New & Experienced Social Workers Share Tips for Career Advancement
As social workers, we go to school with a vision of how our careers will unfold. Maybe we want to do clinical work or policy work. Maybe we aim to work with adolescents, or work in a particular setting, like a hospital. Whatever our individual ambitions, taking that vision to reality requires work to practice and develop expertise, dedication to learning, and flexibility to face changes along the way. Two social workers with varying degrees of experience, Antonio Ruberto, Jr, MS, LCSW-R, CASAC and Vimmi Surti, LLB (India), MSW shared insights into career advancement that can help others develop in their careers.
Don’t Predict the End at the Beginning
Ruberto earned his MSW 15 years ago. Today, he is the Senior Director of Behavioral Health at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York, operates a private practice and is currently the chair of the NASW Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs (ATOD) Specialty Practice Section.
Ruberto notes that for many social workers, where they think they want to end up when they start school changes by the time they graduate. As they learn more about the profession, more possibilities and interests open up.
“I went into the field thinking about counseling and therapy, but Columbia wasn’t just a clinical focused school, and its holistic view of social work was a great foundation,” he said.
His internships during school, including at the community center where he now works, gave him the ability to understand different models.
Surti, a social worker at a New Jersey domestic violence agency, has been in the field since 2018, and offers case support and legal advocacy. She came to social work with a law degree, and her goal is to approach mental health with a blended lens of law and social work. As someone newer to social work, Surti says that as she progressed, she quickly discovered just how broad the field is, and that it requires continual self-care.
“Knowing that social workers have so much responsibility and so many caps to wear, that they work in so many places…knowing the spectrum was number one that I learned,” she said.
Because social work is so broad, social workers often find themselves in roles they didn’t expect. To that end, Ruberto says his first job after graduation was different than what he anticipated.
“When I graduated, I worked in substance use, harm reduction, and prevention around crystal meth among gay men,” he said. “It was different than what I thought I was going to be doing, but I felt prepared because of Columbia’s holistic view and a substance use class I took during my last year.”
Embrace Every Experience
Ruberto believes it's important to go into jobs with an open mind. There’s something to learn in every role, even if it's ultimately not the perfect fit.
“I worked for three years at an agency and did fee-for-service at another agency part time and while they weren’t my favorite places to work, I learned a lot clinically, ran eight groups a week, was part of a multidisciplinary team for the first time, and it was the first time I saw the whole experience from practice to billing and insurance,” he explained.
Through the fee-for-service role, he learned the difference between substance use and mental health clinics, learned to work efficiently, practiced concurrent documentation, and made good use of supervision—all of which, he says, was helpful when he opened his private practice.
Lean on NASW for Guidance and Support
NASW offers members a huge array of support for their career growth. Members can choose from hundreds of continuing education courses and spend time networking online and in-person with thousands of members across the country.
Surti says NASW’s members are a fantastic network, who offer different perspectives, different education, and different expertise, while ensuring you’re not all alone in the field.
“Gaining knowledge by interaction is one of the most crucial benefits I have found so far,” she said. “Any question you have - maybe licensing, maybe your career growth, maybe you’re moving to a different state - they just have all of the answers.”
Ruberto, who joined as a student, also says he has benefited from NASW membership. He feels comforted to engage with an organization that supports the social care profession, has similar views as himself, and supports that work.
“I have always found the articles and webinars really helpful as my career has grown,” he shared. “I like reading about the advocacy work being done at state and federal levels as well as the variety of articles, from clinical-based to policy-based.”
“I’m proud to be a part of an organization that tries to make good change and healthy change for the world,” he added.
Zoom Out to Find the Right Fit
One often forgotten part of career growth is stepping back from the career or a particular job to refocus your mind and your energy. Burnout is a very real problem for social workers, and ensuring activities that can prevent it or overcome it is critical for successful career growth.
“In such a high-demand field you have to take care of yourself to take care of others,” Surti said. “Once you have self care as your footage, you’ll be able to better serve individuals, families, communities, and societies.”
Ruberto adds that knowing yourself can keep you on the right career path and even protect you from symptoms of burnout.
“Work to choose an opportunity that fits you,” he said. “If you like clinical work, don’t take a community organizing job. It’s a balance of having an open mind and having an understanding of what works for you and what doesn’t.”
“And sometimes, the stuff you’re good at isn’t what you want to do, and it isn’t ultimately satisfying,” he cautioned.
Career growth is different for everyone, but some common actions work for everyone. Utilize supervision, build relationships, use job references, and take advantage of referrals and mentors. Think strategically and look beyond social work practice to understand budgets, deadlines, and management of teams.
“It’s never just the one thing you’re doing, like clinical work or policy work—there’s always that aspect of business savvy and strategic thinking,” Ruberto concluded.
NASW is dedicated to helping members make the most of their social work careers. To check out NASW’s career support tools, visit socialworkers.org/Careers. Learn more about the value of NASW membership, and how NASW can help you grow and succeed in your career.