The program

In the first two years, you will complete coursework that includes a common curriculum and a concentration curriculum. After completion of all required coursework, you will take a comprehensive exam to demonstrate your ability to integrate the whole of your educational experience in the human service field. After admission to candidacy, you will propose, complete and defend your dissertation under the supervision of a dissertation committee.

The VCU Bulletin has additional information about the Ph.D. curriculum and course descriptions.

To access the VCU School of Social Work Student Policy Handbook, the Technical Standards and Essential Functions for Social Work Students or other programmatic documents or forms, check out the School of Social Work document and forms archive on the student resource site.

For assistance with student policies or technical standards, contact Leslie A.C. Aitken, D. Ed. Min., Ph.D. Program coordinator, at

You will add your own substance to the field of social work during your time here. Through the formulation of personal research, you will make lasting contributions to the intellectual community. Through the opportunity to teach in our top-ranked B.S.W. and M.S.W. programs, you will make lasting impressions on the next wave of social workers. And through your own coursework, research demands and teaching obligations, you will be given a glimpse of what your professional life will entail.

The VCU Bulletin has more information about program goals and outcomes.


First-year students participate in a proseminar that is led by the Ph.D. program director. The three-fold purpose of the seminar is to: 1) introduce students to the School’s faculty and their programs of research; 2) familiarize students with current major trends and topics in social work and social welfare and 3) facilitate a working model of on-going peer advising and consultation. Students are also assigned a secondary adviser 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 adviser or select another consenting faculty member. Once admitted to candidacy, the student’s dissertation committee chair serves as their adviser.

Independent study and directed research

Independent study provides you the opportunity to create your 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.

The directed research course will provide you the opportunity to do hands-on research prior to the dissertation project relevant to your substantive area or individual learning needs. You will select your 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 your academic faculty advisor.

Qualifying Examination

Students must pass a qualifying examination in their substantive area of interest. You 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.


After passing the qualifying exam, you will register for a minimum of one credit hour of dissertation research. You will first work with your academic adviser to develop a dissertation committee and a proposal for dissertation research. Upon successful defense of the proposal, you will be approved for degree candidacy. After admission to candidacy, you will proceed to complete and defend your dissertation, 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 in the VCU School of Social Work documents and forms archive.

Your dissertation 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 your dissertation committee. Follow university guidelines for submission on your completed, approved dissertation and electronic dissertation form.

For access to the dissertation proposal or the electronic dissertation forms, refer to the School of Social Work document and forms archive.

Graduate Research Assistants

Graduate research assistants are graduate students hired on a part-time basis to work with faculty mentors (who are the GRA’s supervisor) with 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, you and your mentor work together to complete a GRA mentoring and assessment form. For more information, please see the GRA policies.

Teaching practicum

Upon completing required coursework, students enroll in a 3-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 BSW or MSW 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 bi-monthly 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.

Guidelines for funding Ph.D. student travel

You are encouraged to present posters and presentations at conferences during your tenure in the program. Please see the student policy handbook for information on funding travel to conferences. You are encouraged to engage older cohorts for examples of conference presentation submissions.

Employment opportunities

In addition to faculty support and mentoring, VCU Career Services can assist you in your academic or industry job search. From resume creation to negotiating a salary, we will provide you with the tools necessary to be successful in your job search.

Student calendar

Stay up to date by checking the VCU School of Social Work student calendar.


For questions about the Ph.D. Program, documents forms or policies, please contact Leslie A.C. Aitken, D. Ed. Min., Ph.D. Program coordinator, at