Want to switch from writing to social work
December 26, 2008 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm a freelance writer wishing to make a career change to social work. The only stumbling block is student loan debt.

I'd like to go into social work because I recently had the opportunity to do some contract work that wasn't writing-focused, after two years of feeling less and less happy as a writer. I had the opportunity to fill a temporary, grant-based position at a nonprofit that involved directly helping disenfranchised people. I loved it and it gave me a sense of renewed purpose and confidence. I feel in my heart that it's time to switch careers and I want to do something in which I can directly help others as a counselor and advocate. Social work seems to fit, and I know the demand for social workers is increasing.

I have degrees unrelated to social work (English and anthropology), and I'd need an MSW to get a job. I know there's a high demand for social workers, but the pay is only in the $30K-$40K range. That wouldn't be a problem for me if I didn't already have $50K of student loan debt and would need to accrue more for an MSW. I have no other debts -- no car note, no credit cards -- and I am very good at living within my means.

One option is to get an MSW by going to school part-time and paying my tuition out of pocket. However, I'm in my early 40s. I'd like to get on with the rest of my life in a timely manner, so I'd really just prefer to go back to school full-time. Besides, my income as a freelancer is feast or famine.

If I do go back full-time, that will mean another degree's worth of debt: probably about $25K.

However, staying a freelance writer will mean years of lean times and no stability in a career I'm getting more and bored and disillusioned with by the day.

The upshot financially is that I currently make $25-$30K freelancing and have $50K in student loans. I also have to buy my own health insurance. I'd be trading that in for $30-$40K with benefits and $75K in student loans.

I'm healthy and quite youthful, so I expect to be around for a good long time with plenty of energy. I'm tempted to just do it and damn the consequences. But I thought I'd run the idea by the hive mind first to see if anyone has any suggestions, cautions, or encouragement.
posted by xenophile to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
i think you should do it. don't let loans hinder you, they help people like you (and me) who probably couldn't afford school otherwise to get degrees. it might be tough, but there's always income contingent repayment options and consolidation. my sister is a grad student for social work at emory university and is still living on the cheap, but she's going to be a professor after she gets her phd and she'll make enough to pay off the loans.

ever thought about that?

life's too short! go and live and be as happy as you can possibly be. take risks as often as you can while you're alive, don't wait till you die.
posted by big open mouth at 7:11 PM on December 26, 2008

1. The purpose of student loans is not to lock up individuals in a career for life.

2. Do you really "need" a MSW? It seems rather ridiculous the entry costs for social work are $25k plus the opportunity cost of however many years the degree takes.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:13 PM on December 26, 2008

Best answer: Loan Forgiveness Programs for Social Workers
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:16 PM on December 26, 2008

I left a television career to return to school for my doctorate in clinical psychology. I am faced with a mountain of debt (two babies born during the course of my studies, so I took enough loans to pay for school without needing a job so I could stay home with the kids when I wasn't in class). I will never make a zillion dollars. I'm very happy with my choice. Money's money, and you just never know how that will turn out, but I am doing work that I love. At the end of many days I feel as though I have had a real impact on someone's life.
posted by apollo at 8:11 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Slightly off question but it is my impression that social work can be a high burn-out field. As a minimum, you should seek out a number of social workers to find out what they like and dislike about the job. This is a big investment - you don't want to regret it in 5-10 years.
posted by metahawk at 8:36 PM on December 26, 2008

Regarding metahawk's cautionary comment: I'd like to point out that non-profit and social-service organizations have need for administrators, communications directors, and the like in addition to needing people to provide direct service. If you did direct-service social work and ended up getting burned out 10 years down the line, you would possibly have the opportunity to move into a more behind-the-scenes position while staying in the non-profit field, especially with your writing background.

Metahawk's advice is great, of course--getting info from social workers would be a good idea. (and they might have insight into managing student debt/staving off burnout/etc.) I just wanted to point out that getting your MSW doesn't preclude you from moving into slightly different positions down the line, should you want to. I think if you're excited about heading down this new career path, you should go for it.
posted by aka burlap at 9:28 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Furthering aka burlap's first paragraph, my neighbor is a social-work administrator. Five years ago, he was still doing direct service, and you could see the burned-out look in his eyes. In administration, he's mostly writing grants, and I'm pretty sure he's even more burned out than before. Here's a guy who invited me in for black-eyed peas my first New Year's here, just to make me feel welcome - nice as anything. He's turned into a paranoid shell, and I can't but think his work has done him in.
posted by notsnot at 10:16 PM on December 26, 2008

I used to be a social worker, before I left to be a writer, so I am kind of like you in reverse. I didn't get burned out or anything, just realized I wasn't as good at it as I wanted to be.

I got a lot of money in loans, but I paid a lot of it back by working for programs associated with americorps, since they usually came with a stipend and a grant to pay back loans.

You do need an MSW to do some things in social work, but I do encourage you to work a little bit in the field before you apply to a graduate program. It will look good on your application and will give you a sense of the job.

Yes, there are people who get burned out, but there are also people who absolutely love what they do. The great thing about social work is the incredible breadth of the field; i have friends who work as adoption counselors, as therapists, as administrators in nursing homes, as school social workers, friends who run food banks and friends who work in the military system. Too many people, when they hear the phrase "social worker," automatically assume we all work in CPS, dealing with abuse and neglect cases.

Good luck, no matter what you choose. I've left the field for now, but I'm still glad I have my MSW. I have always planned to go back to it.
posted by missjenny at 5:46 AM on December 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

« Older Snowshoeing, skating, or skiing for n00bs   |   New DVD box set won't play o DVD player but plays... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.