Flexibility is ingrained in the field of social work because employers know it's the number-one way to avoid burnout in jobs that can take a heavy emotional toll. “I've set my own hours, had generous vacation time and options to work from home in almost every job I've had,” says Maureen Rigney, 52, who went back for her MSW at age 30 and worked in community mental-health programs and on crisis lines before landing her current position counseling lung-cancer patients for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “We're empowered to take care of ourselves because that's essential to taking good care of others.”
Some social workers are now opening their own counseling practices or working with cause-based social-justice organizations. “You can go right into the flexible work environment of your choice; there's no expectation of having to pay your dues first through grueling hours,” says Mercedes Bern-Klug, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work. “You're never stuck. Social workers can change their settings every five years, because those core skills translate, whether you're organizing farmworkers, counseling foster kids or working at the U.N.” The field is wide open to career changers, since emotional maturity is essential to doing the job well. “I have many non-traditional students in their thirties, forties and fifties,” says Bern-Klug. “Any-one who has worked with people, whether as a teacher or a Realtor, has valuable life experience for this field. Social workers know that it's a privilege to be able to help people when they need it the most.”
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