​Stayin’ Alive While Getting Your First Job In Social Work

  • Do you remember your first interview for a qualified social work post? My guess is that you probably do. Having asked me my very first question on my very first interview for a social work post on the subject of why I had applied for the post, the chair of the recruitment panel inexplicably decided not to make eye contact with me but instead positioned his body so he could look out of the window to my left. I then remember him pulling the most bored expression I have ever seen from a non-teenager. I remember thinking, ‘at least give me a chance to bore you first before you look desperately disappointed in me, I promise I won’t let you down’.  By this point I was so purple in colour from neck to the top of my head that my cheeks hurt. The Matalan suit jacket that I had bought for my grandads funeral, doubling up for this momentous event, was glued to my shirt that was glued to my back. I spoke. Immediately all I could hear was my new voice, which reminded me of Barry Gibb doing the ‘ah, ah, ah, ahh’ bit on Stayin’ Alive from Saturday Night Fever. Where did that come from? It was high pitched enough to have brought all the dogs in the vicinity to the front door of the local social services office that I was holed up in. And the speed in which I spoke?! It broke the speed of sound! I described my journey into social work training and the need for this particular post in a way that would have rivalled legendary horse racing commentator Peter O’Sullivan articulate the last furlong of a particularly close Grand National. Anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice, both thoroughbreds, were clearly neck and neck and could only be separated by a photo finish at the end. 

I was exceptionally lucky at the interview. On the right of the panel I found a really kind pair of eyes. I focused on them. They seemed encouraging, they seemed to get my predicament. I focused all my answers on them. Every time I seemingly said the right thing the kind eyes lit up and then the person nodded their approval. This was soon to become my first ever social work manager and had the most profound effect on my career ever. As I say, I was very lucky. 

It was clear working alongside other social workers that our experiences were similar. I heard horror stories of people that I had studied with unable to get a social work post due to poor interview experiences for some considerable time. I remember one friend I had studied with getting some feedback from an interview where she had failed miserably which said ‘the candidate should have focused on relevant legislation and not just The Childrens Act 1989… Could have mentioned Social Services Act 1970’. It was 2001. Social workers applying for posts can only do so much, we as interview panels and more experienced social workers and now managers will also need to step up our game.

So working with two brilliant social work managers who had similar experiences to me and having canvassed the opinions of social workers via twitter, we have tried to provide some top tips for our social work students in applying for social work posts. We think the tips are as relevant for interview panels as they are the candidates. Here’s just a selection of them;8

The Application Form – Well, firstly, there is a trade secret here which is really obvious if you know it but if you don’t you won’t even get an interview. You have to meet all the bits on the person spec, particularly those that are described as ‘essential’. So you have to write about how you meet these requirements. Sorry if you already know this and it seems patronising even mentioning it but its amazing how many exceptional candidates that will miss out on jobs because no-one has ever told them this!

Prior to the interview. If it says that you can speak to the Team Manager or arrange a visit then do so. Do some research into the job, the organisation and remember to take that knowledge with you. Recruitment panels are flattered by candidates who really know the job they’ve applied for and what the team/service is doing well. 

Prior to the interview. Make sure you are really clear where the interview is. Social work interviews can take place anyway! Check out the venue, parking, walking distance if its raining etc. On the day we advise getting to the interview venue at least a good 10/15 minutes before the interview is due to start so you can compose yourself.

Prior to the interview. Have examples of your practice ready. Panels love to hear you talk about what you have done and learnt as a social work student. Have a least 3 or 4 examples of people that you have worked with that demonstrate you at your best and show your social work values shining through.

At the interview. Your unique selling point is that you are new and enthusiastic and have strong values.  You aren’t expected to be the finished product (no-one in social work should ever think they are). But you are adaptable, willing to learn and you have examples of your practice to date which shows you put the person at the heart of your practice.

At the interview. Be as positive as you can be (without telling lies!). We can all have moments on the social work course when things don’t go well or placements may be difficult or the academic work is tricky. Try and reflect well on the positives where possible. When we are nervous we can often focus on the negatives. Try hard not to.

At the interview. This is a tough one. Because its an interview we can often find ourselves just talking about ourselves and our learning. However don’t lose focus in terms of actual social work. It’s all about the values. Bring the people we are here to serve to the forefront of your answers. How person centred are you? What did the person say about you? If you helped as a social worker what benefit did the person have?

At the interview. Have some legislation and theory ready and relate it to examples of your practice to date. 

At the interview. Know the 5 principles of the Mental Capacity Act!

At the interview. If the interview is going well the panel tend to write a lot of information down. If after answering a question for 20 minutes non-stop you look up and the panel are staring back at you and have all out their pens down and have stopped writing then it’s probably time to stop talking. Don’t worry, we all do it, but try and keep things concise.

At the interview. Having some good questions at the end for the panel is important. Surely as NQSWs you will want to know about the ASYE offer etc? Even if you only have one question for the panel at the end of the interview try and ensure that it isn’t just ‘when will I find out if I have got the job?’

Good luck to all the social work students who will find themselves applying form posts over the next few months. From one social worker to another, thank you sincerely for choosing to the join the profession. You have made a brilliant decision and this is truly the best job in the world. 

Prepare yourself. Take a deep breath. And then come and knock our socks off. We promise we will give you every bit of encouragement and we know that the Barry Gibb falsetto voice doesn’t really belong to you. 

2 replies on “​Stayin’ Alive While Getting Your First Job In Social Work”

Brilliant – I’ve been on lots of interview panels for local govt and health and I’d recommend this to anybody. The only thing I’d add, is that the questions you get asked should also draw on the post’s essential and recommended criteria, so before you go think about how your experience, skills and values reflect those criteria, so preperation is essential. One other thing you might want to bear in mind, is that the manager sitting opposite you is going to be just as nervous going for their next promotion as you are going for your first job.

Liked by 1 person

Thanks very much Mark. Much appreciated. And yes, great point, questions should originate from job spec etc. I remember going for a job with a brewery years ago and their first question was ‘tell us a joke?’ I was tempted to say ‘this interview, evidently’ but needed a job so didn’t!


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