Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Alumna Perspective on Choosing a Graduate Program in Social Work by Britney Thornton, MSW'14

With each pick, I began to notice their differences.  Some had gold trimmings, some were yellow, some were brown, some were new, some were short, some were dull—each had a unique personality.

And as I placed them inside the machine, I noticed the many options but only one setting provided the perfect fit. Quickly, I switched each one out and watched them turn into something better--something desirable and ready for use. 

In a short amount of time, I began to develop my own technique. A slight side-to-side rotation provided the perfect finish.   Before I knew it, my task was done and I sat back in satisfaction pleased not only with the process but also my finished product. 

And it dawned on me, sometimes life is like sharpening pencils. 

I remember my senior year at Baylor University as a social work student.  Repeated advice telling me to go on and get my Masters ran through my head as I began my search for the best Social Work graduate program.  

As my eyes darted through the list, I read names like the University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University.  A direct challenge to U.S. News and World Report, I began to re-rank the schools according to my standards, which had a simple evaluation system:  weather, size of the city, and prestige of the university.   Quickly my list of potential contenders began to shorten and I was left with the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Washington University of St. Louis. 

As I began to research each of these institutions, a slight adjustment had to be made due to a missed deadline which caused me to evaluate the University of Pennsylvania.    

Coming from the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee where few can even recognize all of the Ivy League schools or know what a foot of snow looks like or even what accessible public transportation means, I quickly fell in love with the idea of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. 

I remember the moment right before my mother drove back to Memphis.   Based on my undergraduate experience, I knew that the next time she would be back in Philadelphia would be for my graduation.   Tears started to swell into my eyes as the reality that the one person who knows me best was soon to leave me in the largest city I have ever lived in and at the most prestigious school I had ever attended. 

Doubts over whether or not I would be able to find my way around the city, or if I was equipped to handle the demands of an Ivy League education flooded my mind.  She simply looked down at me and gently said, “Say it with me…If it is….” I knew it well.  I joined her in finishing a saying instilled in me by my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Morris.  “...to be, it is up to me.   I can fly, I can fly, I can fly.  I can be anything I want to be.  I can do anything I desire to do as long as I listen to people who care about me.  If you are weak, you are beat.  If you are wise, you will survive.  I prepare myself for the doors of opportunity, so I can just walk right in.  I can.  I will.  I believe.  It is done.” 

Two years later, at my graduation, my mother reminded me of that night.  She merely said, “I told you so.”  And as I introduced her proudly to my SP2 family and friends, I was most pleased not in my titles of being President of SP2 Student Government, Vice-President of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, Hill College House Graduate Associate, and SP2 Dean Selection Committee member, but rather in the relationships I had formed with so many passionate, talented, and conscious individuals.

Much like the process of sharpening pencils, choosing the right graduate school is a process.  The School of Social Policy and Practice for some will be the right setting.  And for you unique individuals, the process of being refined will be aided by your investment in your own growth.  

My experience within the School of Social Policy and Practice, the University of Pennsylvania, and the city of Philadelphia changed my life.    It is for this reason that I am convinced that you cannot find a better learning environment.  But, then again, I am biased. J

I wish you all the best in your decision-making process.  May you make your journey your own and have lots of success.

Britney Thornton, MSW’14

Proud SP2/Penn Alum

Monday, October 13, 2014

MSSP Program: Preparing Students for Social Policy and Advocacy by David Griffith MSSP 2014

I first came to SP2 as an MSW student focused on working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and communities. I saw Penn’s MSW program as a great opportunity for me to develop the techniques and skills to provide direct services to LGBTQ individuals and to effectively advocate for this population. While I found the MSW curriculum to be very useful in helping me to develop many social work skills, I also experienced a strong pull towards focusing on the larger systems and structures that have historically oppressed LGBTQ communities. While I still saw the potential impact that I could have as a social worker working with LGBTQ individuals, I decided to pursue a dual MSW/MSSP program because of the opportunity to investigate both the direct services that can benefit this community as well as the broader policies that can either marginalize these communities or encourage their progress.

