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A professor's insight: micro/macro, state vs ivy league- a long post

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Here's my early disclaimer so you don't miss it. Someone here is going to disagree with me. Maybe some other professor would disagree with me (but not most). Some applicants and grads will disagree with me due to their own cognitive dissonance and confirmatory bias. That's ok. If you've already decided and don't need the advice, then don't read it. :)

1. Go to the state school. Unless you've got some superstar professor at a fancy program who's agreed to publish with you and you want to be an academic, save the money. Go to the program that best fits your needs. This DOES NOT mean you need to go to Hunter to get a good macro experience. This means that if Hunter is closest to your grandma's and you'll save a bunch of money by going there and fulfill your mom's dreams of having a daughter at Hunter, then do it. If you want to go to DU's animal-assisted therapy certificate program because you want their unique training, pick that school. But generally, your state school is just fine.

*It must be a CSWE accredited school.

*If bias exists in the world related to where you got your degree, it will probably be around those with diplomas from small religious-based programs. Not that the ed is necessarily inferior, but some in the social work field will turn a nose to a small Catholic program, for instance, and assume you have not learned skills in working with diverse clients.

There are two general categories of schools: teaching schools and research schools. Some fall in between the two.

At teaching schools, teachers have heavier teaching loads, up to about 4 classes a term. The result is that these people are often better teachers. They've been doing it longer. They may be more likely to use clinical faculty (no PhD), and these faculty probably have more practice experience. If you want to be a clinician, this may actually be a better learning experience for you. Yes, better than Ivy League.

At research schools professors have smaller loads because they are expected to do research. They may like doing research more than teaching. They may "buy out" of class time, which means adjuncts often fill the gap. They may have very little practice experience because they always wanted to be researchers. If it is a school with a PhD program, doctoral students may fill the gap when the profs get their buyout. These instructors may have less experience and make for a less pleasant learning experience.

Class sizes are often bigger at research schools.

My suggestion is to evaluate personally the fit between you and your school of interest using some of the following criteria:

1. What are the class sizes? (they may be different in clinical vs theory classes... 15 is perfect for clinical IMO)

2. What are the Grad Research Assistant opportunities?

3. How long do professors stay? (Are half the professors tenured?)

4. How many classes are professors teaching?

5. How many of the classes are taught by adjuncts and doctoral students? (Adjuncts are ok if they've been there a long time and are teaching in their specialty... for instance, if there's a great LCSW that teaches clinical skills every year for 10 years, great! If someone new teaches HBSE every year when a full time faculty refuses at last minute, no good.)

6. If you want to go on for a PhD, are there faculty there who work with MSW students on publishing and/or research?

7. Find some alumni of the program and call and ask them about it. Call a licensed clinical social worker, for instance, who has the school listed on their website as where they got their MSW. Most will be willing to tell you about their experiences.

Let me tell you a few stories:

a. When I was a new MSW graduate, I went to work in public child welfare. My starting pay (10 years ago) was a respectable $45k. I graduated from a mostly-unknown state school with a clinical focus. Another guy started at the child welfare agency at the same time as me. He was an ivy league grad. He got paid the same as me. I promoted faster than he did in the agency. They didn't care where our degrees came from. The only thing he ever said about his school was how much he was paying in loans. He'd go to a state school if he had it all to do again. After meeting many ivy-league folks and hearing about their experiences, I don't regret going to a state school.

b. When I applied to the PhD program at a school that is often named here as a top tier, the things that helped my application were my decent writing skills, the one pub I did with a professor at my mediocre MSW program, and my ability to articulate my research goals. I learned very little about fancy research in my MSW program, but I did my research on how to apply for a doctoral program. My PhD program admitted 10 people a year- I only applied to one place and got in without a problem.

c. When I went to school at the fancy schmancy PhD program (tuition free through the whole degree- any decent doctoral program will offer a waiver with a GRA), I taught in the MSW program. I wasn't a good teacher. It was my first time. I wasn't horrible, but not good. There were a lot of mediocre teachers in my "good" program, most of them tenure-track research faculty. There were a lot of students, fairly large classes (20-30) and a few great teachers. Overall, I believe the students in that program had a classroom experience pretty darn similar to my MSW experience. They liked living in a big city, but their learning outcomes were about the same and the classroom experience was some good/some bad. Because of CSWE accreditation, classes and the degree program must contain a certain amount of specific content, and the program learning outcomes will not vary widely between schools.

