have references ready!

Reach out early to references and keep their names accessible! Maintain professional letters of recommendation in your online files. Keep references in the loop so they know to expect any calls or emails for information about you. With so many phishing emails, everyone is cautious about providing information. Your reference can easily miss a vital request to provide the recommendation that leads to a job offer!

Lesson 4: Stay in the know of current COVID 19 realities

Keep up on COVID19 facts and their impact for any populations you might work with. Brush up on Crisis theory, Trauma-informed care, and short-term counseling techniques. Also, review websites of potential employers for pandemic initiatives. This info will help you develop ideas on how to best serve the organization. Knowledge is power; this is a great way to tout your expertise in the interview!

Lesson 5: Know brief assessment tools and resources

With the uptick in mental health across populations and the workforce, have working knowledge of assessment tools to manage anxiety, stress, and depression. Quality resources live at Therapist Aid .

Lesson 6: Interviews are reciprocal opportunities

Interviews are not a guarantee of employment. Candidates can spend so much time during an interview discussing their expertise, they forget to ask key questions about the workplace. 

Research employers before the interview. View the employer’s website to learn their mission, vision, and goals. Learn how the organization conducts business. Ask questions about short and long term goals, and how they see you fitting into these plans. This tactic conveys your interest in the position. Interviews are for potential employers to interview you, but also you to interview them. This mindset puts you in control of the process, and decreases anxiety. Ask questions to learn if this job and setting are for you, such as those at Big Interview

Remember, decision-making timeframes vary, so ask about next steps. Organizations can take 2 days to make final decisions or months! Know what you are facing to help prioritize other offers!

Lesson 7: Ask about job stability

Amid such unpredictable times, it’s appropriate to ask about potential layoffs and furloughs. Some positions are funded by grants, so ask how long the position is funded and what happens next. Hiring freezes can be common and won’t necessarily be information shared. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

Lesson 8: Be ready to name your unique strengths, and demonstrate them 

Job candidates will be asked how they will handle specific situations. Identify your strengths and how they would make a difference. Consider:

·       How do your strengths set you apart from other candidates?

·       Why should the organization hire you?

·       What examples can you provide so the employer understands your worth?

·       How can you demonstrate your ability to work with a team?

·       You will be asked about your weaknesses. Be prepared to respond in a professional manner, and have your answer ready. 

Lesson 9: The only constant in our industry is change 

Know this: the industry will change as will you; be open to what it means for you to change with it. 

Lesson 10: Be open to short-term or part-time roles

An exciting short-term or part-time role may turn into the best career option never anticipated. Don’t dismiss positions that are different from your expectations!

Lesson 11: Set up your professional social media profile. 

Set up a professional profile using established websites and job bank platforms. Facebook (or Meta) can help with networking, but use other websites that highlight recruitment:

Keep a profile professional! Use a polished photo versus a selfie with your BFF, pet, or family! Solid guidance is at What Recruiters Want to See on Your LinkedIn Profile

Lesson 12: Negotiation is expected

Negotiation is expected for any job. Negotiate for everything:

  • A higher hourly rate or salary
  • Remote options or flexible work hours
  • Coverage/reimbursement for professional fees (e.g. licensure exam application, exam prep courses, professional association dues)
  • Coverage/reimbursement for clinical supervision and if it is offered onsite. Organizations may pay a portion of the rate to the whole amount. They may only provide supervision internally or have waiting lists. If supervision is provided, you may need to promise to stay at the organization for set number of years post-completion, or pay pack a set amount.

You don’t know what you don’t know, so ask questions! The answers may surprise you! 

Lesson 13: Don’t be thrown by a title or position qualifications 

People apply for jobs based on titles; titles are deceptiveLearn about the scope of each role before dismissing a solid opportunity. 

Don’t dismiss a role based on qualifications alone. Application processes may ‘kick you out’ for not having hard competency qualifications (e.g., degree, licensure). Other knowledge or experiences can sway the decision; volunteer roles and practicums with a population speak volumes. Don’t assume you’re not qualified!

Lesson 14: Take the right job, not just any job

You want an income when you graduate, but strive for the right job. Listen to your clinical gut during the job search. Don’t jump on the first offer or settle if something feels off. Process the opportunity with peers, former professors, and mentors. We may be amid the Great Resignation, but, the grass isn’t always greener; there are brown spots everywhere. 

Lesson 15: Enjoy the job search

There is pressure to be employed, but explore opportunities. Get out there and enjoy the search!

I invite colleagues and followers to post other practical lessons below to empower our next generation of professionals!

Author: Ellen's Interprofessional Insights

Bio: Ellen Fink-Samnick is an award-winning industry subject matter expert on interprofessional ethics, wholistic health equity, trauma-informed leadership, and supervision. She is an esteemed professional speaker, author, and knowledge developer with academic appointments at George Mason University and the University of Buffalo. Ellen is a clinical supervision trainer for NASW of Virginia, and serves in national leadership and consultant roles. She is also a Doctoral in Behavioral Health Candidate at Cummings Graduate Institute of Behavioral Health Studies. Further information is available on her LinkedIn Bio and website

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