I have been interested not only in how social policy and advocacy can be used to improve outcomes for LGBTQ communities, but also in how members of these communities can organize to push for important policy changes at the federal, state, and local level. While there has been incredible progress for LGBTQ populations in the past decade, there is still a great amount of work to be done, especially for the most marginalized sub-communities within this population. For the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ population, access to LGBTQ-sensitive resources is often scarce and adverse physical, social, emotional, and economic outcomes ensue. I was able to pull these issues into my MSSP coursework to gain a fuller understanding of these factors and outcomes.

After the conclusion of my MSSP coursework, my MSSP internship provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about how these forces interact and affect vulnerable members of LGBTQ communities. As an intern with the Philadelphia-based LGBT Elder Initiative (lgbtei.org), I have gained invaluable experience in both the provision of community-based services as well as in community organizing and political advocacy. The LGBT Elder Initiative formed out of a need to connect LGBTQ older adults with culturally sensitive services in the aging network. The organization seeks to improve the ways that agencies provide direct services to seniors as well as the policies that are enacted that impact LGBTQ older adults.

As the baby boomer generation matures, and as acceptance of LGBTQ identities continues to increase, the number of “out” LGBT older adults in the United States is expected to more than double in the next 15 years. Waiting to meet this rapidly growing population is a system of aging service organizations and policies that have never before given focus to this population of older adults. The Pennsylvania State Plan on Aging, for example, makes no mention of LGBTQ older adults, despite the unique needs of this population. LGBTQ older adults have already lived through decades of often heinous discrimination that has left lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic impacts. Still today, LGBTQ older adults in Pennsylvania are open to legal discrimination in the provision of social services and placement in nursing homes and assisted-care facilities. 

Through my internship with the MSSP program, I have been able to develop hands-on real-world experience that has complemented the skills and patterns of thought that I gained as a social policy student. I have utilized skills gained from my MSSP academic experience such as program evaluation, community organizing, statistical analysis, media outreach, and policy research. Since the conclusion of my internship, I have continued to work with the agency in a volunteer capacity, assisting in the development and implementation of our educational programming and helping to lead our new Policy & Advocacy Committee. I also have two guest lectures scheduled for the fall at Rutgers University focused on the intersections of social work, social policy, and public health as it pertains to LGBT older adults. I am grateful to the MSSP program for having opened up these opportunities and for having prepared me with the background necessary to succeed in this capacity.

(David Griffith completed his MSSP degree in August 2014 and is expected to receive his MSW in May 2015)


Friday, September 12, 2014

Making the Most out of a University of Pennsylvania SP2 Degree: a look back as I enter my second year

by Johnna Marcus MSW 15' Candidate
One of the most beneficial lessons that I have learned as an MSW student at SP2 is the importance of taking advantage of opportunities. At Penn, opportunity has come in many forms- from a Hospital at University of Pennsylvania (HUP) field placement my first year to my involvement in student government to obtaining a summer job working at Penn’s international orientation. In each of these examples, I have met exceptional people who have become important resources and support systems for me as I grow as a student and professional.
There is a unique energy that comes out of learning from the experienced, hard-working and talented students, professors and staff at Penn. There are tremendous opportunities to communicate and collaborate with students and faculty across disciplines and build connections that I never would have expected to build. One of my favorite learning experiences thus far was interning in the lung transplant unit at HUP. I was able to gain valuable skills while working with people who have life -threatening pulmonary conditions requiring them to consider lung transplant. This work has put many things into perspective for me as a professional and person. SP2 faculty members were a support and resource for me as I went through this learning experience and challenged myself in new ways through working with patients and staff at the hospital.
More recently, I worked at Penn’s international orientation week. It is through this experience that I have come to understand what it means to be an international student in the United States and the ways in which Penn attracts scholars from around the globe. It was an eye- opening experience that helped me to understand the importance of providing support and guidance for international communities, especially within the academic environment. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to meet one- on- one with so many students from across the globe.
As a first year student at Penn, you may feel that beginning “rush” and excitement of the first weeks fade as papers and projects begin to pile up. Don’t let those deadlines and to -do lists distract you from taking advantage of all Penn has to offer. This is your time to make the most the most out of Penn- the tools are there, reach out and grab them.
(Johnna Marcus is a second year MSW student and Vice Chair of Communications for SP2 Student Government)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Summer at Penn School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2)

It is an exciting summer of change at SP2!

