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More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I'm Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. :)


  1. Terri says

    Beautiful. PLEASE do what makes you happy – what makes you feel fulfilled, what makes you whole. You WILL change lives every day. Maybe not even always in your “work”. But, although I don’t know you, just by this post, you have proven that you are a compassionate human being who will change people for the better just by being you. I am definitely Older than you, but no wiser… you got this. All the best.

  2. says

    To click the “like” link would not say enough about how much I enjoyed this article. I think so many of us can identify with the things you talk about (being in a bind to be powerful and “successful” vs simply doing what we love and helping others). At the end of the day our passions are what matter, so thanks for writing this.

    And who knows, when you become that great social worker, you might even have the time and expertise for some consulting on the side =]

  3. says

    Yeah I went through a similar thought-flow where I realized that while I love reading about science and analyzing it, I’m not one for doing lab experiments. I can plan research and write about it, but bench research is not my cup of tea. I am getting tired of it. Kudos for taking the brave step. I’m sure you’ll do well.

  4. says

    You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought and it sounds like you’re making the right choice. I went through a similar experience where I decided to do something practical and helpful for my career instead of research. Professors and fellow grad students were shocked. I would hate it! I would be so bored! Well, guess what. My career is awesome.

    I love your comeback: “As for ‘too smart,’ that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.” You’ve done a great job of unraveling some of the myths about the research industry. Here are a few more from my experience.

    Myth: You have to be brilliant to get a PhD. (No. You have to learn the formula for getting your research papers accepted, and you have to have a supportive advisor.)

    Myth: Research is the most interesting job in the world. (No. Social work, software engineering, music, accounting, parenting, etc. How many of the PhDs who are telling you this have even tried another job?)

    Myth: Research is the most important job in the world. (No. I’ll bet your blog already helps more people than 99.9% of research papers ever will. Thank you, by the way.)

    Myth: The world needs more researchers. (No. The world needs more people like you who read voraciously and can synthesize the research that’s already been done.)

    Myth: Leaving the academic pipeline equals dropping out. (No. Don’t let them shame you for that.)

    • says

      Thanks for this! I’ve definitely heard many of these before. People have also told me that I’ll meet more “interesting” and “educated” people in PhD programs, which seems pretty false given that I’ve already met tons of brilliant and fascinating MSW students and graduates. So really that’s nothing but elitism.

      • a lady says

        Elitism AND classism, whether the latter is internalized or externalized.

        I made a similar choice a few years ago–it’s very fortunate to know what one wants, and how to get it (more or less). It can be tough to figure out when it goes against so much programming, so it’s nice to see this sort of positive example.

  5. says

    It’s so great that you have figured out what you want and that you’re committing to following that dream rather than the “shoulds” and expectations! Wishing you well with it all :)

  6. says

    “The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.”

    The mental health rights movement “saved” me, so I know exactly how you feel. Except that in my case being “saved” also meant undoing the damage caused by psychiatric labeling and the mindset that says medication and therapy are the only answer.

  7. Irina says

    Wow, Mash, congratulations!!! I had the same doubts and concerns as you did when I signed up for an MSW. I have to say that although it’s quite annoying at times (getting paid less and being looked on in a certain way by others), I don’t regret it and I’m sure you won’t, either. I have some experience working these past couple of years and could always answer your questions–I’m here for ya :) What programs are you applying for?

  8. says

    Just found this post by following a link from a comment over at GeekFeminism. Thank you so much for your bravery and your passion! I am in a similar boat but a different field and it does my heart so much good to read things like this and know that others feel the same way. I am very curious about issues in my field and, like you, a voracious reader, but I want to take all the things I read and turn them into CHANGE. There’s so much injustice in the system and not enough people consuming and synthesizing the research to provide better programming and solutions for problems that have plagued the justice system for decades. I feel like I can contribute just as much (or more) to this world by playing THAT role as I can sitting in a university office crunching national survey numbers.

      • Bex @ says

        I’m working on a PhD in Criminal Justice (going through exams right now, finished with coursework) and a Masters in Public Health (finishing that this semester).

  9. rilian says

    –I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me.–

    I’ve been told this in reference to wanting to get an associate’s degree in computer programming. But for me the main issue is that I don’t care about making the most money, or having the biggest house.