As part of our interview series, we have been asking professors and field education directors questions about their online MSW programs and how field education works for their online students. In our interview with Dr. Jane C. Hickerson (Ph.D., LCSW) from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), we asked Dr. Hickerson to summarize some of the main concerns students have about completing field education and the advice she gives to students. Her responses were so insightful, we decided to break out that question from her interview and create a completely separate resource page with her answers. While some of her answers are UTA-specific, we felt the majority of her advice would benefit students from across the country. (At this time, UTA’s online MSW program only accepts students from Texas).
For more information about field education at UTA, check out Dr. Hickerson’s full interview here.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Question: What are some of the main questions and concerns students have while completing their field education requirements?
Dr. Jane C. Hickerson, PhD, LCSW (Assistant Dean of Field Education and Assistant Professor in Practice at the University of Texas, Arlington)
I think the questions and concerns vary across their time in the field placement.
Early on, questions and concerns concentrate around:
The commute (“I didn’t realize that it would take so long.” “What happens if I’m late?”)
Now that you know the range of time it will take you, please plan for contingencies and leave with time to spare.
If you are late, or if you are ill or otherwise unable to fulfill your commitment to be at your field placement, be sure to call – not email – your Field Instructor. Do not simply inform her that you’re not coming. Express your regret. Explain your situation. Tell her how you plan to avoid this problem in the future.
Time management (“I’m not sure I can get everything done.” “I don’t know what to do about picking my kids up from school.” “Can I work extra hours to catch up?”)
Everyone feels overwhelmed in the beginning. Even the best of plans will need tweaking. Ask for help from those around you – your family and friends – during this time, and work closely with your field instructor.
The two of you will decide your schedule. However, UTA SSW administration requires that you accrue hours only during the academic semester, so you must accrue all of your hours before the last day of the term.
Goodness of fit (“I don’t think that I should be here. What do I have to do to change placements?” “I thought I wanted to work with kids, but I think now I’d rather work with adults.” “I can’t tell whether my Field Instructor likes me.”)
Field forces everyone into new experiences with a wide variety of clients. Most everyone feels discomfort outside of their own environment. It’s ok to be a little anxious. Just remember that your field instructor is there to support you, as is your UTA field liaison. They will listen carefully to your concerns and intervene if necessary or simply allow you to stretch your limits under careful supervision.
If you think that your field instructor does not like you, use your communication skills to check out your inferences. Say something like, “I really enjoy working with you. I’m learning a lot, but I want to know how you think it’s going. Do you have any worries about working with me?”
About half way through the field experience, concerns shift even further toward performance.
Meeting expectations (“I’ve made A’s all through school, but I can’t tell how I’m doing here.” “It feels as if I’m making too many mistakes.” “Is it possible to fail field?”)
Being in an agency and performing the tasks of a social worker are considerably different from attending class, reading, writing papers, making presentations, etc. In field, you are asked to demonstrate your knowledge through your actions and your interactions with clients and agency colleagues. Some students make this transition easily because they have life or volunteer experiences that have prepared them for the agency environment. Others learn “OTJ,” or “on the job,” without a test review or lecture to guide them.
Most often, students grow increasingly confident as they become accustomed to the agency and master the tasks and skills in real life. Nevertheless, it is possible to fail field. Students who do not attend scheduled hours, who do not learn the tasks of the profession, or who do not understand that field is as much of a learning experience as their class time are at risk of receiving an F.
Reaching beyond their grasp (“Should I be meeting with clients?” “What if I mess someone up?”)
Meeting a “real” client is scary for some. Even after semesters of role plays and scenarios, talking with someone who is relying on your expertise is intimidating. The short answer is that everyone has to start somewhere. But, again, students are starting out under careful supervision and support. As far as “messing someone up,” egregious or unethical behavior on the part of students can have a negative impact on clients, so this is a legitimate concern. Most students will not be exposed to situations where they have that level of influence on clients. Remember, too, that all clients are resilient and can likely overcome a student’s initial nervousness and lack of experience.
Feeling unchallenged (“My field instructor isn’t letting me do anything. I’m still shadowing.” “How do I get more ‘real’ experience?”)
Most field instructors have a plan for student progress. Most also have solid experience in judging a student’s preparedness. If a student thinks they are ready for greater challenge, they need to address this concern directly with the field instructor. If the field instructor is unresponsive, the student may speak with the UTA liaison to see if the liaison can facilitate communication between the student and the instructor.
Boundaries (“I met this really neat person in our agency. She’s a client, but she wants to hang out. I think she’d be fun. I want to say yes.” “My field instructor never tells me anything about himself. It’s as if he doesn’t see me as his equal. I hear him joking with the rest of the staff, but he doesn’t do that with me.”)
First of all, most students recognize that they can’t “hang out” with clients, even though many clients are likeable and interesting. In these situations, the more common mistake is oversharing or becoming too personally involved with clients and allowing the boundary to blur so that the clients view the student as overly friendly, unprofessional, or worse, as their friend rather than their social worker. Field instructors monitor carefully for this as recognizing boundaries is fundamental and sometimes difficult for students.
Boundaries between students and field instructors need to be equally clear. For the first time, students are spending many hours with an instructor and beginning to see the instructor as a three-dimensional human being. Field instructors begin to treat students as professional colleagues which some students can misinterpret as friendship. Despite the time that students share with field instructors, the relationship is still uneven. The instructor remains the instructor/supervisor even in shared experiences and crises. This doesn’t mean that field instructors don’t respect students. They do. But they understand that they must maintain the teacher/student boundary.
Toward the end of the placement, most students have gained confidence in their role, but they are worrying about logistical details.
Hours (“What’s the last day I can accrue field hours?” “Can I continue working in my field placement after the end of the school term?” “What happens if I don’t get all of the hours required?”)
These questions are fairly concrete. As stated earlier, all field hours must be completed by the last day of the semester. If students do not meet that deadline, they fail field.
Continuing to the next term (“I’ve learned about all I need here. Can I change placements?”)
It’s highly unlikely that students have learned all they need to know in half the time. This question does signal, however, that the student is either bored because they are not engaging in the tasks or because they are not being challenged. Usually a discussion with the field instructor and the liaison can solve this issue.
Jobs (“If I am offered a job, can I take it and still do my field placement here?”)
First of all, congratulations if you have impressed your field instructor so much that he or she wants to hire you. Nevertheless, your official job with the agency will need to begin after you have completed your field placement.