July proved to be a month of welcomes. We were delighted to welcome Dr. John L.  Jackson, who began his tenure as Dean on July 1st.  Although Dr. Jackson is new to SP2, he is not new to the University of Pennsylvania. Dean Jackson joined Penn in 2006 as the first University Professor of the Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) program. This program recruits preeminent faculty who have appointments in more than one Penn school and who utilize knowledge and expertise from different disciplines and professional viewpoints to address complex social problems.  As many of you know, SP2 is an interdisciplinary school; as such, we are honored to welcome such an eminent scholar, who has written and taught on issues that include—but are not limited to—theories of racism’s social impact, urban conflict and change in the digital age, visual culture and forms of scholarly filmmaking, the anthropology of urban religion, and critical approaches to ethnographic research methods.  The Admissions Office looks forward to continuing to work closely with Dean Jackson as the 2014-2015 school year unfolds.

We also welcomed our largest Advanced Standing Master of Social Work cohort in July, when 30 exceptional students formally joined the SP2 community. Our Advanced Standing students come from 10 states and from 23 Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs. After taking classes and beginning their field placements this summer, they will join the rest of SP2’s Advanced Year students in the fall and will graduate in May.

Five exchange students from Beijing Normal University also joined us in July. These students will be at SP2 until mid-August to attend one summer class and five special seminars given by SP2 faculty and staff and to make weekly field visits to local social service agencies. In addition to learning about social work and social policy in the United States, our Chinese exchange students have experienced local culture, visited neighboring cities and national sites, and made friends with the SP2 students. Their experiences, knowledge and thoughts about social policy and social work from the international perspective have also benefited SP2 students in and out of class.

As we prepare for the fall recruiting season, we are finalizing plans for our dynamic  website redesign, which will go live in late August.  Hopefully, you will find this vibrant new site informative and easy to navigate on your mobile devices.

On a different technological front, the SP2 Admissions team is currently hard at work implementing a new online application system. In keeping with the University’s interdisciplinary ethos, this new system will unite the applications for most of Penn’s graduate schools into one University-wide form, which will hopefully simplify the application process for our prospective students. We expect to open applications to all of SP2’s programs in mid-September; if you would like to receive more information in the meantime, you are more than welcome to keep an eye on our website, join our Prospective Student Listserv, or reach out to the Admissions team at apply@sp2.upenn.edu.

As this exciting and busy summer winds down, we look forward to our upcoming recruitment season.  It is our hope that we will have the opportunity to meet many of you at one of our onsite or online information sessions as well as while we are on the road. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about the admissions process.

Mary Mazzola, MSW, EdD
Associate Dean for Enrollment Management and Global Outreach

Adiza M. Ezell, MSW
Associate Director, Admissions and Recruitment

Genevieve Liberatore
Admissions Specialist, Admissions and Recruitment

Laura Baldasarre
Recruitment Coordinator, Admissions and Recruitment

Yuyuan Liu
Global Initiatives Coordinator, International Recruitment and Global Initiatives

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

From Baltimore to Budapest: Representing SP2 Abroad

by Abby Rix Degge, MSW 2011

When I finished my MSW at Penn, I accepted a social work position at the University of Maryland Medical Center to work with older adults living with HIV/AIDS. This position allowed me to gain further social work experience in the Division of Transplantation, Infections Disease, and Neurosurgery. Two years later, my husband was offered a Fulbright grant to study music in Budapest, Hungary. While I wasn’t really sure what moving across the pond would mean for my career, I knew I had a solid degree and skill-set I could use worldwide.

