Methods: Given the limited knowledge about this topic and its exploratory nature, this research adopted a qualitative research method. Twenty-four Master of Social Work (MSW) students in a university in Beijing were interviewed from 2016 to 2017 after they completed their field placements. The in-depth interviews were conducted and recorded after participants’ oral consent was obtained. Among the 24 students, 21 were interviewed fact-to-face. Three were interviewed by telephone. Each interview lasted around one hour. The transcripts of interviews were read and analyzed in Chinese to avoid losing any meaning of the dialogue. Quotes representing the major themes were selected from the transcripts and then translated from Chinese to English.
Results: The findings demonstrated that MSW students reported ethical difficulties with clients, supervisors and agency managers, agencies, and colleagues. The ethical difficulties led to negative emotions among students, made students feel confused, unjust, and self-doubted, and contributed to students’ tardiness and avoidance of working with clients and others. Although students attempted to seek support from classmates, faculty supervisors in the university, agency supervisors or managers, and agency colleagues, there was limited support available for them. They tried to handle the ethical difficulties according to ethical principles and standards introduced in textbooks, but they had to tolerate and adapt to unfriendly situations, confront conflicts, and propose solutions.
Conclusions and Implications: Social work students faced a variety of ethical difficulties in their placements. However, little support was available to help them deal with the difficulties in a professional way. The findings had implications for social work education, practice, and research in China. Social work profession associations, such as China Association of Social Workers may need to develop a comprehensive code of ethics to provide social work students with ethical guidance and consulting during their placements. The Departments of Social Work in universities may need to recruit experienced field staff to supervise students’ filed placements and work more closely with social work agencies to create more supportive environments for social work students to do their fieldwork. Social work academia may need to conduct more research on social work students’ field placements, develop a better understanding about students’ difficulties in field placements, and make efforts to provide students with professional support.