d. When I went on the academic job market nobody cared where I got my MSW. Where I got my PhD made some difference. If you are going to get a PhD, you should get your PhD from the caliber of school where you hope to eventually teach (if teaching is your goal). Maybe I'll make a post some day about how to choose a PhD program.

e. One of the schools on a"top-10" list is now a school that is making tons of money by admitting huge groups of students and using mostly adjuncts in the program. Many of you have applied there. Many of you will get in. You'll be paying off those loans for a long time, and if you love the program my guess is that it will mostly be because you expect to love it because you are paying so much for it. (No, I don't name names. Do your own diligence).


If you want to do "macro work" then get work experience. Lots of it. That's how most people get macro jobs.

I've never heard of anyone getting a "macro job" because they went to a program with a macro focus. Schools everywhere have macro-focused placements and macro courses. It's a CSWE requirement. Placement experience helps if macro work is your goal. If you want to do management or administration, you either need to move slowly up the ladder and get practice experience so you know how to lead, or work in a small/rural agency where there aren't enough MSW-level practitioners floating around and where you outrank most folks. If you want to do policy, then read a lot, volunteer a lot, and network a lot. This is best done in the place you hope to live. If you get really good at networking at Hunter, it probably won't do you much good when you go back to Seattle.You'd be better off going to a school in town where the professors are well-networked and can introduce you to people in the non-profit sector there.

Sure, there are exceptions to every rule. I can't think of a MSW-level job where micro/macro and ivy league/state would make a considerable difference, unless: you are interviewing with an alumni who has warm nepotistic feelings, or you are doing a highly competitive national job search (most don't, but here your experience will also make a big difference). I have worked for the feds, hospitals, counties, in private practice, at universities, community college, for the state... nobody's ever cared me where I got my MSW. When I've worked with ivy-league grads, a few things can happen: (a) they can be seen as high maintenance, ( B) someone might assume they are smart because they got admitted to a good school, © they have higher debt.

Research backs up the state school choice- a study of people who got Harvard MBA's vs those who were accepted to the program but didn't go found that the ultimate salaries of both groups were similar. So- maybe you've got mad skillz if you can get in to a fancy program, but in the long run you'll probably do just as well in your career no matter where you go. If you're smart enough to get in to a great school you are probably smart enough to navigate your way to a great job no matter where you got your degree. In fact, maybe you'll be the superstar at the state school and get sweet opportunities because you're so darn outgoing.

Schools are often ranked based on their institutional research. That may mean that the medical school is hella productive, even though the social work program doesn't do much. It doesn't say much about the satisfaction of the social work graduates, so use measures that matter to you. The US News list uses a set of outcomes that are not so relevant to me. The "top sw schools" listed on the internet have no criteria by which they rank the schools, and are sometimes tied to advertising by those schools (but sometimes the schools have no idea how they landed on some random internet list- the websites often do not say, but are bringing people to their site for ad revenue. Buyer beware).

I teach now in a good school. I am a tenure track professor, and I have grants and teach clinical courses. We have an admission rate lower than the numbers I hear thrown around about the top tier schools, although we aren't a "Research I" university- this tells me the competitiveness of some of these places may be overrated. I imagine that a school's admission rate has more to do with local need and demand than reputation.

Paying it back

I use the Income-based Repayment plan for my loans. I took loan money during the PhD program because my yearly income dropped significantly when I went from practice back to school. Although my tuition was paid (and I had a GRA salary), I needed money to make the mortgage payment and to support my family. Based on net income and ICR calculations, my student loans are actually quite small. There is a calculator at the ICR website, but it overestimates significantly in my experience. The only way to get an accurate number is to apply, send in all your paperwork, and let them calculate it for you. Since I work for a state school (non-profit), I am eligible for the 10-year non-profit loan forgiveness program. My payments go up each year as I make more money, but this loan forgiveness will still be significant for me. People are eligible for the 10-year forgiveness and ICR with MSW degrees, as long as your loans are consolidated through the federal Direct Loans program, you work for a non-profit, and make under a certain salary. (Government jobs, many hospitals, schools, and lots of other places are non-profits).