Several months after arriving in Hungary, the Fulbright EducationUSA Advising Center invited me to participate in two of their International Education Week events by giving a formal presentation about my graduate experience at Penn for Hungarian students interested in pursuing graduate programs in the U.S. I was also asked to represent Penn at the EducationUSA Study Abroad Fair. I gave careful thought to what kind of message I wanted to communicate. In a time where so many students get degrees “just for the sake of it,” I wanted to challenge the students to think critically about pursuing a degree track that complemented both their academic interests and individual needs.

During my  first presentation I gave a 35-minute interactive PowerPoint presentation detailing my journey at Penn. I described how I had attended a BSW program at a college in rural Texas and wanted to see how social work functioned in an urban context, making Philadelphia an ideal place for urban social work internships, as well as post-graduate career opportunities. I also explained that Penn’s social work program was the best size for my learning style, and unlike many programs in large cities, the classes were interactive and close-knit, allowing students to build strong relationships with peers and faculty. I described the various specializations Penn offers within the social work degree track, like the Penn Aging Concentration (PAC). I concluded the presentation by emphasizing that my graduate degree program prepared me to enter the workforce with confidence and security because I chose a school that was the best fit for me, not just an impressive name on my diploma.

 Nearly 100 Hungarian students attended the Study Abroad Fair the next day, ranging from high school students interested in undergraduate education to university students considering Master’s and Doctoral degrees in the U.S. The relaxed setting allowed me to talk to individual students about their interest in attending Penn. While I had to put on the recruiting hat and answer several questions about Penn’s various programs, I also enjoyed the chance to engage students regarding common social concerns present both in Hungary and in the U.S.

My experience presenting at the Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission was an excellent opportunity to continue my professional development while serving as an ambassador for SP2. It was also a great chance to educate students on the types of available careers in social policy or practice. A common thread I’ve noticed both at home and abroad is that people generally do not know much about this line of work or what we do as social workers. I think it is important that we devote time and energy to represent our profession in order to educate and empower more people to choose careers that affect positive social change. Having lived abroad for six months, I have learned that no matter where you are in the world, there is always something to do as an advocate for social change. There are a lot of exciting opportunities for social workers in Hungary, and I hope there can be more collaboration and mutual exchange between the Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission and Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice in the future.

 (Abby Rix Degge is a charter member of the Penn Aging Concentration and obtained her MSW from Penn in 2011. She currently lives in Budapest, Hungary with her husband who is a Fulbright grantee for the 2013-14 academic year. Prior to her relocation to Budapest, Abby worked as a Licensed Graduate Social Worker for the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. She currently volunteers for the Csányi Foundation for Children, an organization that provides education and talent development to economically disadvantaged children. She also works part-time as an online News Aggregator for Center Maryland.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

I Submitted My Application – What’s Next? by The Admissions Team

The School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) Admissions Team would like to take a moment to extend warm holiday greetings and best wishes for a Happy New Year to all of our prospective students. In this festive time of the year, we hope you can take the time to appreciate what is important to you.

We expect that many of you have taken (or plan to take) advantage of our reduced application fee by submitting your SP2 application by December 31, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. Applications submitted before that time will have fees of just $25, compared to fees of $65 for applications submitted after December 31st.

Given that many of you are looking forward to what the future has in store for you, we would like to let you know what to expect after you submit your application. Dr. Mazzola, SP2’s Associate Dean Enrollment Management and Global Outreach, wrote a blog in the past highlighting the Application Interview and what to expect. Since many of you are preparing for this aspect of the admissions process, we thought it timely to post it again, as you may find this information helpful in your preparation.

Wishing you a happy and safe holiday season,

The Admissions Team

The Admission Interview: What Applicants Need to Know!

