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Understanding workplace experiences of first-year Canadian social workers: a hermeneutic phenomenological study

Faculty Advisor




social workers, work experiences, hermeneutic phenomenology

Abstract (summary)

There is limited global research addressing the experiences of first-year social workers in general, and a dearth of scholarship specific to the Canadian context. In 2012–2013, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine early-career (0.6–3.7 years post-Bachelor of Social Work/BSW), young adult (aged 23.9¬–32.9) social workers in Alberta, Canada to answer the question: how do young adult, early-career Alberta social workers understand subjective feelings towards their work experiences in their first year of practice following completion of the BSW? My research method was hermeneutic phenomenology, an interpretive approach to understanding the meaning of lived experiences. Symbolic interactionism provided the theoretical foundation for my research, facilitating dual attention to structural factors and the dynamics of individual interpretation and agency. My findings relate to the intersection of age and gender in the structure and meaning of the experiences of first-year social workers; institutional hierarchy and internalized marginalization of the social work role; first-year social workers’ fears of committing a cataclysmic error in practice; the meaning of encountering one’s own privilege and marginalization; and disappointments in early practice and individual narratives of transformation and idealism renegotiated. The literature review and findings suggest that three interconnected areas influence the subjective experiences of new social workers: institutional structures, social positionality, and lived experience. Through the interplay of these three areas, subjective workplace experiences are made understandable and meaningful to early-career social workers. From a broad inter-disciplinary perspective, this work is a substantial contribution to scholarship on gender relations and the workplace. Implications for social work education include challenging internalized oppression that reflects gendered norms in caregiving work; teaching multiple ways of evaluating practice rather than relying exclusively on post-positivist epistemologies and methodologies; encouraging reflexivity about practitioner social location; and disrupting narratives that presuppose a single “social work perspective” operating in agencies. In the realm of social work practice, applications include actively challenging the devaluation of young women workers and advocating for better working conditions. Future research in social work could explore gender in the early-career period across the life course and gender identity continuum.

Publication Information

Newberry-Koroluk, Andrea. (2014). Understanding workplace experiences of first-year Canadian social workers: A hermeneutic phenomenological study (doctoral thesis). University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta. Retrieved from



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