The only other decent federal loan forgiveness program is National Health Service Corps. They operate in limited communities, mostly rural and hard to recruit. For the jobs you have to have your clinical license in all cases I think. Learn more here: http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/loanrepayment/

Some states have their own programs... for instance, California has a clinical social worker loan forgiveness program. Check out this list Smith put together: http://www.smith.edu...ms-by-state.pdf

Edited by socialworkphd
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Here's my early disclaimer so you don't miss it. Someone here is going to disagree with me. Maybe some other professor would disagree with me (but not most). Some applicants and grads will disagree

Also, I have a few friends who work at Columbia, smart as whips, with good practical experience. When they got jobs at Columbia, I was impressed that they got in to such fancy places. If I had applie

Glad my post was helpful. I felt a little guilty though, because "top tier" schools fill a need and place in our education spectrum too. Here's how: 1. The low class loads mean faculty can do res

First off, thank you SO much for taking the time to write this and for being so honest in your post! I know that I was having a hard time choosing between USC and UCLA. USC admits 900+ students and costs $42,000 a year while UCLA admits only 100 and costs half that amount since I am a CA resident. This post really put things into perspective and I now have a better sense of what I want to do.

Edited by vmpancucci
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Glad my post was helpful. I felt a little guilty though, because "top tier" schools fill a need and place in our education spectrum too. Here's how:

1. The low class loads mean faculty can do research. Research is important in legitimizing our profession and helping people see it as a science. Teachers at these places tend to be a little geeky, which may be fun if you like philosophical conversations about theory. And since people who are high achievers tend to go to these schools, it can be a stimulating place to learn. Students are more likely to find other young single away-from-home students in places like this, so if you are looking for a community of people similar to you in a big city, a top-tier school might be a place to make that happen. If you have a trust account and aren't mortgaging your future to go to one of these places, and you really want the whole "go away to college" experiences, one of these choices might be just what you are looking for. If you go to a CSU that offers evening and weekend classes, your colleagues are a lot more likely to be older (than the average college student) working adults with busy lives.

2. Some people like to be fancy. If going away to a big name school is your idea of Fancy, do it.

I have nothing against fancy, in theory. I'll share an example:

I love my Fancy shoes. My $200 Naot Mary Janes, in reality, are probably no better than the $60 Clarks. But I feel Fancy when I wear my expensive shoes. They don't help me walk faster or farther. They aren't going to get me a good job or turn me in to a dancer. Sometimes I meet someone who also loves Naots, and we have a moment of shared love for our Fancy things. Someone else might think it is obnoxious that I paid for Fancy shoes instead of going with the practical and good quality Clarks. Sometimes I like telling people I wear Naots. Someone else might admire me for having such Fancy shoes, and wish they had them too. But most people are not going to care. Most people don't even know what Naots are. I justify that they are super comfortable and so worth the price, but.... really... good shoes are good shoes, $60 or $200. When I can't wear these ones anymore, I'll buy another pair. When people ask me what shoes to buy, I'll tell them how much I love my Naots.

Big name schools are like that too... some people feel Fancy when they say they went to Harvard. They get excited whenever they have the opportunity to tell people where they got their degree. If going to a certain school makes you feel Fancy, and will give you butterflies for years to come, then go Fancy. If your sister went to a Fancy school and will rib you if you go to a CSU, go Fancy. I won't judge you. ;)


me (a student-loving research-conducting state college professor in fancy shoes)

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Also, I have a few friends who work at Columbia, smart as whips, with good practical experience. When they got jobs at Columbia, I was impressed that they got in to such fancy places. If I had applied at a place like that (I didn't because I was looking for a certain kind of work environment that was less pressure-cooker) and got an offer, I would have to think hard about saying no (even though I know it's not the kind of school where I want to teach) because I would think about how impressed people would be that I got a job at Columbia. (Then I would come to my senses, say no, and tell my friends it was an honor just to be accepted.) I am an overachieving geek, and my geekiness is of impressive quality at my current school, and it's kinda fun to be a bigger fish at a smaller pond. YMMV.

