‘Dual Degrees’ Open New Opportunities

Donna Montgomery always knew she enjoyed helping people. But after years of working as a registered nurse in a hospital’s psychiatric department, she noticed the system of treatment was heading in a new direction in the early 1980s.

She said hospital administrators and insurance companies were placing more emphasis on rushing patients through the process. Taking time to learn about the patient as a whole person was no longer encouraged.

“I figured this was not what I was meant to do,” she said.

In her mid-40s, Montgomery decided to make a change. She pursued an MSW while still working as a nurse. She eventually became a licensed social worker who provided outpatient counseling at a psychiatry office in Ohio. Since 2000, she has run her own counseling practice in Kentucky.

“It has worked out perfectly for me,” Montgomery said. “It’s a great combination. I can discuss physical and emotional issues with clients.”

It’s not uncommon for social workers to enjoy varied careers. Some people, like Montgomery, discover their social work calling later in life. Others say their social work education served as a springboard for a different career direction.

Attorney Joe Monahan serves on the NASW National Board of Directors. After he received BSW and MSW degrees, he became executive director of a licensed child welfare agency. From that experience, he became fascinated with law.

“Every time I turned around I was consulting with lawyers,” he said. Monahan enrolled in law school, planning to advocate for people with disabilities, and co-founded the law firm Monahan and Cohen more than 20 years ago. The firm continues to represent clients who work in mental health and child welfare in the Chicago area.

“I have the best job in the world,” Monahan said. “I’m able to use my social work and legal training together. This has given me a different perspective. I look at problems from a holistic point of view. I still use my social work in policy training every day.”

Monahan, who has served on NASW’s Legal Defense Fund board, said his understanding of social work has helped his practice set legal precedents for cases involving same-sex adoption in Illinois, as well as promoting improved standards for family services in the state.

Monahan said his career is a perfect example of how social workers can enhance their social welfare philosophy by obtaining dual degrees. With such a background, “you can have a broader impact in the system you are working with,” he said.

While Monahan chose law after obtaining his social work education, Robin Russel, took the reverse route.

Russel, an NASW National Board member, is director of the University of Maine School of Social Work. She graduated with a law degree in her early 20s, hoping it would satisfy her desire to help vulnerable populations gain social justice, she said.

Her first job was with a local legal services program that focused on juvenile and family law. She said she discovered the legal system did little to curb violence against partners and children. The experience led her to work with social workers and that exchange prompted the start of a domestic violence program. Russel realized she enjoyed the “people” component of that project, helping clients with information and support they needed during a difficult period in their lives.

When she had an opportunity to return to school, Russel said she chose a social work doctorial program because the course topics intrigued her.

“I often tell my students that I felt I had ‘found my people’ when I found social work,’” she said.

Russel, who also has served on the NASW Legal Defense Fund board, has taught social work for 23 years and said her law background has been a valuable asset when it comes to discussing family violence, juvenile justice, macro practice and social welfare to students.

She said social workers with dual degrees can become a valuable asset to whatever field they pursue. “Over the years, I have had a number of attorneys as social work students and they have had different reasons for pursuing a social work education,” Russel said. “I think they’ve enjoyed social work as much as I have.”

Medicine and social work

Dr. Geraldine Dawson, associate professor at Marywood University’s social work program in Scranton, Pa., began studies for a second degree, only to discover that social work was the best job she could have.

Early in her social work career, she co-facilitated seminars with medical doctors for students pursuing psychiatry, social work and medicine about the importance of understanding a client’s psychosocial background. Her medical colleagues encouraged her to study medicine in the late 1970s. She eventually completed a residency in internal medicine in India, but rather than pursue medicine when she returned to America, Dawson had a revelation: “I decided I really liked looking at the whole person. During my medical training, doctors found that dealing with the psychosocial aspects of clients was too time-consuming.”

Her medical training has served her well as a social work educator at Marywood, where she chairs her school’s social work doctoral program.

“From that experience, I was one of the first people nationally to offer a seminar to social workers and physicians on psychotropic medicines,” she said.

Another social worker decided medicine was the best way she could help others.

Dr. Elizabeth Rider is board-certified in both pediatrics and clinical social work. She is the director of academic programs at the Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice of Children’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She consults around the world about the importance of communication skills in patient-centered care.

Early in her social work career, Rider said, she was offered a position directing a social work department of a child psychiatric facility. This led her to re-examine her career goals and to follow in her family’s tradition of studying medicine.

Rider said patient-centered medical treatment was not on the radar in the late 1970s. However, her mentors at Harvard Medical School encouraged her to fuse her social work background into her medical career.

“Social work skills are so useful to many professions,” she said. “In medicine, social work skills are something I use every day in working with patients and families.”

Rider practices what she preaches. She provides extended “talk” appointments for her patients, where she helps them sort out problems and facilitates referrals and other assistance.

Her advice to social workers who want to broaden their careers: Follow your passions. “My career course was a natural trajectory for me,” she said.

Social work and public health

Darrell P. Wheeler is a social work educator who has taken a more traditional route to expand his social work education. Wheeler, associate dean for Research and Community Partnerships and associate professor at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, has an MSW and a Ph.D. in social work along with a master’s degree in public health. A member of NASW’s National Board, Wheeler said his interest in health science was a driving force for him to complement his education with an MPH.

“As a social worker with interests in health and health services delivery, the additional public health training gave me more technical resources, especially in biostatistics, epidemiology and health services administration,” Wheeler said. “In my current work, the training provides a very important cross-disciplinary lens for evaluating community health issues.”

Wheeler said his social work education has enhanced his public education efforts. “My understanding of interpersonal skills, group and individual dynamics and human behavior assist me in using the public health tools to reach across disciplines, to engage colleagues and ultimately to reach our clients.”

Social work and business. Melvin Wilson, manager of the Office of Workforce Development and Training at NASW’s national office in Washington, said he pursued a business degree to improve social services.

He received a master of business administration degree in the 1980s with the goal of improving the business side of nonprofits.

“I knew I wanted to remain in social services and I saw the value in getting an MBA,” he said. “It gave me a much deeper understanding of how local, state and federal budgets and policies operate.”

Wilson said his career demonstrates just one way social workers can continue their goals of helping others from a different standpoint. He advised social workers to keep an open mind about the many ways an additional degree can enable them to help people. “There are other avenues you can take,” he said.

Dual degree programs

While many social workers go back to college to obtain additional degrees at some point in their careers, another option is to pursue a dual degree while in social work school.

Jessica Holmes, associate director of research at the Council of Social Work Education, said law is the most popular pairing of dual degrees at accredited schools of social work.

Based on a CSWE survey in the fall/winter semester of 2010, 47 out of 203 schools of social work offered a social work master’s program with a dual degree in law. The next most common pairing was public health (32 schools) and public administration/public policy (24 schools).

“A number of different degrees were mentioned in the ‘other’ category,” Holmes said, “including master’s degrees in gerontology, social policy, criminology, women’s studies, bioethics and nonprofit management.”