Social Work Career – Some Advice to Consider for First Generation Graduates

By Harleny Vasquez – Featured Contributor

People in online spaces often speak about the power of networking or the importance of building your personal brand. But they never really take the time to showcase how to do that as a first-generation social work student and/or recent graduate. Whether you plan to work as a clinical or direct practice social worker or focus on policy change and building community resources, career development is an important part of being a successful social worker. First Generation social work students and recent graduates should be mindful of the effort and resources required to handle experiences related to imposter syndrome, personal branding, salary negotiation, interviewing skills, marketing and navigating the job market. 

As a first-generation social work graduate, I didn’t have the proper tools that I needed to enter the job market. I didn’t know the terms of personal branding, how important the power of networking was, nor how to negotiate salary during the interviewing process. I often dealt with feelings of impostor syndrome, especially when I consistently struggled with passing my social work licensure exam.

For first-generation social work students, it’s necessary to consider building your network. And trust me, I understand and recognize how scary it can feel to put yourself out there and to be vulnerable with other professionals, especially while navigating your academic and professional journey for the first time without a strong sense of community.

Here’s the thing, though: the sense of community and the need to belong to something greater is necessary for success in this field. In other words, building your network is an essential skill that must be learned. It’s important as an aspiring or current social work college student and/or graduate, to recognize that you hold the power in this very moment to develop the skills that you want to master. As a former first-generation social work student and Latina, I understand the need to feel that you can’t fully express yourself the way that you want to when it comes to being in certain environments or situations, but I am here to tell you to focus on what you have to offer right now. Your uniqueness through your background and as an aspiring social worker will prove more than enough when moving to join a community.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

I recognize those feelings of impostor syndrome, of never feeling good enough. Imposter syndrome can be defined as the imbalance of how you feel you’re doing in your work versus the ways others perceive your ability. Even though you may be getting good grades or you may be recognized for your role in class discussion, your lack of confidence could cloud the way you view your performance. It’s important to note that imposter syndrome can really hold you back. Learning how to cope with it and moving it through will prove important for your career and your long-term success.

I want you to be able to recognize that you can reframe your negative thoughts about yourself. Here’s the thing: no one truly has it figured out. And that’s okay! There is so much power in releasing a sense of perfection and those feelings of self-doubt. I often tell my clients that there’s a community out there in pure alignment with your own mission and values. Once you find that community, you will then be able to express yourself the way you desire. Being able to release those limiting beliefs that come from imposter syndrome will grant you the ability to network more effectively and not hold yourself back from endless opportunities. 

Strategizing How to Create Your Professional Network

As a first-generation social work student and/or graduate, it’s important to start building your network before you even start to navigate the current job market. You want to be able to network effectively and build a community that fully supports you. Setting up a LinkedIn account and profile should be your first step.

LinkedIn is the largest professional networking platform ever created. It’s a platform to build your own community, to find your voice and most importantly to have your life changed. I can personally attest to the power of networking and building your personal brand on LinkedIn as fellow first-generation college graduate. It is a social network that grants you the opportunity to showcase your unique skills with a focus on enhancing your professional development. Start with building your personal brand on LinkedIn.

Building Your Personal Brand on LinkedIn

There are a lot of benefits when it comes to building your personal brand. It will allow you the opportunity to showcase your authentic self while giving you the opportunity to highlight your current skills as an aspiring or current social work student and/or graduate.

Here are 11 essential key tips when building your personal brand on LinkedIn as a first-generation social work student and/or graduate.

  1. Customize your LinkedIn profile URL to attract visitors.
  2. Optimize all the sections within your LinkedIn profile to reflect your current skills, qualifications, and overall mission as a future social worker.
  3. Utilize all the current social work keywords on your profile, you will be able to pop into search results more frequently (Yes, LinkedIn is a search engine). You can highlight previous transferable skills that can attest to your skills as a future social worker.
  4. Offer a headline to showcase who you are, what you have to offer, and how you plan to achieve your overall goal. (It’s important here to think of your future as a social worker).
  5. Upload a professional photo that has a simple background. This photo can be taken with your phone.
  6. Share your personal story in your About Me section. Introduce yourself and share your reasons for coming into the social work field that highlight your overall career goals. Speak about your past internship and volunteer experiences here.
  7. Obtain LinkedIn recommendations on your profile. Ask previous professors and employers to contribute to this section. The more people who can speak on your current strengths in this section, the better.
  8. Get endorsements and highlight your skills on your profile. Utilize a previous job description and highlight the keywords that can reflect on those areas of focus.
  9. Empower yourself to find your voice. Comment on others people’s posts and share your thoughts and ideas. What you have to say is important. Make your voice known.
  10. Network with other social workers and colleagues in your area and those who work for your dream company. It’s important to start putting your name out there early and notably.
  11. Create content that highlights your values, creative thoughts, and ideas. Leverage the power of storytelling. As a student or new graduate, don’t be afraid to discuss articles that interest you, the right people will follow you.