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@socialworkphd Thanks for your continued insight! I'm trying to choose between UCLA and USC. Do you know much about either program? I'm trying to research as much as I can before I make a decision. I'm also trying to talk with current students in each program and am visiting each school/department next week. Do you have any suggestions or insight into either program?

Edited by vmpancucci
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Since my argument is that the ivy offers no future benefit beyond the regular old state school, my belief is that the "quasi-ivy" state schools also offer no benefit beyond the state school. I did not get my MSW from a "quasi ivy" or prestigious state school. I've run in to plenty of people in my career from lots of schools. I have worked on the west coast, east coast, and midwest as a professional social worker. I've never met an employer who cared where we got our degrees, except when I was on the academic job market (and they were interested in where we got our PhD's).

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Thank you very very much for your post! I tried SO hard to express some of these same views through my own views these last few days, and it can all get taken wrong. Although I have experience with some of this stuff because I've already worked for the government researching and been around many people with various degrees from various schools, I am only now going for my MSW so my opinion will not be as respected. As you can see through postings under the forum on here called "How important is a school's prestige" I definitely wrote a lot but not as nice and organized, and I exhausted my energy lol. Good to see SofieCat, briefinterviews and michigan girl here too. I'm not alone in the core points I at least tried to make, and this is a much clearer explanation. Thanks for the info. for my own sanity too, now my own conjecture doesn't seem so looney. I kept asking my bf "Am I wrong? Is everything I've learned from my work experience wrong? Do these prestigious schools matter more than I'm arguing? We need a professor on here!" And he just said "Let people believe what they want, they will eventually learn through doing and perhaps they live in a different reality than you right now so stop stressing yourself out."

Edited by Lisbeth
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Since my argument is that the ivy offers no future benefit beyond the regular old state school, my belief is that the "quasi-ivy" state schools also offer no benefit beyond the state school. I did not get my MSW from a "quasi ivy" or prestigious state school. I've run in to plenty of people in my career from lots of schools. I have worked on the west coast, east coast, and midwest as a professional social worker. I've never met an employer who cared where we got our degrees, except when I was on the academic job market (and they were interested in where we got our PhD's).

That sounds more clear now. I wholeheartedly agree that in most cases it does not matter where you receive your MSW as long as the program is CSWE-accredited and has a strong record of alumni passing the state licensure exams. Reputation also does not matter in private practice; work experience and referrals are more important. The only cases where I believe school reputation matters is research and policy-making careers (This also depends on whether your professional goals are regional or national. For instance, if you want to stay in CA, then get your MSW in CA.). If you want to work abroad, then seek schools with strong alumni networks and placement opportunities.

Edited by michigan girl
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Thanks michigan girl and all- but let me also share that in my first year post-phd as a a faculty member researcher at a state school, I wrote a funded a 1.5 mil dollar federal grant. Nobody cared where my MSW came from. And if you REALLY want a career in research, you probably want a PhD. The feds require that the PI on a project is a PhD in most cases. When I was an MSW student I did a research project with a faculty member in a class, and it was published in a well-respected journal, translated in to 30 languages, and is used as a CEU tool across the nation. Perhaps if you hope to be recruited by a research agency out of an MSW program as a research assistant your school can have an impact- but if you desire a research career and position yourself, I still don't think where you get your MSW matters much. MSW curriculum is just not that flexible. MSW's are essentially generalist degrees... even if you choose a specific track. If you want advanced specialized knowledge, you'll supplement your MSW training and create opportunities in the program (to do research with faculty, to find mentoring, to line up licensure supervision, etc.) and choose your CEU's carefully when you graduate.

Michigan girl makes a great point that it is good to check out the pass rate of licensure from your school. Since licensure is mostly focused on developmental theory, clinical skills, medication knowledge, then the pass rate probably speaks more to a school's focus on clinical issues. (I am speaking of clinical licensure- not all states have MSW level licensure, but if yours does check that out too.)

