Social Work Pre-Grad Intern Kimberly Lewis
The Palacio Del Rio Hilton hotel loomed high above the horizon as I drove into downtown San Antonio to attend the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) conference. Each year, the leaders and professors in social work education and research meet to collaborate and share ideas. What I expected from the conference was to learn more about various topics in social work education and the latest research, and I did.
However, this was secondary to my revelations about the culture of academia, the nature of graduate school, and conference requirements. Combined with the experience of working with my mentor, I am delightfully disillusioned with graduate school and academic careers. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to make a decision about graduate school with very realistic expectations and a unique insight into this world.
Before embarking on the IE internship journey, I worked in a corporate environment in which the intensity and pace of the job was extreme. Deadlines were demanding, competition was cut-throat, and stress was high. My naive perspective was that this work culture only existed in the corporate world, but through this internship I have discovered that the "competitive spirit" is alive and well in the academic world, too. At the CSWE conference, stress was high because PhD candidates were networking and interviewing for Assistant Professor positions. Many of the breakout sessions were focused on handing out awards and accolades for accomplishments. I can imagine that there is a lot of pressure to receive these awards and networking is extremely important in achieving this goal. Another experience, interviewing a professor for the internship assignment, affirmed these ideas about academic culture. My professor described the process of achieving tenure at a university. He told me about the pressure to get as many grants and publications as possible to prove your worth to the university. He described the intensity of that time and how important it is to establish credibility. In this way, I realized that the intensity I experienced in a corporate setting still exists in academia.
In addition to enlightenment about academia as a career, I also learned about the nature of graduate school. I expected graduate school to be more about an independent journey to wisdom and knowledge and less about competition. However, discussions with my mentor showed me that many students are striving for academic achievement and struggling to be at the top of their class. Graduate students are encouraged to publish documents and present at conferences as early as possible. Before this internship, I thought that the competition for high achievement was limited to the undergraduate world. Now I know that it is even stronger at the higher levels of education.
Finally, conference culture was surprising to me. I did not know that regularly attending conferences is an integral component of being a graduate student. At the CSWE conference, I learned that students can submit posters and papers for presentation. I also learned about the resources that UT has to support these poster sessions. Furthermore, I was surprised by the strong networking focus of conferences: that every interaction is an opportunity for collaboration or potential future employment, and a time for awarding achievement and celebration for the professors. The networking allows people with similar research interests who are geographically remote to come together and share ideas.
In addition to adjusting expectations and understandings, the assignments related to the internship were worthwhile learning opportunities. I was able to do literature searches, prepare IRB documents, write for publications, understand the grant-writing process, analyze data, and grade papers. These tasks are the basis for the job requirements of a research assistant or research coordinator, and I have a head-start in this area for future employment. Along with tasks and skills, I gained a deeper insight into the subject matter of my internship: social work in pediatrics, oncology and palliative care.
Overall, many of my expectations and ideas about graduate school were corrected during the IE Pre Grad internship. I learned that my perception of academia as a career was wrong, and that it is not a peaceful, stress-free culture that is dramatically different than business. My understanding of graduate school changed to include the competitive spirit and striving for achievement. Finally, I learned about conferences and the role that they play in both graduate school and academia. I now know that these conferences are an important part of higher education and that they are often a requirement for students to attend. Even though my preconceived notions about graduate school and academia were wrong, I would not trade this experience. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, because when I choose to enter into graduate school I will not be shocked by the reality of the environment. I will be in a position of leadership among some of my peers since I have had this experience already. As I drove away from the conference in San Antonio, I knew that I had begun a lifetime journey in research and education, and despite the potentially negative things I learned, I am still passionate about pursuing this future. I can enter into this journey with a realistic mindset and approach it rationally. Every undergraduate should be as fortunate as me to participate in such an internship.