When creating a personal brand, you must remember that there is no one like you with your unique skills and personal story.

As a first-generation social work student and/or graduate, at times we already have an advantage of speaking another language. Diving into LinkedIn and looking to join new professional communities is a lot like learning a new language. This process can prove challenging in its own right, but it’s helpful here to reflect on your reasons for coming into the social work profession. The logistics and information reflected on your LinkedIn profile is always going to be changing. As humans, we are always evolving and adapting. Your LinkedIn profile is your own sales page for your career. Once you create a personal brand and feel confident enough to navigate the next steps in your career, you can now enter the job market to secure your desired role.

Conquering the Job Search

Speaking from my own experiences, I remember how lost I felt once I graduated from graduate school. I had no concrete job search plan, and when I did land my first interview, I completed bombed it. When looking for jobs, I found myself applying only to roles that required a bachelor’s degree, even though I had a Master’s degree. I thought that because I had such advanced qualifications, it would be a no brainer that they would select me over other applicants. I quickly discovered that this wasn’t the case. And after multiple rejection emails, I came to the realization that you can also get rejected for also being overqualified.

Even though this was a definite setback, I was able to stay focused and overcome the obstacles of entering the job market as a first-generation new social work graduate. I want you to recognize that you are not in this journey alone. You have support. And, most importantly, you can learn from any challenge you may face.

10 Tips to Help You Find – and Land – Your Dream Social Work Role

Here are 10 essential job search tips when entering the job market as a first-generation social work student and/or graduate.

  1. Take a career inventory of your past internship and volunteer experiences, those skills are valuable for you to highlight as they all provide transferable skills.
  2. Create a desired job description, take this moment to reflect on your previous roles to highlight all the pros and cons. Identify your non-negotiables when it comes to your ideal work environment and desired population. (Ask yourself what you want your everyday work life to look like?)
  3. Create a target list of employers you’d like to work for in your area. If you plan to relocate, you can create a list in your new town as well. It provides you with a sense of direction when you first start to implement your job search plan.
  4. Utilize LinkedIn and your network. Conduct informational interviews and speak to recruiters about potential opportunities. You can also engage on LinkedIn and find hiring posts from recruiters.
  5. Validate your current success. You have so much to offer to so many organizations and communities at this very moment. Mindset work is truly an important component in your job search plan, especially because self-sabotage is real.
  6. Create an ideal job search schedule and keep track of the roles you apply to. I often tell my clients who are students and recent graduates to start by committing 2 hours a day to job hunting if you can.
  7. Practice a positive mindset. Commit to self-care activities that help you remain centered. You can easily get into the habit of self-doubt, so it’s necessary that you practice healthy, positive behaviors as you search for a position.
  8. Attend networking events, job search events, and connect with your community on LinkedIn or in school chapters.
  9. Utilize the career services department in your school/university.
  10. Engage in self-care practice. Applying for jobs should not be a 9 to 5.

Interview Tips for Social Workers

Now that you are ready to act and implement a job search plan, you’re ready to start preparing for the vital next step: the interview. The best way that I can relay how to succeed in an interview is by relaying my own experiences. In the past, when I was interviewed more times than I can count, I completely froze. Sometimes, especially over phone interviews, I couldn’t even remember the job that I had applied to. I was simply disoriented.

And when I was feeling overwhelmed, I wasn’t able to advocate for myself. I remember that in my first social work role, I didn’t even negotiate my salary. After I had decided to take the position, I learned that the offered I had accepted was $10k lower than the current market. I was shocked and impatient with myself for neglecting this aspect, but this really is all part of the learning process. Through this experience, I was able to learn that it’s necessary to do your research when it comes to the current job market. I also learned how important it is to recognize that I am worthy of fair, equitable compensation.

