The science of giving back: An MSc in social work


It's sometimes thought that undergraduate life is too closeted to provide any real preparation for the world of work. One career path that illustrates this neatly is social work. How could life in lecture theatres, seminars and nightclubs prepare a 21-year-old for the potential anguish and grit of social work?

Steven Jones, 22, who graduated from Durham University last year, managed to get a place on a two-year Masters course in social work at Bristol University, with the lion's share of fees paid, indirectly, by the Government. "I'm the youngest and the odd one out on the course," he concedes, in recognition of the fact that these courses are usually populated by people that already have postgraduate experience.

However, the key ingredient to his success was experience that he accumulated at Durham. "The reason I got on to the course was that I worked as a voluntary welfare officer at my college," he says. "I ran a drop-in service for students, ran campaigns on topics such as alcohol awareness and sexual health, and organised an inclusion week."

All this experience must have given him an impressive grasp of what's needed for social work, since he won his place on the course via a Skype interview: a course of action necessary because he was doing his finals at Durham when Bristol were finalising their recruitment.

His course, like all social work Masters across the country, is a blend of academic study and practical experience. The first term consisted of three days in university and two days' private study. Topics covered included mental health, disability, gay issues, the law relating to social work, human rights, and sessions on interviewing techniques and communication. A key element was students being given ownership of how seminars are run.

"As an undergraduate, I never found seminars particularly useful. But at Bristol, where we're encouraged to run them ourselves, I've found them really good. It's great to be able to hear everyone contributing their different experiences."

In the new year, the practical element started, with Jones spending four days a week on a work placement with a charity near Bristol called Southern Brooks Community Partnership. Here, he fills a number of roles, chiefly working with families and young people.

"In the family services team, I'm seeing housing problems and drug abuse issues. I've also been doing mentoring in schools around social skills and anger management. What I really like about this place is that it's so closely linked to the community – it's so refreshing to see people who have been doing social work for so long that still have such a fierce conviction of social justice."

Jones values the mix of practical work and theory, and he is reassured to know that he's on the right course. "It's difficult balancing full-time work with academic study, and I've learnt that you have to be realistic. You can't change the world, and if you have preconceived ideas going in, you will struggle. The trick is to value every bit of progress and positive change and realise how much this can mean to an individual."

His first placement has confirmed his intention to work with children after his Masters. "I've always thought I'd work with young people, and next year I've applied to do my placement in child protection and youth offending. I just think that early intervention with young people is so important."