How To Decide: Micro- or Macro-level Practice (Or Something In Between)?
As social workers, we are experts at taking the “systems perspective.” We are able to see the interplay between the bio-psycho-social in individuals, families, communities, agencies, public policies, etc. We understand that very little in our world stands alone – we are constantly changing and being changed by our environment. For example, Congress’s lack of progress on immigration reform has real world effects on youth in California joining gangs (an oversimplification, of course).
As an MSW student, one of my biggest challenges was deciding which track to take: micro- or macro-level practice? As a social worker with a couple years under my belt now in both micro and macro practice, I want to outline some of my lessons learned in the hopes of helping fellow social workers who can’t decide. These are some pros and cons that I wish I knew before I decided:
Making change is slow. Whether you choose direct practice or policy, change comes slowly, in fits and starts.
If you choose policy practice, be prepared to work on the same issue for years. And by issue, I don’t mean something like “juvenile justice.” I mean that you will work on one small piece (perhaps statewide or even just your locality) of a giant system. For years.
Making changes in individual clients is also slow. There are competing reasons for this – the client may not be ready to make changes, the insurance company may not reimburse for enough sessions to make real change, the client is likely dealing with multiple social justice issues – poverty, mental health issues, dangerous communities – which make it extremely difficult to make real and sustained change.
I have worked on changing laws and the key is getting support from legislators. Okay, you knew that. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: many (not all) politicians are more often motivated by keeping in line with the party or their own raw self-interest, not by magnamity. Many social workers (myself included) are pie-in-the-sky optimists and this bit of cynicism may be difficult to swallow.
Individual clients also face multiple and changing motivations. Perhaps they want to get off of probation, perhaps they want to have fewer fights in their close personal relationships, or perhaps something else entirely.
In either case, you have to identify and work within the motivations of the individuals you are working with.
The struggle for many of us is finding a balance between our work and our personal lives. Micro- and macro-practice place different stresses on us. Macro-level practice has long hours, budget negotiations frequently go all night long. There will likely be times when you’re working on some talking points or an Excel spreadsheet for months only to find out that something has changed and your work is no longer useful to the negotiation at hand. This can be disheartening. One positive is that the money is definitely better on the macro level.
The stresses of micro level practice are likely better known to social workers. Clients can also be unpredictable and hours may change from one day to the next. You never know when a crisis will happen. At first, it may also be a struggle for you to deal with secondary trauma. Remember to practice self-care!
If you still can’t decide, don’t. The beauty of social work is that you can work on all different levels. You can decide what’s right for you through your own practice. The degree is exceptionally flexible.
I hope that this has helped your think through some of the positives and negatives of micro- and macro-level practice.
Author bio: Tara earned her MSW from the Columbia University School of Social work in NYC in 2007 with a concentration in policy practice. She has since worked as a legislative fellow for the New York State Senate, a researcher for the largest healthcare workers union in the U.S., and as a direct practice clinician. Tara currently resides in California and is working on earning hours toward clinical licensure.