Additionally, it’s also so important to keep track of the types of roles you are applying to. These different kinds of positions will shape the conversations and interviews you have. When you have more than five interviews at a time for different social work roles, it can easily feel overwhelming.

As a first-generation social work student or graduate, I recognize that most of us are not taught how to advocate for ourselves. I remember growing up, my family members would also talk about working hard and never making it difficult for others in the workspace. Later in life, I learned this was all due to their own fears of getting fired and their own journey immigrating to this country. I had to realize that their own triggers and traumas were not mine to heal.

It’s important for one to first learn how to become your biggest advocate, and to take into consideration any triggers one may have around money. Once you learn how to become your biggest advocate, you will be able to overcome any limiting beliefs. Feelings of self-doubt may prevent you from negotiating salary or even highlighting your unique strengths during interviews. Because of this, I want you to feel empowered enough to realize that your social work career is an investment. You are investing in yourself, and you need to be your biggest advocate. You ultimately hold all the power to create the success you desire.

Interviewing takes practice and negotiating salary takes proactive research.

11 Tips for Interviewing

Here are 11 tips for first-generation social work students or graduates to interview with confidence and negotiate salary with ease.

  1. Do your research! Search the organization on the web to learn more about their mission and take a moment to identify how they are in alignment with your own mission and values. Identify the organization’s biggest problem and how you can help them address it.
  2. Craft and practice delivering your 30-second elevator pitch. It’s important to showcase who you are, what you have to offer and your overall goals while you tie it back to the mission of the organization. You always want to showcase that you are the solution to their problems.
  3. Practice essential interview questions a week before. You can practice with a friend or record yourself on zoom to hear how you speak and answer the questions. Utilize your resume to reflect on your current strengths and always tie it back to the role and the mission of the organization.
  4. Dress for success, even if your interview is over the phone, zoom, or in-person. You want to be able to step into the version of yourself that secured the role already. Make yourself feel empowered when answering questions.
  5. Develop 3 to 5 questions that you want to ask the interviewer. This will be able to show the employer that you are invested in the organization. Don’t leave the interview without asking about the next steps in the interview process.
  6. Always send a thank you email within 24 hours of attending an interview. Consistency is key!
  7. If you are not aware of the salary range for the role, do your research on what the current market offers for that role. Social work career guides are helpful first steps here.
  8. After your research is conducted, identify a salary request that is in alignment with what you feel is comfortable. Don’t aim for the highest or lowest number – go towards the middle number.
  9. Don’t negotiate the salary until an offer is provided in writing. If they call you to make a verbal offer, you can ask for them to provide the offer in writing and you can state you will get back to them within 24 hours to review the offer more in depth. Please note, if you try to negotiate and they decline your offer, they will not rescind the offer.
  10. Mindset is still an important component when negotiating salary. Recognize that you are worthy and deserve fair compensation. Don’t settle for less. You have so much to offer.
  11. Salary is not the only thing you are able to negotiate. You can also have a conversation over benefits, schedule, time off, and other factors that are important to you.

It’s now time to enter the job market, interview with confidence and negotiate the pay you deserve.

Get Ready to Join the Field of Social Work

Preparing to join the field of social work can be a vulnerable, daunting process for everyone. For first-generation social work graduates, this experience can sometimes seem overwhelming, isolating, and even impossible at times. Fortunately, there are communities and resources available to you to help you land your dream social work job serving the community you aim to support. By understanding how to build your professional network, how to advocate for yourself, and how to enter an interview confidently, you will be able to advance your career to new heights. Social work careers are growing by the day, and it’s never been a better time to explore which communities you may be best suited to support.

It’s time to level up in 2022. Through interactive career guides and informational resources on SocialWorkDegrees.org, you will be able to learn just what it takes to find the job that suits you. Take the steps to advance your professional profile today and secure your dream role as a Social Worker.


Harleny Vasquez is a Licensed Social Worker and a Latina woman of color. She is the founder of her business yourEVOLVEDmind, where she is a social work career coach helping both aspiring and established social workers at every stage of their career. She’s a speaker, workshop facilitator, and host of the Social Work Insider Podcast. Check out her website below to learn more: https://yourevolvedmind.mykajabi.com/