How to secure a graduate job in social work

Give yourself the best chance of securing graduate social work employment, by focusing on these four areas.
Brianne Turk
Brianne Turk
Team GradAustralia
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When it comes to hiring graduates, social work recruiters have a pretty tough gig.

After shortlisting applicants, they hold interviews of around 30-60 minutes each. In this time, they’re expected to confidently decide who’s ready for the complex and often distressing scenarios that come with the job, and who’s not. Not only are they determining who has the emotional capacity for the work, but who has the technical skills, core competencies and professional integrity too.

So how do they decide this?

Well, with a bit of your help.

There are four key areas to focus on when working towards securing social work employment: acquiring knowledge, gaining experience, writing a winning CV and acing your interview.

We discuss each of these below.

1. Acquiring knowledge

Uni is a place for fun! It’s a place to develop life skills, make friends and maybe have a few too many drinks. But at the end of the day, a social work degree brings high stakes. It’s the first step towards working with real people, facing real challenges, with very real consequences. You owe it to them (and to yourself and the integrity of the profession) to be committed to your studies and meticulous in your acquisition of knowledge. Recruiters need to see that you take the lives of your clients seriously, and this begins with having a firm grasp on social work tools. Choose your topics wisely, and always do some extra reading.

Electives

Both undergraduate and postgraduate courses offer the opportunity to choose elective topics to supplement your core program. These include studies in international social work, domestic violence, youth services practice, social work in the disability sector, interventions in situations of trauma and many more.

When thinking about which electives to choose, ask yourself: Which will give me the best chance of getting ahead in my preferred line of social work? Which align with my interests and skills? And which will help me gain knowledge and confidence in an area I’m currently ill-equipped in?

Studying electives that are congruent with an organisation’s specialisation can give you an added advantage in job interviews.

If you’re unsure which area of social work appeals to you, read our breakdown of service sectors here.

Read

Well-read candidates who can critically analyse practice and back their opinions with evidence will always impress recruiters.

Whether you’re studying on campus or online, get your hands on some social work journals and get reading. Choose articles that interest you, and read and analyse for enjoyment. It’s amazing how much soaks in when no one is forcing your hand! At the very least, you’ll have a few pieces of research to — casually — refer to during your interview.  

2. Gaining experience

Finding experience in the field is one of the best ways of getting ahead when it comes to job-hunting. While a social work course offers invaluable field placement experience, this doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage over peers, as they’ll be undertaking placements too. So look for relevant experience that’ll separate you from other students, while at the same time impress recruiters.

Focus on experiences that’ll develop key social work skills, like building relationships with clear boundaries, learning to work with people of different ages or cultures, collaborating with others to problem solve, or empowering people to reach their potential.

Such experiences can be found in paid or volunteer work, and as ongoing, short-term or one-off arrangements. So really, there’s no excuse not to. The more diverse your experiences, the more well rounded you’ll appear.

Consider the following suggestions:

  • Work at an aged care facility and learn about informed consent, the challenges of losing independence, and the issues surrounding elder abuse.
  • Join an organisation that runs social activities for people with a disability. Learn about various disabilities, behaviour support plans, non-verbal means of communication and the NDIS.
  • Help out at disaster relief centres (floods and fires). Unpack donations and witness how policy and available resources affect the services offered. Have a chat to people about their experiences, and in your own time relate these to loss theories, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, trauma theories etc.
  • Get involved in a mentoring program and practice establishing a trusting relationship, communicating confidentiality limits, and setting personal boundaries.
  • Launch an event to promote inclusiveness between cultures within your local community. Raise awareness, mobilise stakeholders, advocate for equal rights and find creative ways to bring people together for mutual benefit.
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or the like. See the impact of social isolation and/or poverty and offer a listening ear and non-judgemental attitude.

