by Stephanie Small, April 2014
Stephanie Small, MSW, shares how she decided that a career in social work was her destiny and how she chose her MSW program.
The year: 1988, The place: my elementary school - The assignment: write a paragraph about what you want to be when you grow up. My choice? An actress-writer-psychiatrist-animal rights lawyer.
The year: 1999, The place: my bedroom at college - I was about to graduate, and was searching for a job. It was pre-internet, so I flipped through binders and catalogs, and wrote non-profits in DC about their internship opportunities. Most of my friends were moving to NYC for I-banking and paralegal gigs. Lamenting that there was no such career as “professional feminist”, I crafted several passionate and clunky cover letters and sent them off into oblivion. I never heard anything back.
I spent the summer post-graduation living at my parents’ house and waitressing at The Cheesecake Factory. Finally, in September, I caved, and joined the ranks of paralegals at New York City law firms, trying to convince myself that this might prepare me for a career in civil rights law. I spent lunch breaks sneaking off to job interviews at Conde Nast and to martini lunches at Windows on the World.
I lasted eight months before I landed a job as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, working mostly on books related to psychology and sociology. I loved it.
The year: 2003, The place: my parents’ kitchen - I had just returned from five months backpacking in the South Pacific, and wanted to run away to Mexico next. My parents were not happy. They wanted me to have a career. I had NO idea what to do.
So I finally sat down and considered my interests. I grew up acting and writing, so I’m fascinated by interesting characters and a good story. I have a strong social justice bent and an interest in helping others. I had peeked into the macro world of policy and bureaucracy during my time as a paralegal, and I didn’t like it at all – it seemed to me a tangle of arbitrary rules and paper pushing. But I’d always been drawn to introspection and self-discovery. And I loved the idea of working for myself.
These all seemed like really disparate interests, and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile them at first. Academia could have potentially accommodated all of them. But ultimately, I realized that this particular combination also manifested in a career in private practice as a psychotherapist.
There are many potential paths to becoming a therapist in private practice. You can earn a master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, or social work. You can also get a doctoral degree in psychology. You can even practice therapy as a psychiatrist, for which you’d need an M.D. But I didn’t understand why I’d spend three to five years getting a doctoral degree when I could spend two years getting a master’s and be able to do the same thing professionally. The “prestige” of a Ph.D. or Psy.D. versus a master’s didn’t really hold any weight for me.
So it came down to choosing a master’s program. But which one? The reality is that, as far as agency jobs go, there are simply more options for an MSW than a counselor or marriage and family therapist. And given the fact that I’d be working in an agency for at least part of my career, I wanted options and flexibility. The social justice and systems orientation of social work also resonated with me more than straight psychology, which often focuses solely on individuals rather than taking into account how their environment impacts them.
Here’s the thing about social work grad schools, though – they’re all extremely different. Some focus on policy, while others focus on advocacy. Clinical social work programs are the ones that teach psychotherapy, and one clinical social work graduate program is at Smith College School for Social Work. However, while Smith’s focus is on therapy, it attempts to stay true to its social work roots with a strong commitment to anti-racism, and classes in areas such as Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Oppressed Populations, and Social Welfare Policy and Services.
I liked this unique blend that Smith had to offer at the time. I also liked its unique structure offered at the time: classes are held for three consecutive summers at its campus in Northampton, MA, while internships take place during the two September through April periods between classes. Internships are available throughout the United States, so if you’re settled in a particular place, you’ve got a good chance of being able to remain there – or, if you’re up for an adventure, you can choose to go to a new city.
Smith College School for Social Work was the only graduate school I applied to. Fortunately, I got in.
The year: 2004, The place: Smith - After just over two years of experiencing incredibly intense academics, intimate friendships, and inspiring professors, I graduated. I had an extremely fulfilling experience at Smith that has served me well professionally - and little did I know that ten years later, in 2014, my friends and I would still be yearning for “Smith Camp” every May.
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