Ph.D. in Social Work
For more than a century, VCU's School of Social Work has prepared students to advance the profession’s mission by integrating and applying scientific knowledge and professional skills and values to current and emergent social problems.
The Ph.D. Program, which began in 1978, furthers that agenda by preparing students as research scholars, educators and leaders in the profession.
21 currently enrolled students
71% of students are African American, Hispanic or Asian
One of only 71 universities designated as both “Community Engaged” and with “Very High Research Activity” *
100% of recent graduates have secured employment as assistant professors, researchers or postdoctoral fellows within a year of graduation *
What we offer
Our Ph.D. students enjoy individualized mentoring and a highly supportive learning environment. In addition, a wide range of institutes and centers complement and contribute to the school’s research activities. Graduates leave us ready to generate, implement and communicate knowledge to advance social justice, improve human well-being and enhance the profession’s impact on pressing social problems.
The principal goal of the Ph.D. Program is to prepare a diverse student body whose research, teaching and scholarship will position them for leadership in advancing professional practice, social policy and social work education.
To achieve this goal, the program prepares students to:
- Conduct and disseminate high-quality research that furthers the knowledge base of the profession
- Develop cutting-edge knowledge and skills for social work teaching and learning
- Promote social welfare and social justice in and with local, national and global communities
During the first two years of the program, students complete a common core curriculum in the School of Social Work and take more individualized concentration courses within the school and in related disciplines. After completing coursework, students take their qualifying examination, which is designed to enable them to demonstrate an ability to critically analyze, integrate and apply the whole of their educational experience to that point.
Upon passing this examination, students register for dissertation research credits. At the dissertation phase, students propose, conduct and defend an original dissertation research project that meaningfully advances knowledge and contributes to a more just society.
Upon completion of the required curriculum, students will demonstrate the ability to:
- Understand and critique the history and philosophy of social work as a profession and academic discipline and draw implications for its current and future directions
- Use rigorous methods and analytic strategies to conduct and disseminate high-quality research that contributes to the knowledge base of social work and related disciplines
- Identify and critique the main social and behavioral science theories that inform knowledge development in their selected substantive area and in social work education
- Articulate expertise in a selected substantive area relevant to social work and contextualize this expertise in a broader interdisciplinary frame of reference
- Critically analyze the substance, function and contexts for formulation, implementation and evaluation of key social policies and draw implications for advocacy and social justice
- Demonstrate proficiency in the knowledge, skills and values required for excellence as a social work educator
The school’s distinguished faculty possesses a range of substantive and methodological research expertise and offers state-of-the-art instruction in professional education.
Current examples include:
- Community and organizational partnerships in prevention and intervention research in local, national and international settings.
- Interdisciplinary research in social, behavioral and health sciences, e.g., child and adolescent well-being, interpersonal violence, alcohol and other substance misuse, persons with disabilities, and aging and the life course.
- International collaborative projects, e.g., interpersonal and societal violence and trauma, poverty and inequality, immigrants and refugees in the U.S. and abroad, and population aging and mental health in low-resource settings.
Formal mentorship in these and other areas of investigation takes the form of graduate research assistantships and supervised teaching opportunities in the school’s competitive M.S.W. and/or B.S.W. programs. Students are strongly encouraged to draw on the extensive body of faculty expertise for advice and guidance throughout their time in the program.
First-year students participate in a proseminar that is led by the Ph.D. Program director. The threefold purpose of the seminar is to:
- Introduce students to the school’s faculty and their programs of research;
- Familiarize students with current major trends and topics in social work and social welfare; and
- Facilitate a working model of ongoing peer advising and consultation.
Students will select a secondary advisor by the spring semester of their first year who assists them in developing specialized areas of scholarly interest and advises them on academic activities such as teaching, university programs and community service. At the end of the first year in the program, students may elect to continue with their appointed secondary advisor or select another consenting faculty member.
Once admitted to candidacy, the student’s dissertation committee chair serves as their advisor.