Showing initiative to develop skills outside of your degree demonstrates that you take your career seriously. It also proves that you’re willing to step outside of your comfort zone to get results. If you can’t find paid work (or can’t commit for any length of time), impress recruiters with a portfolio of diverse volunteer experiences. We’ve written about why smart grads volunteer here. And keep a journal during these times! It’ll make it easier to remember real-life examples to draw upon, for your job applications and interviews.

3. A winning application

When it comes to cover letters and CVs, there’s some big do’s and don’ts that are applicable in every sector. To get you started, here are some articles that’ll give you a step-by-step guide on how to write documents for job applications.

To create a winning cover letter check out this article

And to tackle the all-important selection criteria, make sure you head here.

Additionally, make sure you refer to some of the core competencies of social work. In both your application and interview, include examples that highlight your warm, empathetic and non-judgemental attitude, as well as your skills juggling time constraints, managing conflicting high-priority tasks, and undertaking critical analysis. If you can, demonstrate your self-awareness, emotional resilience and teamwork experiences.  

4. Ace your interview

Social work interviews usually consist of two or more members of the organisation (for example, two management level social workers), and yourself. Although being outnumbered can feel daunting, it actually works in your favour by alleviating bias. You’ll typically be required for 30-60 minutes, and possibly a second interview after that.

The interview is your opportunity to put all of the communication and relationship building skills you’ve learnt thus far into practice: strong eye contact, open body language, active listening etc. You can bet your bottom dollar that throughout the entire process, the recruiter will be assessing your interpersonal skills.

In terms of how the interview will unfold, it will typically cover the following areas:

  • A chat about yourself and your CV. Here you’ll go into further detail about your background and experiences, enabling the recruiters to get a sense of who you are.
  • A chat about the selection criteria. This is the time to put yourself forward as a worthy candidate, and concisely elaborate on some carefully selected work experience examples.
  • Questions such as: Why do you want to work at the organisation? What do you think you can bring to the organisation? Just be honest and passionate, demonstrating how the employment would be of mutual benefit.
  • Behavioural questions that highlight your behaviour as demonstrated in real-life situations: Tell us about a time when you managed conflict? What is a situation where you had to prioritise tasks or navigate a stressful situation? In these questions think about what the recruiter is trying to discover about you. Be concise in your storytelling and explain both your thinking and behaviour.
  • Industry or case study questions: Which frameworks or theories would inform your practice at this organisation? What do you know about this industry? Talk us through how you would approach the following case. Again, explain what you would do and why. Show that you have researched this particular field of social work, including its relevant policies and evidence-based practice.  

If you’re then called in for a second interview, it’ll usually consist of a case study where you’re expected to analyse and talk at length about a situation that they’ll provide you with.

When discussing the case study, talk about:

  • What information you need to gather
  • Which legislation/theories/evidence based practice might guide your work
  • Whether there any ethical dilemmas or conflicts
  • Why and how you would go about implementing interventions
  • How you would measure results

Keep in mind

Like every interview, preparation is paramount! The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) has put together an extremely comprehensive list of mock interview questions which you can find here. At the very least, get together with friends and practice these aloud, brainstorming the best way to approach each question.

And don’t forget the STAR approach. If you don’t know what this is, you can read about it at the link above. When being asked to describe a real-life example, this technique will keep your response clear, concise and on track.

Lastly, remember that recruiters want to see the whole package: your social work knowledge, technical skills, interpersonal skills, the parts of your personality that make you unique, your curiosity, your drive and your career aspirations. Don’t get so nervous that you can’t let the real you come through! If you have any questions about the organisation and its work, ask away. Let them see what’s important to you.  

And now let’s do it all again

If you snap up the first position you apply for, count yourself lucky! Most people will go through a number of applications and interviews before they hit the jackpot. It’s a good idea to come up with a list of organisations that you’d be willing to work for, by following the guidelines we’ve compiled here.

With every new organisation you apply for, tailor your CV and cover letter, and repeat your preparatory questions. Put as much effort into your tenth application as you did with your first.

When it finally pays off, it will all be worth it.