Looking for a Social Work career?

Have you every wondered what a Social Worker career looks like? Let me share some insights into my career path with you.

I am currently have three different clinical hats: a Consultant for the Georgia Department of Corrections at Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women where I work as a psychotherapist and trainer,  a small business owner of a private practice located in downtown Decatur, GA, where I provide psychotherapy for adults, individually and as couples, and a supervisor for social workers who are working toward their clinical license. 

Roles in the field

     1. Rape Crisis and Sexual Assault Services 

After graduating with my MSW, I coordinated a Rape Crisis Program where I was a therapist, fundraiser, trainer, and community educator.  I learned to write grants and  a policy and procedures manual. I spent hours visiting the ER to support survivors and training volunteers to do the same.

I took every opportunity to educate people about sexual assault. I remember telling a large male investigator in an ER hallway to take a seat inside the door of the exam room where he would be lower than the survivor he wanted to interview. That way, the survivor would feel safer. Due to my tireless effort and passion for helping survivors of rape, I earned the nickname, “The Avenging Angel.”

When I first began giving presentations in the community, I was very nervous and recall gripping the podium for dear life. Later, after two years of speaking several times a month, I confidently answered questions about sex from a gymnasium full of middle-schoolers. By the time I finished my work at the Rape Crisis Program, I had expanded the program from two rooms shared by three people to 5 offices and a shared conference room.

     2. Doctorate Program

After two and a half years in the Rape Crisis program, I decided to return to school to advance my career and increase my earning potential.  I earned my PhD in Social Work at the University of Georgia  which resulted in a 33% raise in my job at the women’s prison.

     3. Women’s Prison – Mental Health

As part of my doctoral program, I did an internship at the Washington Correctional Institute for Women.  Male and female inmates brought a class action suit (Cason vs. Seckinger) against prison employees for violating their rights. Many were sexually and physically abused. My experience as a paralegal and as a Coordinator of the Rape Crisis Program were a great foundation to be of service to these women.

My first task was to contact over 100 “Jane Does” in the lawsuit to offer psychotherapy services. Many women were understandably skeptical of me because their trust had previously been violated by State employees. Some agreed to receive services, which turned an internship into a career.

Approximately 90% of the women in the prison have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse. Since there were far too many women for individual therapy, I developed the group therapy program — a group for rape survivors and one for domestic violence victims.  I could have worked 80 hour weeks and had to learn how to set boundaries and distinguish what was and was not a crisis.

Why did you choose a career in clinical social work?

I worked for seven years as a paralegal before deciding to become a social worker. I left the legal field  when I grew tired of being a wedge between people. My search for a new career began with career testing at Georgia State University; many of the tests recommended the “therapist” role, so I decided to go back to school.

I attended the University of Georgia and earned a Master of Social Work degree at age 39. My practicum at the Medical College of Georgia involved wonderful training on a multi-disciplinary team composed of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. I had the opportunity to do individual, couples, group, and family therapy.

Social Work fulfills my values of social change and client self-determination. I enjoy working with people in need who want to have a life worth living. I considered other mental health fields, but wanted to get started in a new career. The social work program was the quickest way; it was 18 months long.

What does a typical day on the job look like?

My prison work day starts at 6:45am. I prepare for my groups and attend a brief morning meeting for the Mental Health Department. We’re updated on emergencies and other need-to-know information. I do two or three two-hour groups, see one or two inmates for individual therapy, and supervise Mental Health Counselors who are working on their clinical licensure.

My day in private practice is filled with both individual and couples’ therapy. Sessions are 50 minutes. I limit the number of client hours to 15 per week to allow time for consultation and rejuvenation.

What do you find most satisfying about your role?

I love watching people learn, perhaps for the first time in their life, that they can make changes in their life and not continue to suffer. In my prison work, I love seeing the light bulb go on in women as they reach for independent, satisfying lives without an abusive partner. I’m inspired by watching clients take the risk to open up and learn to support each other in group therapy.

What do you find most challenging?

There have been two periods in my career in social work that have been challenging. The first challenge was transitioning from working full-time at the prison to starting a private practice. I didn’t have a referral base and had to learn how to build one.

The second challenge was when I had an accident and wasn’t able to work for 3 months. I had to hire a lawyer to fight both the insurance company and my disability company to pay the benefits that I deserved. When I returned to work, I had to start from scratch in my private practice since most of my clients had found other therapists.

Do you have any criticism of social work?

I wish that MSW/PhD programs would better educate students in depth psychotherapy.  I was fortunate to receive quality clinical training at the Medical College of Georgia. Times have changed. Unfortunately, many newer social workers today are only trained in manualized treatment and don’t have either broad clinical training or personal experience in their own psychotherapy.

I also believe that PhD social workers are undervalued in the managed care market. A social worker with a PhD gets reimbursed at the Master’s level, not the PhD rate; this is one of the reasons why I left managed care. I want our professional organization, the National Association of Social Worker, to lobby for us.

How has being a licensed clinical social worker impacted your life?

When I coordinated the Rape Crisis Program, I was negatively impacted because I had poor boundaries. If a volunteer wasn’t available to come into the ER to support a victim at night, I went in. Then, I turned right around and worked a full day in the office and in the community. After literally passing out a couple times in the ER after working with a victim, I was forced to take stock and learn how to set boundaries.

Do you have any advice for people interested in a career in social work?

1. Take advice cautiously. I gave up my full-time work at the prison to open my private practice on the advice of a psychologist/friend. Although I love my clinical work in my private practice, I don’t enjoy the administrative aspects of running a business.

2. Become actively involved in professional organizations. I am a member of several professional organizations, including the American Academy of Psychotherapists (AAP), Georgia Society for Clinical Social Work (GSCSW), and the National Association of Social Workers. AAP is my clinical home where I have taken many volunteer positions on the Executive Committee, chairing national meetings and serving as the Chairperson for the Southern Region.

3. Continue consultation. We need to hone our curiosity skills by continuously being in consultation with our colleagues. I strongly believe social workers should continue ongoing peer consultation for the life of their careers. I practice what I preach. Even today, 28 years into my clinical social work career, I regularly participate in paired and group peer supervision.

4. Learn how to network. My first supervisor encouraged me to call many of the medical/mental health professionals in my community, to set up interviews, and learn about their practice. This helped me to know the community, build a referral base and practice networking. As a private practice clinician, ten percent of our time is in marketing.

What if someone is interested in working in a women’s prison?

There are usually job openings for Mental Health Counselors at the prison. It’s a great way to get your feet wet in the beginning of your career. You work with a variety of clinical presentations, including trauma, complex family dynamics, personality disorders and psychotic disorders, among many others. There are two avenues to look for jobs: 1) the State of Georgia for those who haven’t received their clinical license and 2) MHM Corrections if you have your clinical license. The entry level position is hard work with a case load of 50-100 people. You see each client once or twice monthly and may provide group psychotherapy 1-2 hours per week. You get free trainings, supervision and work as a member of a multi-disciplinary team with psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. There is a lot of detailed documentation, so organization is key. There are currently 5 women’s prisons in Georgia; none are located in Atlanta. There are also many men’s prisons in the state.

Interviewed and Written by: Stephanie Cook, LCSW; revised by Dr. Sharman Colosetti 2/15/17.

If you’re interested in getting Clinical Supervision for your Social Work license or would like to begin psychotherapy, I’d love to work with you. Please give me a call at 404.518.0828. . . Sharman Colosetti, PhD, LCSW