CAREERS IN SOCIAL WORK 2: Daniel Kamins (MS’08)

Daniel KaminsThe following interview with Daniel Kamins (MS'08) is the second in a series of posts on social work careers, which we hope will be of use to 2013 graduates, many of whom are now actively job hunting. We invite you to leave your comments under each interview. Suggestions for future posts? Please send to swcommunications@columbia.edu.

Hi, Daniel. Before we talk about your current employment, I’d like to learn a little more about you. When did you realize you wanted to be a social worker?
I realized I wanted to be a social worker a couple of years out of college, when I had eliminated a few other career options and it suddenly dawned on me that most people who were doing jobs that I found interesting were social workers.

What did you study in college?
I was a psychology major, and while I thought about going into clinical psychology, I realized that social work was a better fit for the flexibility it offers.

What attracted you to CUSSW?
I took a couple of years off after college to work, which helped me focus in on what I really wanted to do. When applying to graduate school, I knew that I wanted to go to a top program at a university with name recognition. I also knew I wanted to be in New York. While I was interesting in doing something in the social work field, I wasn’t sure what, and the fact that CUSSW provides the option of different tracks appealed to me. Another selling point was the chance to learn from some of the most innovative and well-respected faculty in the field. At other universities I would be assigned the textbooks that Columbia professors have written, but here I would get to sit and learn from the source.

What was your concentration at CUSSW?
I was an Advanced Generalist Programming and Practice student.

Did this concentration influence your career choice?
Being grounded in both clinical and community fundamentals has been incredibly helpful in the jobs I've had since graduate school.

Did your field placements at CUSSW support your professional development?
During my first year, I was placed at Kingsboro Psychiatric Center, in Brooklyn. This internship was challenging in that I was new to the field of working with acutely psychotic patients. If anything, it was a dissuasion to pursuing clinical social work. It did, however, teach me to handle situations where the clients show very little progress. I also had a supervisor who was not always helpful so had to learn to advocate for myself in the face of adversity. Handling difficult clients and advocating for myself have both proved to be useful skills in the long run.

During my second year, I had a wonderful experience interning at Young Athletes Incorporated, where my supervisor gave me the flexibility to design my own experience to suit my educational interests. I did some clinical work while also assessing the needs of the community and helping to develop a large-scale community initiative, for which I also sought funding, a valuable experience in grant-writing. Once the funding was secured, I helped bring the new program to life.

Time and time again in job interviews, I refer to this experience as my first true autonomous professional experience, and I believe it still shapes me and the work I do today. It helped that my supervisors and the students enrolled in the organization's programs were simply amazing. I realized quickly that the people that you work with and the cause that you work for can be a tremendous motivator. If the right people come together and are all passionate about something, a lot of great things can happen in a short period of time.

Can you tell us about your current position?
After leaving CUSSW, I worked in the nonprofit sector for a few years before I found my current role: Community Relations Manager at Capital One.

What kinds of duties does the community relations role entail?
I manage the volunteerism that associates do as well as the company's grant making, for a specific portion of the Northeast. This entails finding nonprofit organizations that fit our focus areas and making grants to those organizations, and then managing the relationships with grantees. Additionally, we try to get our associates out volunteering often, so I look for a range of volunteering opportunities, with our nonprofit partners as well as other organizations.

Does working at a bank enable you to utilize your social work training?
To accomplish my work successfully, I need to stay true to the fundamental principles that guide social work. Much of the time, I am assessing needs, developing programs, and evaluating other programs—just a few of the many skills I learned at CUSSW.

How did you find the position?
A former colleague mentioned that she knew of an opening at Capital One and connected me to my current boss. I applied and went through an intense interview process, but eventually was offered the position.

Had you developed an interest in corporate philanthropy at that point?
I realized during my first year of graduate school that I didn’t want to be a clinical social worker. During my second year, I became interested in making a difference on a larger scale, and found some areas that I was particularly passionate about. I also knew that at some point down the road I would enjoy being a funder, be it at a foundation or in the corporate sector. I wanted to be someone who evaluates programs and helps drive them to be more successful—the kind of collaborator who can help grow and nurture a movement. That was my larger goal—landing a job that would allow me to be a funder and a critical thought partner.

I took a job out of school at an education reform organization—the area I am most passionate about. I worked in a couple of different roles for almost three years. After a budget shortfall, though, they had to let a lot of staff members go, so I began consulting in the education reform space. That's when my friend got in touch. She didn't actually know of my interest in corporate philanthropy at the time, though.

What networks have you developed to support you in your work?
During my second year at CUSSW, I did informational interviews with anyone who would sit down with me. I've tried to stay in contact with all of those folks. I've also joined a few professional groups in the NY area related to corporate philanthropy and volunteerism. And I try to remain active in the CUSSW community, both by coming back to be a part of activities at school and by interacting with former and current students as well as some of my old professors. While I think that networking is absolutely critical, it has to be done in a thoughtful, genuine way. The people I most want in my network are those who not only are passionate about similar topics or careers, but who also make the time to develop a friendship and share their experiences.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your area of work?
Three main pieces of advice come to mind:

  1. What you get out of your education at Columbia is entirely up to you. Not every class is going to seem relevant or useful, but there are probably things that you can learn that will really help you in an interview or in a career down the road.
  2. Network with the people around you and with former students. You are a part of an elite university with an amazing faculty and students who are going to change the world. That sounds trite, but it is true. Time after time, the "Columbia" name has opened doors for me. There is no way to quantify what this has meant professionally, but I am confident that people hear the name and are more willing to entertain a conversation, especially since I've ended up in a non-traditional social work job. There are alumni out there who have a lot of connections and are willing to help, so do whatever you can to get in touch with them. And then when you do, stay in touch. It isn’t always easy to remember to reach out to folks, but set aside time to keep your contacts from School in the loop about what you are up to. It can end up being beneficial, sometimes in unexpected ways.
  3. Think of your time at CUSSW and your career as a ladder, not as a flat plain. You are taking steps to get to where you want to go. But you probably won’t get there right away—your first job out of school might not be what you want to do exactly, but it can help you strategically build your resume so that your next job is a little closer to the one you want. Continue to think about how you can build your skill set so that eventually—hopefully with just a couple of steps up—you get into the field(s) that interest you most.

What was the best part of your CUSSW experience?
The people. Some of my best friends now are my former CUSSW classmates. Some of my professors are still confidantes and we meet up regularly. Some of the alumni that I met helped shape my career trajectory. And many of the students that I encounter on my visits back inspire me: they are so incredibly smart and motivating.

What was the most surprising thing about your CUSSW experience?
How quickly it went! Two years went by in a blink. To make the most of the opportunity, students should be proactive and make a concerted effort to network. It's never too early to start on your planning for life after graduation.

—Contributed by Sara Pellegrom, Intern, CUSSW Office of Career and Leadership Development

See also:
CAREERS IN SOCIAL WORK 1: Emily Ball Jabbour (MS’06)