The application interview is an aspect of our admissions process that differentiates us from most other professional and graduate schools. This is a requirement for all applicants who meet minimal admission criteria for the MSW, MSSP, NPL and DSW programs.  You will be contacted by the Admissions Office or by the staff of your program to schedule an interview if your application is complete and meets basic standards for admissions. The components of a complete application vary depending on program requirements but always include official transcripts and three letters of recommendation.  Interviews are conducted at the School or via Skype.
I am often asked by prospective students how they can prepare for the interview and what to expect.  The interview is a two-way process – it gives us the opportunity to learn more about you while at the same time enabling you to gather more information about the program, the School, and the University of Pennsylvania.  Depending on the program, you will be interviewed by the director, senior associate director, associate director, or a part-time member of the program’s faculty. Admission interviews are usually 30 to 45 minutes in duration. The interviewer will tell you about the program and ask questions pertaining to your application. The interviewer is responsible for anticipating questions from the faculty reviewer and /or the Admissions Committee who ultimately make the final decision about your application. Therefore, some of questions posed to you might be redundant to what you have written in your application essay.

How you can prepare for the interview

Although there is not a lot of preparation needed for the interview, I suggest you consider the following:

  •      Review your essay and be prepared to discuss what you wrote;
  •       Prepare questions to ask the interviewer;
  •       Be on time (arrive at the School or sign into Skype a few minutes early);
  •       Dress professionally (wear what you feel is appropriate for a job interview);
  •       What you feel you bring to the program;
  •       Relax and be yourself… really!

We wish you all the best as you prepare for your admissions interview at Penn, and we look forward to meeting you!

Mary Mazzola, Ed.D., MSW
Associate Dean, Enrollment Management and Global Outreach

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Experience as an International Student at SP2 by Yuyuan Liu, MSW 2012

I still remember my first month at Penn's MSW program as an international student from China. Feeling a little upset, overwhelmed, and anxious after the first few weeks of study, I began to ask myself: Is it a right choice for me to come and study social work in the United States?
Although having learned English a long time ago, I had never lived or studied abroad for more than a month. The four to six page application essay required for admission to Penn’s MSW program was the longest essay I had ever written in English. Therefore, I could not imagine how I would survive taking four classes a semester, with each class requiring at least three papers in a semester. I was also astonished by how fast people here at Penn speak in English; it was much faster than what I had been exposed to in China. I remember running into Dr. Mary Mazzola, the Associate Dean for Enrollment Management and Global Outreach one day after class. She greeted me and asked how I felt about my class and field placement. I told her that I had many worries and concerns. She calmed me down with a caring look and said "I know you will make it, you just need to try."
I doubted whether I would be able to make it at that time, but I knew that I needed to try, no matter how hard it was. I cannot remember how many times I stayed up late at night trying to finish readings or compete with a deadline and would still get up early for field placement the next day. Often times I felt exhausted, but studying at Penn's MSW program had been a dream for me, and I cherished every moment of it, no matter how difficult it seemed at the beginning. I kept trying and worked hard, believing what Hegel had said, that quantity changes would one day lead to quality changes.
After the first two months, things started to get better. As my foundation knowledge of social work grew and with more experience in field placement, things began to make better sense to me. I was very lucky to have found numerous supports from my professors, my peers in school, and other administrative staff at Penn and SP2. Finally at the end of the first semester, I realized I was "enjoying" my life at SP2. It was the first time that I realize how much potential existed in me. However, I experience many other “first times” as a student at Penn.  I gained many meaningful and significant "first time" experiences that included: my first time working with refugees, Alzheimer’s patients, and the LGBTQ population; my first time counseling clients; my first time co-facilitating a group for clients; my first invitation to a Thanksgiving home dinner from my professor and classmates; and my first time truly appreciating the social work profession.
I was amazed by how I could influence positive changes for clients by using my social work skills of listening attentively, being empathic with my clients, by having a non-judgmental attitude, by respecting the right of clients to self-determination, by connecting clients to relevant resources, by responding to and taking actions to promote inequality and injustice and by sharpening my professional skills. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much Penn’s MSW program has changed me.
I have gained a better understanding of loss, trauma, mental health problems, poverty, discrimination, and many other individual and social problems. I began to think more about how the social environment can influence human behavior. Instead of simply making a judgment about certain behaviors, I started to ask the “why” question. The more suffering I saw in my clients, the more I applauded them for their efforts, courage, strength and resilience. I also learned to take better care of myself, knowing that by having a balance in my life and caring for my own wellness I can better serve other people.
Before graduation, I was offered the opportunity to work with SP2’s Global Engagement Initiative. I worked under Dr. Mary Mazzola and Dr. Irene Wong to coordinate the China-US Health and Mental Health Social Work Conference in Beijing, to host summer exchange students from Beijing Normal University, and to assist with other global engagement activities and programs. I was part of the team, which built a cross-national and interdisciplinary partnership between Penn and universities in China. Being part of an interdisciplinary team, whose purpose is to connect social work education and practice between China and the US, was another dream for me. That dream has become a reality because of the opportunity and support SP2 provided, the perfect timing for Penn to reach out to global partners, and my continual pursuit of new dreams.
I do not know where life will lead me in the future, but I know I will proceed to make better changes to other people and myself. Looking back to the moment when I made the decision to attend Penn’s MSW program three years ago, I feel lucky that I made a good choice. SP2 to me is a place to grow and learn, a place to dream, and a place for dreams to come true.
(Yuyuan Liu, MSW, LSW is an alumna of SP2’s MSW program. In her role as the Global Initiatives Coordinator, she works closely with the Associate Dean of Enrollment Management & Global Outreach and the Faculty Director of International Programs to enhance the school’s global vision of increasing understanding of SP2’s global community, fostering mutually beneficial global engagement initiatives, and measuring the impact of SP2’s global endeavors. Yuyuan’s past experience has included working at Penn HIV/AIDS Prevention Research Division, Penn Memory Center & Geriatric Psychiatry and Nationalities Service Center. She earned her Bachelor of Arts at Peking University in Beijing, China.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

