On choosing social work

Going back to school for a Masters of Social Work was a pivot in my career trajectory and a big life change.  I was in a good position to keep moving through academia and was seriously considering a PhD in sociology, philosophy or an interdisciplinary field.  I even flew across the country and met with a potential PhD supervisor who verbally agreed to supervise me if I applied to their faculty.  That’s how serious I was about where I was heading.   

In this post I would like to share some of the reasons I ending up finally choosing social work and what I was thinking when I applied to the MSW program in late 2014.  I put myself out there in a way that felt bold but true, and hoped I was giving the faculty the option to either choose me as I was (and wanted to be) or not – hence, giving me the sign that this was the path (and profession) for me.  I have resisted all temptation to edit and soften my words below. I hope you find this post helpful for better understanding me and what has influenced my journey but also for thinking about choosing graduate school and letting it choose you.

What motivated you to become a social worker?

My decision to pursue graduate level social work education and training stems from a place of purpose, meaning and maturity. 

I feel quite comfortable stating that I have come to know myself well.  I can attribute much of this knowing as a reaction to what Bury (1982) calls biographical disruption.  As a child I was diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue disorder, or as I describe it, a chronic condition with acute episodic periods.  Though I tend to dispute the term disruption, my patienthood has set me on a journey to find personal and professional fulfilment within an occupation that takes seriously issues of social justice, ethical engagement, reflexivity and life-long learning.  So far I have found pockets of these values within my academic orientation, research roles and advocacy work, yet I feel that I am missing an essential, relational piece (Hennessay, 2011).  I feel deeply committed to ethical and reflexive research and would like to explore what this means in practice.  In effect, I have a yearning to become a researching practitioner.

I have chosen to dedicate my personal and professional life to enhancing the wellbeing of individuals and families touched by illness and improving their experience with healthcare as a societal institution.  This goal was borne from my embodied knowledge of chronic illness and patienthood and holds significant meaning within my own life.  My experiences have shaped my worldview, my standpoint as a researcher (Hennum, 2014) and my desire to become a skilled and passionate practitioner.  However, I would like to make it clear that in no way am I insinuating that I have all the answers, or any answers at all.  I am not touting a “cure” or a one-size-fits-all fix to others’ problems.  What I would like to put forward is that my experiences have helped me think differently about the questions and have instilled in me a passion for understanding and assisting others in determining their own definition of well-being. 

Lastly, my academic work within the sociology of professions (Abbott & Meerabea, 1998; Freidson, 1973) has impressed upon me the responsibility and significance of being socialized into a profession within a different discipline from where I began.  I do not take this process lightly and have reflected deeply on the meaning of becoming (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) a social worker.  As an outsider to the profession I have explored if and how I might negotiate this new identity with my intersecting subjectivities of researcher and life-long patient (Weedon, 1987).  My belief is that through social work, I will find a congruence within my personal-professional self (Bogo, 2006) that I have yet to experience in any other discipline.

What is your most substantial accomplishment to date?

I wrote about it in my blog post Viewing the ICU differently.

What attributes do you possess that are relevant for social work?

I have a deep set curiosity and respect for the value of experiential knowledge and am seeking to work within a discipline that recognizes the power of integrating many voices.  Through intentional engagement in human services and community work, I have attempted to gain new perspectives that I cannot personally hold (Hennum, 2014).  For example, my patient advisory roles and involvement with patient networks keep me continuously connected to individuals and families who have experienced illness and healthcare differently that I have.  I feel compelled to consider how I represent the “patient voice” and the implications it has for my work.  As a result, I feel committed to engaging stakeholders in the design and delivery of actionable research that addresses the specific concerns of groups and communities. 

What is a contemporary social problem that interests you?

A contemporary social problem that is of great interest to me is the increasing prevalence of chronic illness/disease and the impact this has on personal and interpersonal well-being.  Chronic illness can be of a biological, cognitive or psychological basis and long term in nature.  These classifications of illnesses impose substantial restrictions on aspects of functioning and often require compensatory or assistive care, support, medication, or other interventions (Sansom-Daly, Peate, Wakefield, Bryant, & Cohn, 2012).  In Canada, two out of five people (12 years and older) have at least one chronic disease and these rates will continue to rise as the population ages and risk factors are not adequately addressed (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2011).  Advances in clinical and genetic medicine have also allowed for earlier detection and diagnosis.  This is particularly the case for chronic illnesses, such as Cystic Fibrosis for example, that have a genetic component (Kerem et al., 1989).  As a result, people are being diagnosed at a younger age and may be living for a longer period of time with a diagnosis. 

Chronic illness can impact the personal and interpersonal wellbeing of individuals and families in a myriad of ways.  In my past work, I have explored the connections between chronic illness and the (re)development of individuals’ self- concept, especially as this relates to social roles and interactions with healthcare institutions (Clarke & James, 2003).  Societal attitudes of health and illness are also important to consider as chronic illness is often discussed only in negative terms such as economic burden or social exclusion (Crawford, 1994; Nettleton, 2006).  As a social worker, I will be able to build on this understanding and explore the factors that contribute to wellbeing from a more comprehensive, biopsychosocial perspective. 


Abbott, P. & Meerabea, L. (1998). The sociology of the caring professions. London, UK: University College London Press.

Bogo, M. (2006). Social work practice: Concepts, processes, and interviewing. New York, USA: Columbia University Press.

Bray, L., Kirk, S., & Callery, P. (2014). Developing biographies: The experience of children, young people, and their parents of living with a long-term condition. Sociology of Health and Illness, 36(6), 823 – 829.

Bury, M. (1982). Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of Health and Illness, 4(2), 167 – 182.

Clarke, J.N., & James, S. (2003). The radicalized self: The impact on the self of the contested nature of the diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. Social Science & Medicine, 57: 1387 – 1395.

Crawford, R. (1994). The boundaries of the self and the unhealthy other: Reflections on health, culture and AIDS. Social Science & Medicine, 38 (10) : 1347 – 1365.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

Freidson, E. (Eds.) (1973). The professions and their prospects. California, USA: Sage Publications Ltd.

Hennessay, R. (2011). Relationship skills in social work. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.

Hennum, N. (2014). The aporias of reflexibity: Standpoint, position, and non-normative childhoods. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 25, 1 – 17.

Kerem, B., Rommens, J.M., Buchanan, J.A., Markiewicz, D., Cox, T.K., Chakravarti, A. Buchwald, A., & Tsui, L.C. (1989). Identification of the cystic fibrosis gene: Genetic analysis. Science, 245 (4922): 1073 – 1080.

Kondrat, M. E. (2001). Actor-centered social work: Re-visioning “person-in-environment” through a critical theory lens. Social Work, 47(4): 435 = 438.

Nettleton, S. (Eds.) (2006). The sociology of health and illness. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Sansom-Daly, U.M., Peate, M., Wakefield, C.E., Bryant, R.A., & Cohn, R.J. (2012). A systematic review of psychological interventions for adolescents and young adults living with chronic illness. Health Psychology, 31(3): 380-390.

Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructural theory. New York, USA: Blackwell

Public Health Agency of Canada (2011). Backgrounder: United Nations NCD Summit. Modified: September 20, 2011. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/media/nr-rp/2011/2011_0919-bg-di-eng.php.

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