Your field placement, or your social work internship, is one of the most hyped aspects of social work education.

Written by Anna Shull

Personally, I felt pretty overwhelmed when my professors would reference the huge, daunting field placement that would have to take place in my future. But it all felt like a big question mark to me. Where would I be placed? What would I learn? Would it be any fun?

Luckily, I have survived two social work internships now, one at an elementary school and one at a youth detention center. I valued my time so much at the center that I’ve chosen it as my first social work job post-graduation.

Still, I understand that social work internships can be both scary and unfamiliar. Here, I offer advice on the best ways you can approach them.

Social Work Internships: An Overview

If you are in an undergraduate social work program getting your Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), you will have to complete 400 internship hours. If you are in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program, you will need 900 internship hours; however, if you received a BSW and are in an advanced-standing MSW program, you will only need 500 additional internship hours during graduate school.

All of that means is you’ll get a lot of hours of experience during your social work schooling!

Ultimately, this earned experience prepares you to graduate already having knowledge of the ins and outs of the field of social work. An internship is a chance to apply what you learn in class to the real world. Moreover, you’ll be able to gain both skills and confidence while you learn from people already working in the field.

As an intern, you can be placed anywhere that employs a social worker, but each school does the placement process a bit differently. Some schools utilize applications and interviews to match you with a placement, while others may place you where they see that your strengths will be utilized and goals will be achieved.

An important note here: it’s okay if you do not know for sure which areas of the field you are most interested in before your internship. The field placement is the perfect place to begin learning what parts of the field appeal to you.

During your internship, there will be a whole team of people you are in contact with throughout the process. First comes your placement specialist/field specialist who is in charge of finding your internship location. You will be in contact with your placement specialist leading up to the beginning of your internship to the point when your placement is confirmed.

Next, you will have a field advisor who will be your contact point and support from your school during your internship. If you need help or an advocate, your field advisor will be your person to go to.

teens talking at youth club

Finally, you will have your field instructor/supervisor who is the social worker at the agency you are interning at who will be teaching you and supervising you. They are not necessarily affiliated with your school but have agreed to share their skills with a student intern (you). It is possible that you will also have a task supervisor. If so, your task supervisor is the person who is with you day-to-day if your supervisor is not with you at the agency every day that you are there.

Tips for Succeeding in Your Social Work Internship

1. You do not need to know everything.

Your internship is the first time that you will be applying your school knowledge to real life, so you will not be an expert at it. Understanding that you are allowed to be learning and that you will not know it all at this point in your internship can be hard, but it is normal. Not only is it normal – it’s expected that you will not know everything yet as an intern. That’s why you’re in a field placement!

Your time in field placement is a special time because you have the opportunity to prioritize application-based learning. Still, it can also be a time when imposter syndrome runs high.

Imposter syndrome is when you feel inadequate despite persistent evidence of success. You may find imposter syndrome showing up in your internship because you will be surrounded by people further in their careers than you with more knowledge, skills, and comfort with social work.

Not knowing as much as a social worker with ten years of experience does not mean you are inadequate; it means you are a student and not a social worker with ten years of experience. Have grace with yourself in your position as a student intern because you are not going to know everything, and you should not expect to know everything. Your agency took on a student intern understanding that you are student ready to learn, not an expert.

2. You are there to learn.

Making the most of your field placement includes shadowing as many social workers as you can during your internship. Each one will have a unique style, perspective, and strength. By shadowing as many social workers as you can at your agency, you get to see everyone in action and start creating what may be your own style as you begin to interact with clients.

Also note the differences that may be present between those with a social work background and those with other educational backgrounds. There are many similarities between social work and other areas of studies, but there are also many differences that you will begin to pick up on.

teacher and students learning on computer

For example, I work closely with people who have clinical mental health counseling backgrounds or forensic psychology backgrounds. A lot of what we do is the same, but the perspective through which we see the work can be very different.

Field placement is not only a time for you to understand how to apply social work skills, but also an opportunity to witness where social work fits into the world off a textbook page.