MSSP Program: One of the Best Decisions I've Made

 By Lindsay Lawer Shea, MSSP 2008
When I started the MSSP program in fall of 2006, I was unsure of where my education and my career were headed. I had 2 years of experience in research in the field of psychology, but I was really interested in the big picture or the “10,000 foot view” as I had heard it often described. I was really fascinated by how systems worked and who determined how they worked, but I wasn’t sure how to acquire the skills I needed to work this fascination into a career. I found myself volleying between law school applications and a research career, and given the wide range of interests and foci of the MSSP program faculty, the MSSP program was the perfect place to start.

Soon after I started the MSSP program, I found myself learning the answers to the questions I had started out asking. The good news was that each answer led to more questions. In the MSSP program, it wasn’t just about learning how programs operate or how they started, although these were critical program issues covered. The MSSP program was more about gaining the skills under strong faculty leadership to pursue a range of broad-based and specifically targeted policy solutions to help improve the world. In tandem with learning in depth about the plethora of social programs in the US and throughout the world, I found myself debating and being challenged to think outside the box about programs like Medicaid/Medicare, SSI and TANF. I discovered that there was a lot more to these programs than I ever expected and that these programs play an important role in weaving the social fiber of our country.

I was lucky enough to work full time while completing my MSSP degree part-time and I found this experience incredibly enriching. I would often return from a class and find myself in a meeting or generating ideas at work that I had been exposed to in the MSSP program. The application of the MSSP program curriculum into the real world was immediate for me and I found it very rewarding.  

 As I’m now completing my doctoral degree in health policy and managing a new public health institute focused on autism spectrum disorders, I’ve found that I dually use the information and the critical thinking skills I learned and practiced in the MSSP program on a daily basis. The big picture understanding of social policy has applied itself to my work in mental health policy unequivocally and in more instances than I can count.  Likewise, my command of the small details of these policies that I gained in the MSSP program helps me drill down on issues in innovative ways.

Choosing the MSSP program was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I still find myself going back to the books we read and notes I took both for my doctoral studies and in my professional life. I’m convinced that no other program could have so aptly and thoroughly prepared me to continue to pursue my goals. 

