Gritty TV dramas present an image of social work as a thankless, dispiriting job, played out in a world of abuse, poverty and vice. However, this somewhat skewed portrayal does not reflect the realities of the job, says social worker and Irish Association of Social Workers executive member, Mary Payne.
"There is a huge range of jobs open to social workers. Depending on the field of work you're in, you'll have different sorts of roles," she says. "It's not just dealing with awful situations, your role can be very positive."
Social workers deal with a broad mix of clients from individuals to families and groups. The aim of social work is to help people achieve change and make decisions which will improve their quality of life. In the main, social workers work with people who are experiencing social and emotional difficulties, but, as Payne says, there are other aspects to the job.
"I work in fostering and a lot of the job involves getting in contact with foster people and ensuring that the right family is matched to the child, it is a very positive experience."
A big part of the job, however, is being the safety net for people who fall through the cracks in society and helping them address difficulties in their lives. Clients referred to social workers include young and adult offenders, homeless people, unemployed people and those with drug and alcohol problems; marginalised groups such as ethnic minorities, the elderly and people with mental and physical illness. They also work with families and children in "at risk" situations.
"Most of the time you're working with people, one-to-one or in groups in a counselling situation, but you also have to act on your client's behalf. This will mean liaising with bodies such as the Department of Social Welfare or the probation services or schools, or other professionals such as doctors or solicitors. You need to be able to cope with all those sort of tasks," says Payne.
The biggest employers of social workers are the health boards. Social workers also work with adoption agencies, hospitals and clinics, the probation and welfare service, learning disability services and many other statutory voluntary and community services.
The job is very challenging, says Payne. "You're often dealing with people who are very distressed and that can be difficult," but she says people tend to specialise within the job, so that they find the area to which they're most suited.
However no matter what area you specialise in, you must like working with people. "You're never going to be in an office by yourself. You're going to be out there working with individuals or with a team," she says. Social workers do not, in general, work excessive hours and many jobs are nine-to-five, however some will require evening hours to suit working clients.
Payne says the job offers huge variety. "No two days are ever the same." The most important attributes to have, she says, are flexibility, initiative "and, above all, patience".
There are two routes to a social work qualification, undergraduate and postgraduate.
TCD and UCC have undergraduate degrees. However, the UCC course is only open to mature students. The TCD bachelor in social studies is open to school leavers and mature students and students must graduate with honours to qualify as a social worker.
UCC and UCD run two-year post-grad courses. Entry to both requires a three-year social science degree. Other degree-holders can take a one-year conversion course and then apply for the two-year course.
Marian Murphy, course director of the master's in social work in UCC, says the courses need to be long to allow students to develop academically and personally.
"It's a broad field of work and you need time to get to grips with it. It also requires a certain degree of maturity, you may be working with bereaved people, a child who's been abused or an adult who's lost a limb. You need to be emotionally mature and mentally resilient to deal with these situations."
Murphy says employers are, "beating down the doors" of the college looking for graduates at the moment and the course has doubled its number of places this year.