Lastly, if you see or hear something that you do not understand while at your internship, ask. Even if you have asked before or even if you worry it may be a silly question, ask. You get to be active in your learning making use of workers around you to make the most of your time in field placement.

3. You are there to become a social worker.

At first glance, this tip may seem similar to the previous one. But there’s one major difference: you are not interning to learn just anything, you are there to learn specifically the field of social work. You are in your field placement to become a social worker. Why I find this tip important to mention is that sometimes it will mean setting some boundaries at your field placement.

Sometimes it will mean having clear conversations about expectations at the beginning of your field placement. By understanding at the start what your agency’s expectations are of you as an intern, you can know if they match what your expectations for your field placement are.

As a social work intern, you are not there to do grunt work (filing, running for coffee, copying). You’re there to learn how to be a social worker. If you find yourself in the position where you feel that you are receiving grunt work, not interacting with clients, not being given the opportunity to apply social work skills, you are not getting the experience you are meant to in a field placement. This is when it will be important to advocate for yourself.

First, have a conversation with your field instructor at your agency. Then, if needed, have a conversation with your field advisor from your university. It can be disappointing to find yourself in a position where your reasonable expectations are not aligning with your reality in your internship.

But you are your own best advocate. It’s a lot better to have the difficult conversation of self-advocacy than to get to the end of your field placement and feel unprepared to begin working as a social worker.

4. Be comfortable setting boundaries.

We could discuss how to be a good intern (be respectful, be ready-to-work, have a good attitude, etc.), but many of those tips would be the same as those guiding how to be a good worker overall. Instead, I want to focus on where your internship will feel different than a job, specifically that you are a student, not an employee of your agency.

As a student, school is your top priority, and you are getting experience along with that schooling to learn how to be a social worker. If you find yourself overwhelmed to the point that your schoolwork is hurting, or your mental health is suffering due to an excessive amount of work at your field placement, this is another point where self-advocacy would be needed.

The fact of the matter is that other people are being paid to do the work at your agency and you are there to be an intern. I do not mention the possibility of needing to self-advocate in order to scare you as you approach your social work internship. Instead, I just want to emphasize that sometimes boundaries may need to be set. And that’s okay!

I do not want you to be stuck in a position where your field placement is not what you expected and you are wondering if you are alone or if that has happened to any other student; it has happened and it will happen again, it is not just you.

Your internship is supplementary to your education and should be treated as such. Walk through the discomfort to set boundaries as needed so that you can have the best internship experience available to you.

5. Value your relationship with your supervisor.

Obviously, not every supervisor and supervisee will be perfect matches, but to the best of your ability, value and protect that relationship. Your supervisor is going to be your number one person through your field placement.

It is beneficial to figure out what their work style is and what they are expecting from you as a supervisee so that you can, to the best of your ability, maintain a great working relationship through the duration of your internship. Having a working relationship with your supervisor means you will feel comfortable asking questions, even if you feel they may have obvious answers.

Your supervisor may continue to be a resource and a reference for you even after your internship is finished. What is great about having a supervisor as an intern is that they are social workers actually working in the field, they have experience, and they have answers. Write down questions that may come up during your time at your agency so that you can bring them up in supervision with your supervisor. Be open to criticism from your supervisor because that is also their job.

If they see a skill that needs strengthening in you, it is their job to constructively let you know so that you can truly be learning, growing, and improving. Professionally, your supervisor will be the person working closest with you as you become a better social worker throughout your field placement.

6. Be in contact with your cohort.

Your cohort, the other social work students doing field placement at the same time as you, are your community. Make use of them. Emotionally, feld placement can be hard. It may be your first time being exposed to clients’ trauma or to the broken systems our world runs on which can be extremely taxing.

Academically, field placement can be overwhelming. But you are not the only one going through it. Not only nationwide are there many students at the same place in their journey as you, but at your university there are other students at the exact same. You are not alone, and you are not going to be alone, so value the relationships with your cohort who understand your current time of life better than just about anybody else.