We all like to think that we do what we can to make the world a better place and help people in need, but some people choose to make a career of it. Social workers labour tirelessly to help those who need it, without much glamor or glory.
To learn a little of what the daily work of a social worker is like, we spoke with Kate Abramson, who currently works with the Lung Cancer Alliance in the US.
Tell us about your current position and how long you've been at it.
My name is Kate Abramson. I have been a social worker for seven years. At the start of my 7th year — lucky seven — I joined Lung Cancer Alliance as the Support Services Manager.
What drove you to choose your career path? Why social work?
Ever since I was a child I had that clichéd desire to "help people." My parents were very active volunteering with social service agencies when I was younger. When I found out that a big aspect of social work is advocating for those who don't have a voice and working on their behalf to make positive change happen in their lives, I knew this was the path for me.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need? Did you need any licenses or certifications?
Most social workers have a Masters in social work from an accredited school. Each state has its own individual licensing exam and process. After graduate school, you take an exam to be a licensed graduate social worker (LGSW). Two years later while working in the field under the supervision of a social worker, you take another exam to become a LICSW.
The six years I spent at a community mental health center working with mentally ill and medically compromised individuals prepared me to counsel the types of patients I encounter in my current position; lung cancer survivors and their families dealing with a variety of health issues as they battle a disease.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
The duties of a social worker vary from job to job and differ greatly depending on who we are trying to help. At my previous job, I was working directly with mentally ill patients and individuals battling major health concerns and most of my time was spent doing things like advocating for their care, helping them maintain their correct mental health, helping acquire proper medications as well as continuing ongoing therapy and skill-building.
In these types of roles, you need to be flexible because your schedule can change very quickly depending on the needs of the individuals who rely on you for support. The counseling skills I learned in my first position help my every day that I take a call from a lung cancer patient who is looking for answers to their questions whether it is about a new treatment they are seeking or helping them find a support group in their area. If I had to sum it up, I would say basically social workers are master listeners who try to make the lives of people going through tough times just a little bit easier.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
I think when most people hear the term "social worker" they think of people who show up to take away babies from families like the characters you see on shows like Law & Order. The truth is that people have no idea how broad our work can be. Depending on your particular focus area you can make an impact in a variety of professional settings. For example, I started my career working in a local mental health agency and then moved into the nonprofit world working with lung cancer patients across the U.S. These are two very different work environments, but the desire to help people is the same in both settings. Those skills never change. The bottom line is there are no set rules for what you can do with your social work degree. The professional possibilities are endless and are only limited by personal interest and skill set.
What are your average work hours?
Job hours can vary, like many professions, depending on what type of social work you are doing. Now my hours are mostly 9 to 5, but in previous positions I'd have to get up early in the morning to meet clients or get called late at night to go locate someone who hadn't been seen in weeks.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
I've learned over the years is that being flexible and open to change is one of the most important things you can do as a social worker. You might struggle in this field if you worry about a hard adherence to schedules and expect people to behave in a certain way. I've learned to embrace the uncertainty and adjust on the fly.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I'm not sure I do anything different than my coworkers since we all have the same primary goals. As social workers, we are uniquely trained to help people maximise the opportunity for change in themselves and/or their situations. You are affecting change on a daily basis, whether it be big or small. Also, your daily to-do list can change every day. I don't think I've ever said that I was bored doing a social work job.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it? I imagine this work can take an emotional toll.
Sometimes being a social worker can just be straight up exhausting. There are really good days and there are also really bad days. You are working with people who can be happy, excited, depressed, angry, and frustrated all at the same time. Obviously taking time for yourself and knowing your limits is the best. You also have to understand that some people aren't ready for change and they might have many failures until they have a breakthrough which moves them in a more positive direction.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most enjoyable part of the job is probably developing meaningful relationships with patients. The process of advocating for a person or family that does not have a voice is very empowering work which falls in line with what I have always wanted to do. Helping someone who other people have looked down upon work towards their goals and reach their potential makes all the effort worth it.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
I think sometimes people see a social worker when they're not really ready. If you don't have any desire to change it will be very hard for us to work with you. It's ok to not know how to change or what to do to help yourself, but as long as you express that you are ready to move in a positive direction working with a social worker will be effective.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
You will never become a millionaire as a social worker no matter where you work. However, most people who go into this field would probably agree that they aren't doing it for the money.
How do you "move up" in your field?
As I mentioned before, there is no set "social work" job which actually is a very good thing. The profession offers multiple opportunities for long-term advancement and strong growth potential. Most people straight out of school will work as a case manager, rehabilitation specialist or a similar entry level job. It's where you will definitely be the most overworked, but it helps you get the best sense of where you'd like to work long-term in a professional setting. Once you figure that out, you need to immerse yourself in that setting to get the necessary counseling skills you will need as you take greater responsibility and acquire a more difficult case load.
For me, Lung Cancer Alliance was an excellent transition and "move up" for my field. I'm working with lung cancer patients from all over the country and able to use my skills I developed during my initial social work training. I'm still supporting patients, but I'm also working as a resource for other social workers who are seeking to create support environments at the local level for the individuals they work with on a daily basis.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
I think that people undervalue the importance of one-on-one interactions that happen daily between social workers and their patients. If an outsider looks at a social worker's tasks and actions it might be hard to see that anything meaningful is taking place, but this underscores the importance of the relationships that deepen over time. We really are working to lay a foundation to actually make progress.
On the flip side, I think people overvalue impartiality that needs to happen in a professional setting particularly in the face of difficult circumstances. Sometimes we get angry when we take a personal interest in someone's life as they battle mental illness or a late stage cancer diagnosis. It's a normal response to stressful circumstances.
Trust me, we feel it, we know some of these situations suck, and we're also talking to people after it's done. People need us to be there "in the moment" with them to fight through problems. It's important that they know they are not alone when they reach out to us.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
I would tell them to make sure they figure out what they are passionate about and how they want to try to make a difference. At the end of the day, social work is a career that speaks to the basic desire to really help others. It isn't easy work, but it can be so rewarding, impactful and meaningful to so many communities that need open-minded listeners to help solve problems.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.