Four Roommates, Four Social Services Degrees

When considering graduate school or a master’s degree, it’s important to figure out exactly which program is right for you.

Four roommates went through that process, each one coming out with a degree that fit their interests and professional goals. Carolyn, Emily, Lauren and Stephanie met as undergraduate students at the University of Georgia, and their paths have taken them to different related fields during graduate school. Carolyn and Emily each have their Master of Public Health (MPH); Lauren has her Master of Social Work (MSW); Stephanie has her Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT).

This interview will examine the different career paths that led the roommates into their chosen fields. It provides valuable insight to both high school and undergraduate students interested in helping careers and to students considering an MSW, MPH or counseling graduate degree — as well as the challenges, rewards and fulfilling professional lives that each can bring.

Let’s start from the top — how did you get to where you are now professionally?

Carolyn (MPH): I majored in biological science and minored in French at the University of Georgia [UGA]. I was able to work full-time as a research technician in the same lab I did student research in during the time between graduating from UGA and starting an MPH program at Emory. I graduated from Emory's Rollins School of Public Health this past May. I just finished up one of the part-time positions I had this past semester and am looking for my next step — a real job!

Emily (MPH): I also went to UGA and majored in genetics with a minor in Italian. While in undergrad, I researched in an evolutionary genetics lab for course credit. In the intervening seven months between undergrad and grad school, I worked part-time in a lab, also in the infectious diseases department. I'm currently in the second year of my MPH program studying epidemiology. I graduate in May and will hopefully find a real-life adult job then!

Stephanie (MFT): At UGA, in addition to getting to room with these three lovely ladies, I was a psychology major with a minor in human development and family sciences and a minor in French. After graduating, I took a year to gain clinical experience by becoming involved in a research project at Emory University and Grady Hospital in Atlanta called the Grady Trauma Project. I worked there for a year and then moved to Chicago to pursue my master’s in marriage and family therapy at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Lauren (MSW): At UGA in my undergrad, I majored in art history and anthropology. I think a lot of factors led to me wanting to move into the social work field. I’ve always had an interest in people, the systems they are embedded in and, to put it simply, why they do what they do. When I was in my last semester of undergrad, I was interning in a museum and even though I loved being around art and the idea of working with it, I knew that working in a museum was not the path for me. I wanted to work more directly with people. Maybe this goes without saying because of my chosen field, but I really believe in taking care of your mental health in a similar way that you would your physical health, and so that was another thing that led me into a mental health field.

So now that you’re pretty well immersed in your fields, what are the most challenging and rewarding parts?

Carolyn (MPH): I'm just starting out in this field, but the most rewarding part so far is all the amazing people I've gotten to meet! Everyone I've met through school or work is very open and passionate about the work they do. As much as I cringe at the idea of "networking," it's actually really easy to meet someone, speak about their work, and even discuss how you might be able to collaborate. One of the more challenging parts about working in public health is that people outside of your field don't really know what you do or oftentimes don't understand the importance of it. Especially in the U.S., preventive health care is not seen as necessary because you can't see results right away. It can be difficult to realize that the path you've chosen is one most people overlook.

Emily (MPH): I think the most rewarding part is making sense of a bunch of statistics in a way that people can actually use. We have so much data, but it doesn't really mean anything when it's just sitting in a spreadsheet. After we analyze it, though, it makes sense, and we can see associations between certain exposures and diseases, which I think is really interesting. As for the most challenging, I guess sometimes too much data can be overwhelming, and I don't really know where to start. Or sometimes [it’s] disheartening when we know so much about a disease and how to prevent it, but people don't follow our recommendations.

Stephanie (MFT): The most rewarding part of being a couple and family therapist so far has been witnessing my clients be the agents of change in their own lives. I love seeing people change and improve in ways that really make them feel more self-confident, more fulfilled, and just more generally healthy in a mental and emotional sense. It also inspires me to be the best person I can be, and I love that my job does that for me. The most challenging part of being a therapist is working with people who really need more help than I'm able to provide, and sometimes that can be hard to sit with. We as health providers can only do so much and this can be challenging and sometimes worrisome — Emily, I feel like our answers are somewhat similar in this sense! — but I just make sure to incorporate self-care into my week so that I can clear my mind of some of the worries.

Lauren (MSW): The most rewarding part is probably getting to work with so many different kinds of people, both clients and the people I work with. It is rewarding to work clients on a variety of issues that they might be experiencing, which is why I wanted to go into this field. I also like that social workers get to work with many other kinds of professionals like lawyers, doctors and other types of counselors like LMFTs — Steph! — LPCs, psychologists and more. Everyone offers a slightly different perspective. Also I have found people in the social work profession to be caring and supportive, which makes a lot of sense, but it is such a good part of working in the field.

How has living with other social services professionals impacted your perspective on your field and theirs?

Stephanie (MFT): Well, this may seem cheesy, but I really do think that the people you surround yourself with have a profound impact on your life in more ways than you realize. For me, I think that living with Emily, Carolyn and Lauren, three of the most caring and kind people I know, did somehow bleed into my mentality and further perpetuated my desire to enter a profession of helping people. It's not the sole reason for my career choice, but I like to think it played a part.

Carolyn (MPH): I didn't realize how similar our fields and schooling was until I started talking to Stephanie and Lauren about their programs. Everything really is connected, especially if you're thinking about population health and well-being.

What would you say is the biggest difference between your field and each of your roommates'?

Stephanie (MFT): The four of us are all in the social service field, so we all work toward the end goal of helping people, just at different levels. Lauren and I work more at the level of the individual or family system, while Carolyn and Emily's fields are more large-scale and far-reaching. They're real go-getters. But all of our areas are very flexible — the four of us could probably all work for the same organization later on down the road if we really wanted to.

If you were talking to a student who was choosing between two or three of the fields in which you work, what advice would you give him or her?

Carolyn (MPH): I would encourage a student like this to try to find experiences in various fields, be it through shadowing professionals, talking to current students, volunteering. I think it's important to at least have some idea of what you want to do before starting a master’s program (even though that will probably change). A master’s program is a bigger commitment than it seems to be, and you have to really want it to get the most out of it. The past two years have been extremely challenging, and I wouldn't recommend it to someone who is going to grad school just because they don't know what to do next.

Stephanie (MFT): I would urge the student to do a lot of soul-searching and try to discover their end goal career-wise, and one that really fits with their personality and their passions. Then, I would get them to see if there is a program or profession in particular that matches that goal. For example, if you know that you really need a lot of face-to-face interaction in your job to feel fulfilled and not get burned out, that might lead you in the clinical direction. On the other hand, if you feel as though you are better at maximizing your creativity and initiative in a more autonomous role, you may find yourself more interested in research or academia.