(Lindsay Lawer Shea, MSSP’08, is a Senior Manager at the Drexel Autism Public Health Institute, the first public health science autism institute in the nation. Lawer also serves as the Project Director for the Eastern Region Pennsylvania Autism Services, Education, Resources and Training (ASERT) Collaborative and is completing her doctoral degree in health policy at Drexel University. Her dissertation focuses on using national Medicaid claims to examine eligibility changes and service utilization among adolescents with autism as they age into adulthood and will be completed in 2013.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Beyond the Rankings: Assessing MSW Programs

By Richard Gelles, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice

Sixteen years ago, when I began to explore an academic position at a school of social work, I bought a copy of the U.S. News and World Report issue on Best Graduate Schools.  I used the rankings to guide my search, prioritizing my applications based on the rankings of Master of Social Work (MSW) programs.  When I began my position at the University of Pennsylvania I was not surprised to learn that many of our applicants also relied on the U.S. News and World Report rankings to guide their own searches and choices.  It was not until I became the Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at Penn that I learned the reality about the U.S. News and News Report rankings. 

I was under the impression that the rankings of MSW programs were conducted in a similar fashion as the rankings of undergraduate schools and many graduate and professional programs such as law and medicine--in other words, that there were some objective measures applied to each MSW program.  I assumed that factors such as quality of the students, faculty/student ratio, and financial resources of the program would be assessed.  I also assumed that the rankings assessed the percentage of graduates who secured positions within 9 months of graduation.  

Well, I was wrong.  Shortly after I became dean I received a package in the mail from U.S. News and World Report. Inside were two forms and two return envelopes.  The forms were titled “Best Graduate Schools Assessment of Social Work Programs.”  On the following pages were listed, in alphabetical order by state, some 200 MSW programs.  I was to rank each program from 1 to 5 (“5” being “outstanding” and “1” being “marginal.”  I could also check off “Don’t Know.”  Honestly, I never heard of some of the schools.  More importantly, I had no basis for ranking the schools.  The forms included no data on the schools and I was not about to spend the next 6 weeks tracking down what I considered the relevant metrics.  I knew my own school, knew something about schools I had visited or been interviewed by; but for the vast majority, I had no basis for choosing a rating.  

I was asked to give a second form to one of my senior colleagues so there would be two rankings submitted by our school.  The colleague I approached was as dumbfounded as I was.  He said he could rank us, the school he received his MSW from, the school he attended for his doctorate, but really knew too little about the hundreds of schools on the list to provide a meaningful rank.

It also crossed my mind that were one so inclined, the rankings could be “gamed.”  In the most recent MSW rankings (2012), the difference between the top school and the school ranked tenth was six-tenths of a point.  Had I wanted to, I could have improved my own school’s ranking by simply ranking schools previously ranked in the top ten as “marginal.”  Had my colleague and I actually done this, we would have dropped the #1 ranked school to #3 or the 11th ranked school to #16. In the end I filled out my form as best I could, ranking more than 150 schools “don’t know.”  Our program was tied with 8 other schools and ranked #16.  

There was one more answer I was looking for regarding the rankings:  Just how many of my colleague deans and senior faculty actually sat down and ranked MSW programs?  According to U.S. News and World Report the response rate for Master of Social Work programs in was 53%. 

So in the end, the assessment and ranking of Master of Social Work programs is essentially a beauty contest where half of the judges do not show up, those who do show up wear dark glasses, and the contestants stand behind an opaque curtain.  In a word, the rankings are worthless.  As an applicant, you will have to do the research U.S. News and World Report refuses to carry out.  When assessing MSW programs ask the following questions:

1.       What is the faculty/student ratio?
2.       What is the average class size?
3.       What is the average GPA of accepted students/enrolled students?
4.       What is the average financial aid award and is it based on merit, need, or a combination of both?
5.       What field placements are available?
6.       What percentage of students are employed in professional work within 6 months of graduation?
7.       What is the average salary of a graduate the first year after the graduation; the 5th year after graduation?
8.       How strong is the school’s alumni network?