Interview with Professor Sarah Keiser – Coordinator of Field Services for the Online MSSW Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

About Assistant Professor Sarah Keiser, MSSW, LCSW: Professor Keiser is currently an Assistant Professor of Practice and Online MSSW Field Coordinator at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) in the College of Social Work. She has been the Online Field Coordinator since November 2011. In addition, Professor Keiser currently teaches Evidenced Based Practice with Adult Individuals as well as Foundation Field Seminar.

Professor Keiser graduated from UTK, College of Social Work’s Nashville campus in May 2007 and she earned her LCSW in June 2011. After earning her MSSW, she began working in community mental health. Her focus was working with children, adolescents, and their families and she served as an individual, family, and group therapist. During that time, Professor Keiser gained valuable exposure to a variety of therapy modalities and presenting issues as a clinician. While working in community mental health, she remained connected to the College of Social Work and served as a field liaison for the Nashville campus. She really enjoys mentoring students and developing the next generation of Social Workers. Sarah Keiser was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Field education is a major component of MSW programs and is a requirement for graduation. Can you briefly explain the field education requirements for the online MSSW program at UTK?

[Professor Keiser] Students entering the Full-Time program or Extended Study Program complete both Foundation and Concentration Field Practice. The Foundation field experience is a generalist experience exposing students to working with clients and teaching them how to assess client need and develop helping relationships. Students in Foundation field complete a grand total of 352 agency hours and all begin their practice in October of the fall semester. Foundation students continue through the spring semester at their agency to satisfy the requirements of their practice. Foundation field students should expect to complete 16 hours per week (2 full days) at their agency to achieve their total number of hours by the end of the spring semester.

In addition to their agency practice, Foundation students also participate in a mandatory field seminar that spans both the fall and spring semesters. Foundation field seminar is completely online and is a combination of training and skill practice that involves guest lecturers on professionalism, diversity, and working on multidisciplinary teams. Foundation field seminar students participate in both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. After successful completion of all Foundation classroom courses and field practice, Full-time students would begin their Concentration field practice.

Concentration field practice is a grand total of 672 agency hours. Students entering their Concentration field practice must select a placement that matches their chosen concentration and field competencies of that selected concentration. Students choose from a micro concentration, Evidenced Based Interpersonal Practice or a macro concentration, Management, Leadership, and Community Practice.

Full-time students are expected to complete their Concentration field practice over the fall and spring semesters, dedicating 24 hours per week (3 full days). Students in our Extended Study Program or Part-Time Advanced Standing Program have the option of spreading this placement out over three semesters and dedicating 16 hours per week (2 full days) to meet the requirements. Students entering the Advanced Standing Program only complete the Concentration practicum.

[] For students who are just starting to research online MSW programs, can you give a brief overview of how field education works? For example, how is field education integrated into the program and do students have a faculty mentor as well as a field instructor?

[Professor Keiser] In most cases, students are enrolled concurrently in classroom courses and field practice; however, students do have the alternative of enrolling in a block field placement during their Concentration year. Block field consists of completing 40 hours per week at an agency and finishing all required hours during one semester. Students may select to complete Block field after all Concentration coursework has been successfully completed.

While placed into field practice, students have the support of their Field Instructor who is the person responsible for their education and professional development at their placement. Students are also assigned a Field Liaison from the College. The Liaison is a Social Worker who is practicing in the community that is contracted to provide extra support to both students and field agencies. Liaisons schedule meetings once per semester where they check in with students at their placements. Whenever possible, these meetings occur face to face at the student’s field agency. When that is not possible, some form of online technology that offers a video call is preferred. Lastly, students are always assigned a major professor/advisor each academic year that provides advising related to the student’s academics and can offer support related to their field practice if necessary.

Students are advised that very few opportunities exist for evening and/or weekend placements. Field agencies generally expect students to be in placement during regular weekday business hours. Although many agencies serve clients on a 24‐hour basis, most MSSW field instructors work Monday through Friday, regular business hours. The field placement is a supervised practicum, so the student must be able to be at the agency during hours that the MSSW field instructor is present.

[] For students entering the traditional program, field education may be a completely new experience (as opposed to BSW students who already have experience with field education). What is a typically day like for a student at a field placement and how does that change as they gain more experience? How is field education different for students in their foundation year versus their advanced standing year?

[Professor Keiser] We encourage all Field Instructors who supervise our students during their field practice to slowly integrate students into the agency and provide a solid and thorough orientation to their agency and to all learning activities. Students should have the opportunity to observe their Field Instructor interacting with clients and completing tasks, prior to attempting practice activities on their own. When students first embark on practice activities, they should do so in the presence of a supportive Field Instructor and gradually be given more independent practice opportunities as their level of skill increases.

Students are required to have weekly supervision meetings for at least one hour with their Field Instructor where they are encouraged to come prepared with questions about their agency and practice assignments. Likewise, during the Foundation year of field, students are participating in field seminar and are supported through additional lectures and educational activities. In addition to me as a support person, students also are assigned a Field Liaison from the College who provides guidance and support to both the student as well as their agency. Field Liaisons schedule semester meetings with students and their Field Instructors to ensure that learning is progressing as it should. Additionally, they serve a mediating function if problems do arise.

Concentration field students are expected to have more independent practice sooner in the semester than a Foundation field student; however, they are still oriented thoroughly and provided direction and support with their learning activities. Concentration field students are also expected to have weekly supervision with their Field Instructors for at least one hour in duration. Furthermore, Concentration field students are also assigned a Field Liaison who again schedules semester visits to provide support or problem solving. Concentration students do not have a seminar component and are solely practicing at their agency.

