Several years ago, while I was exploring graduate school options in different fields, I spoke with a student who was a few months from finishing his master’s degree in another helping field. I asked him what advice he would give someone in my position, someone who would presumably be beginning graduate education soon. What words of wisdom would he impart?
His thoughtful response was, “Follow your curiosity.” He explained that there had been particular concepts and theories and practices to which he had been exposed in his coursework that had piqued his interest to the point that he had found himself in the library, digging for more material to sink his intellectual teeth into. (I think I remember him mentioning Jungian psychoanalytic theory as one topic that had caught his fancy.) He encouraged me and the other prospective students, regardless of what we ended up studying or where we enrolled, to do the same—to be guided by that which makes us want to know more.
In effort to feel at least slightly original, I would like to tweak his advice a bit. Just a few weeks into the first semester of my final year, I find myself not so much curious as excited. I am excited about learning how to assess and treat trauma—especially “complex” trauma—in SoWo 855 with Dr. Michael Lambert. For me, that means reading the “optional” materials, not simply the required readings. It also means picking Dr. Lambert’s brain on breaks and after class. In fact, I have assigned one of my classmates the task of telling me when to stop making comments and asking questions in class, lest my excitement become an annoyance to everyone else in the room.
I am also excited about my field placement at the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury. The VA features virtually every kind of social work within its programs. VA social workers take their role of developing budding professionals very seriously and work to ensure that interns receive a challenging and satisfying experience. One way that they do this is by offering students a chance to do “rotations” in departments other than their primary assignments. In my case, choosing where I want to do rotations was easy because of the excitement I felt as I learned about the different programs. Specifically, that excitement pointed me toward the military sexual trauma (MST) and outpatient PTSD treatment programs, as well as the Primary Care/Mental Health Integration (PCMHI) and Behavioral Health Interdisciplinary Program (BHIP). (The VA is all about their acronyms.)
As you consider a career in social work, I encourage you to do what I am doing: “Follow your excitement.” One of the reasons I chose social work over other helping professions was the wide array of careers available within this field. Although I personally have stuck with my initial focus of mental health treatment, some students find unexpected passions along the way and pursue exciting career directions that they did not anticipate. Whether you want to advocate for economically just policies, help provide safety and stability for refugees, treat substance use disorders, strengthen and protect children and families, care for the ill and elderly, or provide help to people in any number of other ways, an MSW from UNC can get you there in expert fashion. Just be willing to work hard and to follow wherever your excitement leads.