How social work Ph.D. students do work, life, and school

worrell family
Social work Ph.D. student Cortney Worrell plans a career in academia. “I really love community colleges. It’s a different mindset. That’s where I see myself teaching.”

Colorado State University’s doctoral program in social work is part of a steady and purposeful journey for Cortney Worrell. While working toward her Ph.D., Worrell moved from New York to Colorado, became a mother of twins, and shifted her 14-year career path from college mental health to hospital social work.

“Getting a Ph.D. was on the bucket list for me,” said Worrell. “I wanted to challenge myself and I’ve always liked school.” With careful planning and support, she juggles the roles of student, mom, and social worker.

The program at Colorado State University is designed to help students balance the demands of graduate study with ‘real life.’ “I loved that it was very welcoming. For me the commute is not prohibitive,” said Worrel, who lives in the Denver metro area.. “Driving 18 miles in New York City takes the same time as driving 67 miles from Denver to Fort Collins.”

Flexibility for social work Ph.D. students

At CSU, students work closely with their adviser and graduate committee to develop their own learning agenda and dissertation proposal. Background, experience, personal schedule, and learning goals are considered as much as possible when developing a student’s program of study.

“I think having so much experience in my career makes me better able to utilize the degree now,” Worrell said. “I don’t think I would have been able to do this 20 years ago. I didn’t have enough experience and social work knowledge behind me. Now I’m more mature and I can see how to apply my knowledge in a variety of settings.”

erica vasquez and son
“I plan on creating a nonprofit organization one day for families and children,” said social work Ph.D. student Erica Vasquez.

Also a social work Ph.D. student, Erica Vasquez moved with her son from a small town in Texas to Colorado as part of her plan to work and attend classes in CSU’s social work program. “I liked the variety of courses and that it was a small program,” said Vasquez. “I enjoy building professional relationships with professors, and I knew a small program could do that.”

Vasquez had been practicing social work for seven years when she began her doctoral program. “I currently work in behavioral health as an assessment and referral clinician,” she said.

Vasquez also serves on the Ph.D. committee for social work as a student representative. She appreciates the program’s flexibility for maintaining her career and family while pursuing a degree.

Managing time effectively

As social work doctoral students, Worrell and Vasquez stress using time management skills and establishing support networks as essential for success.

Vasquez juggles work, life, and school by managing time to include practicing self-care. “You have to organize your time,” said Vasquez. “Find time to work and do school work, but also find time for your family, friends, and yourself. Know your own limit on how many courses you can take a semester, and say no if you feel that you are too busy.”

Worrell also uses the strategy of pacing coursework to fit her schedule. “I started school at the same time I started my job but with one class,” Worrell said. “Plus I had been taking prerequisites along the way when I was still in New York, so I had a done a little bit of school every semester for about two years before. I had warmed up a little.”

Both students are taking advantage of the part-time option of CSU’s social work doctoral program. “Plan, plan, plan,” adds Worrell. “Being able to see the lay of the land ahead of time can make the actual semester go a lot smoother if you know what to expect.”

Utilizing support on campus

Support at home is welcomed by both Vasquez and Worrell, but they emphasize the value of on-campus support networking and events—tempting for busy students to omit from their schedules—to buoy them through the demands of a rigorous program of study.

“Make time to attend social gatherings with other social work students and other Ph.D. students,” said Vasquez, “and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

“Faculty are a wealth of knowledge and support,” Worrell said. “Build connections with your cohort as well, and students already in the program. You can learn a lot from others who have gone before you.”

As Worrell and Vasquez continue their respective journeys through the doctoral program in social work at Colorado State University, they draw on time management and on-campus networking, plus the flexibility of the part-time option of the program, to be successful.

“I love CSU,” said Worrell. “It’s surprising because it’s a big university, but it never feels big. It just feels do-able.”

The School of Social Work is part of the College of Health and Human Sciences.