If I were looking for a program again, I would look mostly at faculty. Don't look at the "faculty" page on the website. Those are so padded at most schools, and include people no longer teaching, adjuncts who rarely teach, retired folks, etc. Pull up last semester's catalog of classes, and write down the names of all the faculty listed as teaching classes. Then go back and cross-reference to the website. That's the best way to figure out ratio of adjunct/contract/tenure-track professors. You can also get a feel for the teaching load that way. At research schools, faculty typically teach 2 classes. At teaching schools it's probably 3-4 classes. Try to figure out how long the teaching faculty have been at the school. If there aren't several people who have been around more than 5 years, that's a red flag. An infusion of young/new faculty is healthy for schools, so you want to see a mix. You don't want to see that everyone leaves as soon as they can. Go to ratemyprofessor and see if teachers are rated and what people say about faculty. These two things may help get a feel for the culture of the department. I would identify a few people who share my interests and try to connect with them as soon as possible to ask about whether they need a gra, look for career guidance, or try to arrange a reading and conference class.

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If you're smart enough to get in to a great school you are probably smart enough to navigate your way to a great job no matter where you got your degree. In fact, maybe you'll be the superstar at the state school and get sweet opportunities because you're so darn outgoing.


I have been on this forum for about a month, and in the process of researching MSW programs for a year. Amidst the horrifying stories of 25K starting salaries and people who bartend every night to pay their loans, I have always felt optimistic about my ability to find a job. After all, I graduated from undergrad in 2008, and despite my parents sounding the unemployment alarms, was able to land a well-paying position at a good company. Many of my friends who are intelligent, confident applicants have been able to shine, even in today's questionable job markets.

It's easy to have doubts and fears when turning down Columbia or any of the prestigious Cali schools, but this post is very well-written and obviously has a ton of experience and thought behind it. It has confirmed my decision to attend Hunter, even while still waiting on a decision from NYU. I always suspected I would be unable to justify spending the money for a "big-name" graduate education (especially while paying off the loans from a "big-name" undergraduate), but seeing it written out like that just seems like a no-brainer.

Thanks, socialworkphd, for your keen insight and willingness to take the time to share it with us!

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Thank you so much for this post! I am beginning to lose my mind over this issue of state v. ivy.

I was wondering if you had any insight into making the choice based on an interest in international social work?

My state school offers few field work placements, no courses, and very little electives with an international focus, while the ivy has an entire minor around international social work, and offers field work abroad or with big international agencies.

To complicate things further, I am looking for a more mezzo approach to social work, and the state school offers a lot more in mezzo course work.

I never really gave much thought to the big ivy, but now that it's decision time, I find myself confused, almost resigned to take on the enormous debt in order to get more international experience.

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@vidacelina, that's a great question. International social work is specialty enough of a discipline that you're very unlikely to get exposure in the normal course of the curriculum, and many schools do not have field placements that are international. If you really want to gain your international social work knowledge within the program, then I suggest you go to the school that knows how to do it.

You can look and see if the state school has any international faculty. If so, give that person a call and express your interest in international work and have them help you gauge whether the school might meet your needs. You can also call the field office and ask if they've ever done an international placement, and whether they'd be willing to work one out with you. There are a few social work faculty listservs, and field offices who are trying to find an international placement for the first time often ask for resources and recommendations on one of those lists- and faculty who have traversed that path help out.

The other option, of course, would be to do your own self-education. When you have an opportunity to write a paper on an open topic, gear it toward an international issue. Find out who does international policy work in your state, and do some informal interviews. Do your own networking. (Some people are great at this, some not... so judge your comfort with using this approach.)

Similarly, you could identify the people who do international work in your community, do some homework, and then ask a faculty member to help you connect with them. Sometimes the formal introduction by a professional is helpful.

I assume you've already applied, but there are small schools (not ivy) with international focuses too... so it's not an either/or choice for folks interested in international macro work.

Best of luck!

