The purpose of this study was to explore and uncover professional perceptions among UTA second-year or advanced-standing MSW students and investigate the connections of these perceptions to financial worth. Thus, an exploratory and emergent qualitative design seemed the most appropriate. Qualitative data is said to be the most useful in understanding the human experience. Focus groups were chosen as the data collection method because of their unique ability to explore topics about which little is known. Since no other research currently existed on this topic, it was deemed the best way to uncover the facts.
Using a purposive, nonprobability and convenience sample (n=31), I asked second year and advanced standing MSW students semi-structured questions about their professional perceptions of social work, and their related perceptions of financial worth. I used Glaser and Strauss’ method of constant comparison to analyze the data.
Thematic groups developed through a dynamic and iterative coding process. That means that the following topics came up so often in participant conversation that I was able to identify relevant and related messaging, look for patterns and outlier opinions, and gather a baseline of important themes that the participants seemed to share when it came to these money and worth.
Implications for social work
CSWE should take note of the perceptions outlined within and discover whether or not there is truth to the student remarks about the lack of rigor and loosened standards in the education system. Students in all three focus groups repeatedly expressed a desire to have their training and education taken more seriously by their School of Social Work and CSWE. This perceived lessening of educational standards experienced by some students reinforces internal professional devaluation and contributes to an externally negative public perception. It would also be wise to survey and compile data from students regarding messages they’ve received from professors and SSW staff regarding the money/ worth topics.
It is of utmost necessity to actively include students in the change process. Additionally,this author recommends CSWE and SSWs consider the implications that reductions in educational standards have on the public’s perception of social work as well as on the internal conflict and devaluation present within the discipline itself. Like one student was quoted earlier, if social workers are not perceived to place a high value on their education and training, it is easy to see why others may not either.
Some students asserted that there was a lack of crossover training for micro practice social workers in areas of professional advocacy and activism. Though not explicitly stated, comments made by some students suggested that micro practice students felt under-prepared to participate in the professional advocacy of social work. All students expressed a desire to be involved in advocacy but felt unsure of how to actually do so. CSWE should consider implementing new EPAS that include the topics of social work professional advocacy, self-care, marketing and promotion as well as negotiation and other job preparedness strategies as part of the social work curricula.
CSWE, NASW, and SSWs begin to promote the discussion of financial worth to students from the beginning of their social work education. Additionally, students should be introduced to the concept of financial orientation so that they can consider where their beliefs about earning power come from and who they believe is in control of them.
Students requested that their professors provide them with more balanced and proactive messages related to social work’s professional and financial worth. The researcher recommends professors help students identify the socio-cultural factors that impact social work’s place in society as well as equip them with tools to affect change. It is of note that students in each group shared experiences of negative messages received from professors without prompting. Several students detailed accounts where their professors intimated that students would not make much money and also discouraged them from research, policy, and community and administrative practice. Students seemed quick to share their frustrations and how these devaluing messages factored into a discussion about worth and perception.
First and foremost: do more research! Encourage, conduct and expand research in this topic area- this is only the beginning of this discussion. Join the NASW and support its lobbying and policy efforts. Their work will be more effective the more we get involved.
Social work research is vital, but is not typically pushed or promoted within SSW’s. For example, I was one of a very small number of students in my program who pursued the thesis option. While social work is largely an applied degree, we can’t do much without data to back up what we’re doing. And relying on evidence-based research from other fields (i.e. psychology or similar clinical research) doesn’t fit the bill. Thus, social workers and faculty need to promote the importance of growing the literature base in our field.
I suggest the following future research goals for this topic:
An expansion of the project to include more SSWs and more participants.
Research that includes social workers at varying stages in their career and in all practice areas, and from varying cultural, racial and geographical perspectives.
Continued research is absolutely necessary in the areas of professional perception and social work professional self image. There are inherent self-worth implications in the fact that such a small body of research exists.
We also need to continue compiling and analyzing social work financial earning data, and add to it a discussion about inflation and cost of living increases.
And once we have a deeper sense for what professional and financial perceptions look like across the field, future research should be expanded to shared beliefs AND solutions held among other helping professionals who operate under similar constructs, like teachers, counselors and nurses.
It would also be wise for social workers to research topics such as successful professional rebranding campaigns. To name a few, nursing, engineering and computer programming. This may provide additional guidance as we move toward growing and promoting a healthy professional self-image and a positive financial worth.
Participants of all career stages should be included in crafting the messaging and story line for social work’s “rebranding.” We need to ask important questions about what matters and what gets their attention. This process is only effective if it’s collective. This is the value of communications in the social work world- we are the managers of our own brand! WE must unapologetically define our role in the world and then help ALL social workers (starting with students) learn how to articulate that.
Like I mentioned before, they can follow the steps outlined above and start participating in recreating social work’s professional story. Change the message- change the story! Remember that the stories we tell ourselves become our truths, so let’s choose them wisely.
As change agents, we owe it to each other to continue having this conversation, and to think more critically about the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves. We are worth the conversation – we are SOCIALWORTHIT!