Graduate research assistants (GRA) are graduate students hired on a part-time basis to work with faculty mentors (who are the GRA’s supervisor) on their research and scholarship.
Graduate research assistantships are a way of supporting the research mission of the university and school while providing financial assistance and support for the professional growth and development of graduate students. There are work-related requirements for all GRAs.
First-year students are offered a graduate research assistantship; subsequent years are contingent upon work performance during the preceding year. At the start and end of each semester, students and their mentor work together to complete a GRA mentoring and assessment form. For more information, please see the GRA policies.
Independent study provides students with the opportunity to create their own specialized learning experience and pursue educational goals outside of the Ph.D. program curriculum through intensive study in an in-depth, faculty-mentored opportunity. Independent study proposals should be submitted to the Ph.D. Program director no later than Monday the week before classes start for the semester you plan to enroll in independent study.
In addition, the directed research course will provide students with the opportunity to do hands-on research prior to the dissertation project relevant to their substantive area or individual learning needs. Students will select a topic area and specific project, then implement it in collaboration with a school faculty member. Directed research proposals should be submitted to the Ph.D. Program director no later than the Monday the week before classes start for the semester you plan to enroll in directed research.
For questions about either the independent student or directed research, contact an academic faculty advisor.
Students must pass a qualifying examination in their substantive area of interest. Students will first develop a brief proposal and a supporting reading list for a qualifying paper with guidance from a committee whose members have requisite expertise. Once the proposal is approved, they will independently write the qualifying paper. Finally, the committee will evaluate and conduct an oral examination on the paper.
Upon completing required coursework, students enroll in a three-credit social work teaching practicum. The purpose of this required teaching practicum is to prepare future social work educators through a mentored classroom teaching experience.
Students will work directly with a full-time faculty member who is teaching a B.S.W. or M.S.W. course. The course can be face to face or online. While there are some standardized requirements, the practicum is individually tailored to optimize students’ preparation for teaching based on their prior teaching experience and skills and current interests. Students will devote 10 hours per week to the practicum and will participate in a bimonthly seminar to facilitate and support their development and learning.
In the spring of their second year, students are asked to identify a professor to mentor them in the practicum. By the last day of the spring semester, students should submit their Ph.D. teaching practicum learning contract.
After passing the qualifying exam, students will register for a minimum of one credit hour of dissertation research. They will first work with their academic advisor to develop a dissertation committee and a proposal for dissertation research.
Upon successful defense of the proposal, students will be approved for degree candidacy. After admission to candidacy, students will proceed to complete and defend their dissertations, which will be completed under the supervision of a dissertation committee to include a chair, at least two VCU School of Social Work faculty members and at least one additional member from outside of the school. All nominations must be submitted in writing to the Ph.D. Program director.
For specifics about dissertation committee nominations and dissertation guidelines, please consult the Student Policy Handbook.
- Ph.D. dissertation committee nomination form
- Ph.D. dissertation proposal guidelines
- Ph.D. three-paper dissertation proposal guidelines
- Ph.D. degree candidacy form
- Ph.D. electronic thesis and dissertation
Dissertations will be composed of independent research and should be based on an original question or hypothesis relevant to social work. Successful defense of the dissertation after the completion of 54 credit hours of coursework and dissertation credits completes the requirements for the degree. Dissertation proposals are submitted to the dissertation committee. It is important to follow university guidelines for submission of the completed, approved dissertation and electronic dissertation form.
For access to the dissertation proposal or the electronic dissertation forms, refer to the document and forms page.
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One of the most rewarding parts of my career is cultivating the organic growth of doctoral students. I enjoy taking part in their evolving development, challenging them with alternative perspectives and encouraging a deeper awareness of themselves.”
Youngmi Kim (she/her), Ph.D., associate professor
Ph.D. candidates and students
Learn more about our Ph.D. candidates and students in the VCU School of Social Work directory. Explore their published work and presentations, and find out which candidates are currently on the job market.