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For a career in international social work, apply to programs with the larger budgets and alumni networks such as Michigan and UC-Berkeley. The "quasi-Ivy" state schools can also offer better financial aid than Columbia. These schools have the vast resources (faculty, coursework, symposiums, and global studies concentrations) to establish and place students in international field placements. Ability to obtain funding is so important since international travel is expensive. Sometimes, reputation does matter if you want to work abroad.

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Thank you for the great post. I am going back to school for my MSW, and am facing the decision of moving 1.5 hours away to attend the state school, which is located nowhere near the population(s) I want to work with, and attending the private school locally which would allow me to get an internship directly with the population(s) I want to work with. The private school option also allows me access to people, by way of location, not professors, who can support me in the specific jobs I'm interested in after graduation.

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Working abroad is a very different ball game. I am currently out of the U.S. and if I wanted to stay here, I could do a master's here and it would cost a lot less and be useful here. It also wouldn't be that useful for the U.S. so, I prefer to go home because I do want to live in the U.S. in the future. Abroad you are likely to encounter social workers from many different countries and many different certification systems.

I would agree with this and say that your school matters a lot less than your connections, experience, and previous experience working/living abroad. Many organizations abroad prefer to hire people that have ample experience living in a foreign country and I get the feeling from working abroad this can sometimes be way more important than the school or even degree you have. Perhaps, social work positions even go to people that weren't educated as social workers but in something else like development or IR with a focus on crisis or conflict areas. The line blurs a bit. If it is your goal to go abroad, definently start working those connections and look for short opportunities to spend time abroad. My first work experience abroad was a few month volunteer program. I met a lot of people.

If anyone wonders why I always edit my posts, it is because I type on my ipad. It is a great thing to have abroad especially in an area where you have to be careful of robberies on trains and subways because I can slip it in my purse and no one knows its there. However, it is a pain to type on!

Edited by allyba
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I sent you a PM, but I thought others may benefit from your answers..

What type of work do you do abroad?

Would you say it's ok to go to my local state school for an MSW (heavily clinical/non existent macro program) and still be prepared to/hired to work for an int'l relief organization abroad?

Oh, and I am pretty heavy on the experience side- I finished by BA in 2005 so I have several years of domestic human services experience, and several years of experience living/working overseas.

Edited by SofieCat
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Hi SofieCat. Right now my work is really social work adjacent-teaching, advising sometimes involving at risk youth. You'd be surprised how much even something like teaching can take on a social work focus abroad. I did my undergrad in IR with the intention of spending some time working abroad and I sought out a lot of opportunities abroad. This is my 3rd time living abroad.

A few of my friends do currently work in more typical social work roles working with seniors and senior care, church related programs, immigrants, human rights, health issues in developing nations especially contraception matters etc. Most of these friends have more of an IR or development type degree. Many people with the ambition to work for an international organization major in those fields or do something like the Peace Corps to gain experience. Programs like the Peace Corps really can sort of equalize your chances even if you didn't go to a top school. Top schools can certainly help on the connection front. Working abroad also involves a lot of luck. Sometimes people just happen into jobs because they have excellent language abilities or knowledge of a certain area of the world or even simply because they are there and stumble upon a position. It is generally super competitive though to get a good job abroad and a lot of people really don't realize what it'll be like to live on a local salary.

In my opinion one of the reasons the school doesn't matter as much in the international arena is because no university can really prepare you for a job like this abroad and people know that. i don't think anyone wants to hire someone that has never experienced living for an extended time in another country. The last thing an international organization needs is an employee that needs a lot of attention and hand-holding- can't communicate well, can't figure out transportation on their own, can't stay out of trouble, gets too homesick/depressed themselves etc That just takes time and resources away from the clients. The skills for being successful abroad take time for international workers to hone so the experience part becomes really important.

There are organizations like the IFSW that sometimes hold events and conferences on issues related to international social work. If this is a direction people want to go in it might be worth looking at these type of networking events or ones near you. I think with several years experience domestically and some international experience you probably have a good base to start thinking about doing something abroad. If there is a particular area of the world you are interested in and don't know the language, start learning it first. Don't forget youll also probably compete with locally trained development and social workers that are very competent, used to living on the local salary, and move with more ease through the red tape and social customs of the country.

Edited by allyba
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