Social Work Internships – How to Pick One

Social work internships can be intimidating and you may feel like you don’t know where to start or what the “right” placement is for you is. I remember when I had to pick an internship I felt like I had no idea where I wanted to go or do. Many times, the interns I work with felt the same exact way. They were nervous about picking a placement and sometimes didn’t get their first (or second, third, forth…) choice for their internship. Some schools pick an internship for you while others give you more freedom to find one for yourself.

Here are some suggestions to think about when you begin looking for a placement.

Pick a Population

When it comes to picking an internship you want to try to find one that matches the population that you want to work with. It’s a great way to see if you’re truly going to enjoy working with the population for many years to come as you start your professional career.

If you can’t find an internship working with your preferred population, that’s okay too. Use it as a time to try a population that you might not have otherwise thought of working with or maybe one you’ve been exposed to before in some other way that you enjoyed. For example, maybe you worked with children with developmental delays for a volunteer project and you enjoyed it- try finding an internship geared towards that population. Or maybe you loved visiting someone in a nursing home and talking to the residents- try looking to geriatric placements.

Whatever you decide is your population of choice, go with it. The best thing about internships is that they aren’t forever. They only last a couple months generally if you’re going full-time. You don’t have to stick with that population if it turns out you don’t enjoy it as much as you thought you did. Explore! Keep an open mind and be willing to try new things.


Still don’t know where you want to intern even after picking a population? Network!

Ask you friends in class or the people in the class above you who have already gone through internship. They’ll have valuable insight as to which internships they enjoyed and will probably talk more freely about their experience as an intern.

Get with your professors. Many of them are very familiar with the local programs and facilities. They also get to know you throughout the semesters so they might have ideas of placements that you haven’t thought of.

Talk to your academic advisor or internship coordinator. A lot of universities have specific professors or faculty set up to help coordinate internships who are knowledgeable about what is available in the area. Go talk to them if you’re struggling to figure out what placement is best for you. They’ll have some valuable input and information for you.

Didn’t Get Your First Choice?

If you had your heart set on an internship site and you didn’t get it for whatever reason, that’s okay! Take a deep breath. Don’t panic. Think about why you wanted that internship site. Was it the population, hours available, setting? Once you figure that out, look for other options in the community that will match (or be a close match) for what you’re looking for.

I can’t tell you how many times I had interns tell me they NEVER thought they would like working with individuals with substance abuse problems but then realize that they enjoy it during the internship experience! I’ve also had interns tell me they realized that they really didn’t like working with the population that they thought they would. Either way- that’s great!

Why would it be great to be at an internship and realize you don’t actually enjoy the population? I’ll tell you.

Your internship can help show you that you don’t like working with a certain group of people or in a certain setting and that’s awesome knowledge to have! It’s just as valuable as knowing that you absolutely love working with a certain population. That way, you can reevaluate your career path before you even get into your career. If you take a job where you don’t like the population, you may feel like you have to stay at the job for a while because you don’t want it to negatively affect your career (i.e. look bad on a resume). But with internships, there’s an end in sight! You don’t have to do this forever and there are no consequences to not doing it forever! How great is that!?

Learn, Learn, Learn!

No matter what- whether you love or hate your placement, don’t quit learning! I’m a firm believer that you should never quit learning but you especially should not quit learning while at your internship! Internships are there for you to do just that! It’s the first time you really get to dip your toe in the pool and start using your clinical skills in REAL LIFE! How exciting is that!?

I truly can’t stress this part enough. No matter what, make sure you soak up everything you can. Practice active listening skills and using different treatment modalities. Find therapists who you can observe to help give you other ideas. Seek supervision and ask questions (no matter how insignificant the question may seem). This is YOUR learning experience (and, let’s be real, you’re paying a heck of a lot for it). You’re going to get out what you put in so make sure you make it count.

Other Things to Consider

Some other things to consider when choosing social work internships include whether they will work with your schedule, if they usually hire interns as employees, and supervision requirements.

If you have a crazy schedule, like working a full-time job while you’re in school, you may need to limit your search to placement that have hours of operation outside of normal business hours. These usually will be residential settings, crisis centers, and mental health stabilization units.

Another thing you may want to look at (or ask during your intern interview) is whether they ever hire interns. I started working at the same place I did my second internship. I established a rapport with my peers and did a good job as an intern. When I first graduated there wasn’t a position open for a counselor but as soon as one opened up (about two months later) my supervisor immediately called me and asked me to put in an application. Many agencies love to hire interns because they already know the intern and the intern is familiar with the agency, their co-workers, and the documentation system.

The last thing to ask about is supervision. What does supervision look like? Is it individual or group? Who does the supervision? How often does it happen? I know some of my interns have come to the program and are shocked that there are set days and times for group supervision. Many of them have never had formal supervision before because some placements don’t offer it (although they should). Make sure you find out up front so you know what to expect. If they don’t have an answer for that, I wouldn’t intern there. One of the most important parts of being an intern having guidance of a supervisor.

Internships are FUN!

Most importantly, have fun. Internships aren’t meant to be scary or boring. They’re meant to be a learning experience and a practice run for the real world. Talk to your co-workers and supervisor and build relationships with those people who will soon be your peers in the field. Start networking. Even if your placement doesn’t hire interns, they may be able to refer you somewhere that is hiring or be a reference for you when you begin your own job search.

You should enjoy your learning. Internships are one of the most important parts of your education. It’s easy to talk about skills and theories but another thing to actually put these things into practice. Make sure you take every opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things.

Lastly, make sure you ask questions. Your supervisor and faculty liaison are here to help so use them! If you feel stuck or don’t know what to do in a situation with a client- ask! Let them provide you guidance. This is a great thing to start practicing now because there will be times when you are working in the field where you need to ask for supervision or help. The more you do it, the easier it is!

Do you have any questions about internships? Or if you have already completed one or both social work internships, what were your experiences like? I’d love to hear about them! Drop a comment below!

2 thoughts on “Social Work Internships – How to Pick One

  1. Hi Jess,

    I actually think your section on “not getting your first choice” is a valuable learning tool for most interns.

    You may find that your skillset and interests lay elsewhere from your original preferred choice, or as you say you may discover that you don’t enjoy working with a certain demographic.

    However, as you quite rightly point out, an internship doesn’t last forever, it allows you the opportunity to learn, and you may even find that your true calling lies elsewhere from what you originally thought.

    What about you?

    When you initially picked your internship, did you get your first choice?


    1. Hi Partha!

      My first internship was at a local homeless shelter. I had volunteered there for about a year so I decided to intern there. My second one, I didn’t get my first choice, I actually got my third choice. But I ended up LOVING it! I actually have been working for about 5 years at the same agency where I had my second one.

      Thanks for your questions! I hope you stay healthy and stay safe.


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