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​How do you gain experience during your studies?

By Gemma Raw

It can feel like a bit of a chicken and egg situation. You need relevant experience before you secure your first social work role but how do you gain more experience whilst studying? Even though you will be on placement during your studies, to set yourself apart from other newly qualified social workers (NQSWs), you will need be proactive in seeking out other opportunities to gain experience.

Once you qualify, you’ll be working with a wide range of people in lots of different settings. It makes perfect sense to gain experience of working in different organisations. This can either be through paid employment but is most likely to be through volunteering.

Here’s a few things you might want to think about: 

Voluntary experience

If you are aiming to work as a children’s social worker, you might decide to volunteer at a youth club, children’s centre, victim support group, or at a charity. Likewise, if you want to become an adults social worker, you might consider working at a local charity. 

A good place to find suitable voluntary opportunities is on non-for-profit websites. They will usually list any current vacancies, or you could fill in a form to express an interest in helping. 

The national database of voluntary opportunities, Do-it, is also a useful resource. And some universities offer volunteer schemes.  

If you are aged 14-25, you can volunteer in your community with vInspired.

Paid work experience

It is more difficult to find paid opportunities whilst studying, especially as you step into your final year. But you might be able to find a part-time role in a family centre or residential home. But always keep in mind your experience needs to be relevant to the type of work you want to do post-graduation. 

Length of experience 

It’s less about the length of time you spend gaining experience and more about the nature of the work you’ve been involved in. Remember, you’ll already be on placement and so it’s about gaining additional knowledge you wouldn’t necessarily obtain purely through your studies. 

What sort of skills can you expect to pick up? 

It’s best to work backwards here. Think of the skills you know you will need to demonstrate when applying for your first social work role. These are likely to include:

  • Advocacy 

  • Safeguarding

  • Dealing sensitively with carers

  • Good communication skills 

Once you know what skills you want to gain, you can then decide what type of work experience you will need to engage in. 

Remember though, whatever you choose, it needs to relate directly to the practice of social work. For example, being a volunteer at a local school supporting children with special educational needs is relevant even if the teaching aspect isn’t. 

If you are unsure whether a role will help advance your social work career, ask your tutor. They might even be able to put you in touch with another student who has gained similar experience. 

Keep a record of what you learn

It can be easy to forget what you gain by way of experience. Once you’ve found a good match, keep a daily diary of what you did and what you’ve learned. Much the same as you would on a placement with a local authority. 

Future employers will be keen to know what you have learned from your time there and how you adapted your approach to certain situations. 

When you apply for your first social work role, you’ll have a well-rounded amount of placement and self-created experience. This will greatly assist you in any competency-based interview questions.

We have written a selection of pieces around starting and navigating your social work career.