[] Field Education requires a significant time commitment from students. Many online programs are geared towards working professionals, how do you recommend students balance field education with other responsibilities?

[Professor Keiser] Field education is one of the most challenging elements in a program, specifically when focusing on time management and balancing other responsibilities. As mentioned previously, students are advised that very few evening and weekend field placement opportunities exist. While the Online MSSW program offers flexibility regarding the classroom experience, field placements are limited as to how flexible they can be with student schedules. Our Field Education Team makes every effort to seek out placements that allow for alternative field placement hours, however, that is not possible in every situation. Students that have some flexibility with their work schedules and can dedicate daytime hours to a field placement tend to have the most success with finding and securing their ideal placement.

Self-care is essential to the practice of Social Work and students receive information about self-care during their Foundation Field Seminar. Students are encouraged to give themselves down time to relax and rejuvenate and this is particularly important for our students in field. Students in my online Field Seminar will create an individualized self-care plan this semester. The plan will focus on how to recognize when they are experiencing stress and how stress affects their daily functioning as well as their Social Work practice. The hope is that students will be able to implement a plan to alleviate the negative effects of stress they are experiencing. Many of my colleagues here at UTK in the College of Social Work also focus on self-care in their courses. Burnout is a very serious issue among Social Work practitioners; therefore, it is critical that we teach Social Work students to not only recognize but to take action when they are undergoing stress. Having a self-care plan can be an excellent source of support for students and creating a plan can be a validating experience. Students often question if it is normal to be affected by the stories that their clients are sharing and having a discussion about compassion fatigue can confirm a student’s experiences as well as teach them to be proactive about their own self-care.

[] How are field placements determined for both students who live in Tennessee and students who live in other states? If students are interested in working with a specific demographic, does UTK attempt to match a student based on interests when possible?

[Professor Keiser] Regardless of where a student resides, the field placement planning process is the same. All students receive a letter and a field placement planning form where they are instructed to select agencies where they wish to interview. We do our best to place students at the agencies of their choice and with their population of interest. Once students return their planning forms, I then reach out to the agency to inquire about the agency’s ability to interview and accept a student during the requested time-frame. We make every effort to provide students with a variety of agencies to interview with whenever possible; however, students may have a limited number of agencies to choose from based on their living situation.

[] For students who already work at a health services agency, are they allowed to complete any of their field education requirements at their current place of employment? If so, how does this process work and are there any restrictions?

[Professor Keiser] Students are eligible to complete their field placement at their place of employment; however, there are some guidelines that must be followed. Students must have a clear delineation between their regular job duties and their field placement responsibilities. The general principle is that the student’s practicum assignments cannot replicate current or past work assignments. The social service agency and the field instructor must also meet the criteria for field agencies and field instructor as outlined in the field manual. Students can receive a stipend for their field placement and may be compensated for field placement tasks if approved by their employer. The current policy is that students are allowed to complete only one practicum at their place of employment.

[] For students who are matched to an agency where they have not been previously employed, are they required to interview for a position? If so, how do you recommend students prepare for interviews?

[Professor Keiser] All students entering field practice must essentially interview for their placement and it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to secure their placement based on their interview, background check and other pre-placement screenings. I provide students with a helpful interviewing tip sheet and remind them to thoroughly research the agency to gain a thorough understanding of the agency’s mission and scope of practice. We certainly provide opportunities for students to ask questions and seek assistance when preparing for their interviews. I always remind students to come prepared with their resume and I always offer to review any materials such as a cover letter for example, prior to the student’s interview and submission of interview materials.

[] Since the MSSW program accepts students from across the US, has UTK ever had issues finding a local agency for an online student? If so, what happens in these situations?

[Professor Keiser] Students living in areas that are highly saturated with students seeking MSSW field placements can face challenges at times securing their top choice; however, I work hard to reach out to local schools, partnering with them to locate an appropriate placement. I also work closely with students as they are often the expert about the social service agencies in their community. The combination of working closely with students and other Field Directors/Coordinators from other programs has been successful to date.

[] What are some of the main questions and concerns students have while completing their field education requirements?

[Professor Keiser] The primary concern that I hear from students is related to their ability to complete a field placement while maintaining full-time employment. I make it a priority to explain the realities of field placements to students when they are exploring our program and when students are admitted. Graduate school is a sacrifice and our program is academically rigorous so combining classroom learning with the demands of a field placement can be stressful at times. We work hard to prepare students to begin their work in field and continue to provide them with adequate support and guidance as they progress.

[] Finally, can you summarize the importance of field education in online MSW programs and why students should consider pursuing their online MSW/MSSW at UTK?

[Professor Keiser] The Council on Social Work Education has identified field as the signature pedagogy of social work education: “It is a basic precept of social work education that the two interrelated components of curriculum – classroom and field – are of equal importance within the curriculum, and each contributes to the development of the requisite competencies of professional practice” (Council on Social Work Education, Educational Policy 2.3).

People should consider UTK because we are flexible, affordable, and innovative and we provide individualized attention to our students. We work closely with our students to provide them with a quality field placement that will meet their professional goals as well as our College’s educational competencies. The field placement offers students the experience to integrate their classroom knowledge into a practice setting and allows students to develop confidence and competence to practice as a generalist or advanced practice Social Worker.

Students who are interested in getting more information about the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s online MSW programs can visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s website .

Thank you Assistant Professor Keiser for your time and insight!

Last updated: April 2020