I have had a TERRIBLE graduate experience in a school that is incompetent, outdated, offensive, and contemptuous of their student body. I have learned absolutely nothing, and have actively dodged being taught some offensive anti-social justice things, but only because I educate myself and was aware that I was being taught bullshit.
I occasionally get messages from people on this site who are all, “Why so angry?” and after we chat a bit it’s apparent that they go to a good school that has taught them amazing things, and they are horrified at what is happening in my school. More often, I get messages from people saying, “Yep, my school is just like that, too, most of these social work grad programs are shit.”
With that in mind, my biggest tip for heading into grad school is TRUST YOUR GUT. If you feel like your classes are all shit? They are. If you feel like your professors don’t fucking care? They don’t. If you feel like the school thinks of you as just a wallet? They do. Social workers are susceptible to making excuses for bad situations, because we think we can fix them, which is another way of saying we think we’re so powerful that if we just changed the way we think/act/speak/feel, the world will change as well. It won’t. If you try to just “change your perspective” in a shitty program, you’ll still be in a shitty program, you’ll just be gaslit as well, which means you’ll lose access to your most valuable tool: your good brain.
Secondly, keep your roles straight. You’re a student when you’re in school. You’re not a clinician and you’re not a social worker. Your professors are academics, they aren’t social workers either. Social work values and ethics do not apply at school. They should, and if you’re in a good school, they will. But if you’re in a bad school, they absolutely won’t apply, but administration and conflict-averse students will try to act like they apply only to students. For example, if you have an abusive classmate? Well, as social workers, we should really be tolerant of all perspectives, how are you going to deal with clients if you’re so intolerant? NO NO NO. Students deserve to be in safe academic spaces, your shitty classmate isn’t your client, your petty professor isn’t your client. If your professor fucks up but subtly implies it’s your fault for not advocating for yourself? NO. Advocacy happens when you’re working as a social worker on behalf of a client. When you’re going into debt to pay somebody’s salary, you have a right to expect that they do their fucking job. Holding a motherfucker accountable? That’s advocacy. Enabling people and cleaning up their messes and making excuses? That’s abuser talk, coming out of your mouth.
Third, you need your support network set up. I met a group of really amazing people in my program, and we became fast friends. Without them, I absolutely would’ve dropped out after my first year. You need a touchstone to help reorient you to reality, because a bad program will try to gaslight the shit out of you. You need people you can complain to without being implicitly or explicitly shamed into shutting up (“gosh, you complain a lot, why don’t you do something about it?”). You will be stretched thin in every possible imaginable direction, and your capacity for fixing or changing things will be nil, so you need people in your life who are comfortable with your unhappiness and can sit with it. Your bucket will be running on empty most of the time, and things that used to be tolerable will become rage or tear-inducing. You need people who can deal with you like that, and hang in there with you, until it’s over.
Fourth, your internship can make or break you. There are boring internships, where you learn nothing of worth and just file papers all day long. And there are good internships, where you actually learn a lot and develop great skills. And there are bad internships, where you are being exploited as free labor, emotionally abused, bullied, overworked, and screamed at, and your school literally could not give a shit — actually, they might be mad at you for bringing it up. Good internships are stressful, because they really require hard work and presence of mind, but it’s a good stress. Boring internships are infuriating, because you are paying money to do and learn nothing. But a bad internship will make you break out in hives and drop out of school. Again, TRUST YOUR GUT. If you interview somewhere, and something seems “off,” or you see something you don’t like but say to yourself, “I’m sure I can deal with it,” STOP. YOU CAN’T. Normal you can deal with it. Grad school you can barely emotionally cope with making a sandwich. If you get into a bad internship, GET OUT ASAP, as soon as you realize it’s bad. You will not be able to sustain, or if you do, it’ll cost more than it’s worth.
Fifth, “self-care” is another word for “victim-blaming.” It’s important to know how to take care of yourself, but you are a goddamn adult human being, right, you have gotten this far, so presumably you know your triggers and you know what makes you feel better, because you have had ample opportunity to figure that out before now. Making a contract with yourself to remember to take a bubble bath is not going to make you good at self-care. That’s fucking busywork. You know what’s really good self-care? Not being in a grad school program where they exploit you, gaslight you, and take your money. You’re not a mess because you’ve failed to take care of yourself. You’re a mess because you’re getting fucked with. If you tell a professor about some heinous shit the school has done to you, and they respond by gently admonishing you to stop and smell the roses, that person is vile.
Sixth, grad school will make you doubt yourself. Your professors will say things like, “NEVER SHOW HUMAN EMOTION TO YOUR CLIENTS,” and you’ll think, “My god, I’ve been doing it wrong!!!!!!” Again, you trust your gut on this one, because if you respect your professor, if they have demonstrated to you in some concrete way (aside from simply inhabiting a role as professor) that they know what they’re talking about, then listen, consider, think about it. But if you have seen nothing in their behavior or knowledge that indicates they are an expert, then don’t let them make you doubt yourself. They will make you into terrible clinicians, if you listen to them. I know this sounds mighty arrogant, but when you get in the field, you’ll mostly be thrown out to the wolves, and you will have to spend all day every day making fast judgments about who is and is not offering worthwhile resources, who you will and will not refer a client to. You will hopefully have a supervisor you trust, and friends and colleagues whose opinions you trust, and they can help ground you, but social work is a wild lawless land full of snake oil salesmen, and you will quickly get a glimpse behind the curtain and see that the people who are lauded as experts? Graduated a year ago. Have no more or less work experience than you. They’re just well-spoken, or good marketers, or have good connections, or are ensconced in a privileged bubble. So, if somebody tells you, “Here is how you do X, I am an expert,” remember that being an expert in social work land requires one thing and one thing only: saying that you are an expert.
Seventh, ON THAT NOTE, learn to sell yourself, which is a subpoint of learn to value yourself. Social workers are by and large the most self-abnegating motherfuckers. There are times when this is good. If a client says, “You did X and it offended me,” now is the time to put aside your pride and confusion and anger and try to understand and fix what has happened. But you save that shit for your clients. When you’re trying to get a job, you’re the fucking best in your business, and you’re going to charge market fucking rates for your excellent work. When a slimy colleague fucks up and tries to pass something off on you, now is not the time to start considering whether or not there was a misunderstanding, or whether you could’ve been kinder, now is the time to assertively say, “That is completely untrue, I absolutely did not do that.” You won’t learn this in school, but school is a great place to practice it.
And finally, realize that social work is currently the Wild West (colonialism included). Nothing is standardized. Nothing is quantified. Nobody knows what the new statutes mean. Nobody knows how the ACA will change things. Nobody knows how to integrate technology. Nobody knows if the funding will be there tomorrow. Nobody knows. This offers a lot of opportunities for carving your own path, if you’re so inclined. It also offers a lot of opportunities for feeling unmoored and terrified and apoplectic that it’s this fucked-up out there. There is a huge generational shift happening, and you are under no obligation to follow in the footsteps of those who came before you. You can! There will always be a place for you to settle in to a regular agency and just follow their standard protocol. But you don’t have to. And if you choose not to, you’re going to have to figure that shit out by yourself — none of your professors, supervisors, or the older generation will know shit about technology, starting job wages, the statutory changes, the internet, the job market. They won’t even know 10% of what Tumblr does (the racism is prejudice + power conversation that happens fifteen times a day on Tumblr? Won’t happen once in social work school). You are your own best resource, so value yourself, your instincts, your needs, and your intelligence like the critical tools they are.