BA Social Work - Paul Mcgrath
Years at UEA
2008-2011 and 2013-2016
Paul Mcgrath was a Mature Student, with two young children, when he began his Social Work BA at UEA.
Since then, he has had a successful academic and professional career in Social Work. He is currently finishing his PhD while working in the charity sector and as a Social Worker.
Why did you choose UEA?
I’d never studied before. My highest qualifications were my GCSEs so I had to learn to read and write academically.
I was lucky that they gave me a place. I chose UEA because I thought it would be the one that would give me the best education and training – and it did!
Why did you choose to study Social Work?
I was working in social care and I started to get frustrated because I could see all the things that were wrong with the system, but had no power to make any improvements.
I’ve always felt strongly about helping people have a voice, I hoped social work would get me there and it has. I’ve been working in social work for over 10 years, in a variety of roles and I still love it. Although I have also worked in the charity sector and academia, my heart will always be with social work.
Did the course meet your expectations?
I really enjoyed my BA. It had a strong theoretical underpinning, which I think serves you well because the sector changes all the time and different modes of practise come in and out of fashion.
But if you’ve got the strong theoretical underpinning it allows you to navigate those changes with confidence and expertise. Also, the academics are the top in their field, leading thinkers and researchers and I’ve managed to keep in touch with them.
What was the best thing about your course?
That’s so hard to pin down. I liked all of it.
I really liked being with other Social Work students, I’m still friends with a lot of my classmates. The course taught me to think critically, which I had never done before and I really enjoyed it. I was able to do lots of reflection on my own life and my own up-bringing. The Social Work BA helped me develop a basic understanding of social work that led me nicely into further studies and my career.
What was the most valuable thing your degree taught you?
I’ve always been interested in learning about power. My work is in child protection, where Social Workers do have a lot of power that effect people’s lives forever.
UEA taught me how to not be oppressive, but how to use my power empathetically and professionally. There was a focus on relationship building, that has since underpinned everything I’ve ever done. I have to make really important decisions in one of my current roles, and so those reflection skills have been very valuable.
We would have actors come in and pretend to be families, and we would have to go in and interview them, whilst being filmed. I also did 200 days on placement which was really varied and I had a lot of valuable experiences. It wasn’t just sitting in a lecture theatre, it was very practical as well.
What is your current role and how does it connect to your degree?
After I graduated, I became a Social Worker for North Norfolk’s Child Protection team. I was in that role for three years, after which I became an Assistant Manager, then a Manager.
I decided to do a Master’s degree and then follow that with a PhD. Alongside my PhD, I worked with the Emergency Duty Team, as a Social Worker. After a year and a half of doing that I moved up to become a Manager, and my shifts are split between managing and social work.
I presented my PhD research to a charity, Kinship, and they offered me a role as a Social Work Advisor, which I continued to do while briefly lecturing at UEA. I now work as a Policy and Practise Advisor with Kinship. I’m currently working with them to create a Young Champions group for young people who have been in Kinship care to start developing Policy. UEA allowed me to develop transferable skills that help me which the variety of roles I now undertake.
When I work at weekends it’s surprisingly nice, because although we have no resources, it means you just get to talk to people and help people get through to Monday. I have some really valuable conversations with people that are in a lot of distress, but by the time I’ve finished talking to them they are feeling much better with a plan in place – which keeps me going with all the other work I’m doing. No day is the same in social work, you never know what you’re going to walk into and there’s always new opportunities coming up.
Do you have any advice for people applying to study Social Work?
Go for it! For me, getting a degree was life changing. I was getting £6.50 per hour as a care worker and I now earn four or five times that. I just have a really different life now.
My work was very monotonous and frustrating at times and I felt quite negative about it. But after becoming a Social Worker I feel really positive about my work. It changed me as a person, I look at myself differently, I look at the world differently. I was the first person in my family to get a degree, no one expected anyone in my family to become a Doctor, so it will be interesting when that happens!
My advice would be, make sure you do the background research. I spent the first three months of my degree in the library, readings books on writing and reading. I worked with Student Services to develop those key essay writing skills and that all really helped with the rest of my degree. I went from never being able to write academically to getting 66 of my first academic essay, which I was really pleased with.
Making the jump to do a degree is scary, especially if you’re a mature student with children. It was a big gamble, but it was worth it. I would advise anyone to just go for it!