Program goals

VCU’s Ph.D. in Social Work program is a research-oriented educational enterprise with a mission to develop scholars and leaders for education and practice in human services. Its vision is a program that builds and nurtures students’ intellectual curiosity, creativity and courage, as well as their desire to “make a difference.” The program is built around excellence in teaching, mentorship and socialization of students, as well as collaborative involvement in the program by its diverse faculty. Graduates of the program become active in teaching, consultation, research, practice and program evaluation, staff and program development, policy analysis and advocacy. They are employed in universities and colleges and in human service organizations and agencies at the local, state, national and international levels. In all the program’s activities and events, emphasis is placed on the following areas:

  1. The development of an intellectual community that values critical and creative thinking
  2. The connections among the philosophy of science, theory, research and practice
  3. The analysis and integration of knowledge and values, especially their relevance to diverse populations and issues of social justice

Student learning outcomes

  1. A critical understanding of multiple paradigms in the philosophy of science and the implications of these for contemporary research
  2. Mastery of a range of research methodologies and data analysis strategies and competence in conducting independent inquiry on issues of importance to the field
  3. Competence in the analysis and application of a wide range of social, behavioral and practice theories
  4. An ability to design and propose theoretically and empirically grounded models of social work intervention for coping with personal transitions and challenges, addressing social problems and promoting equity and social justice
  5. A critical understanding of the historical place of social work and social welfare in the evolution of social thought and cultural values
  6. Expertise in a chosen substantive area related to social work, including skills related to dissemination of this knowledge
  7. Familiarity and beginning expertise about the exchange and dissemination of professional knowledge via submissions and presentations to meetings, journals and other professional outlets

VCU Graduate Bulletin, VCU Graduate School and general academic policies and regulations for all graduate students in all graduate programs

The VCU Graduate Bulletin website documents the official admission and academic rules and regulations that govern graduate education for all graduate programs at the university. These policies are established by the graduate faculty of the university through their elected representatives to the University Graduate Council.

It is the responsibility of all graduate students, both on- and off-campus, to be familiar with the VCU Graduate Bulletin as well as the Graduate School website and academic regulations in individual school and department publications and on program websites. However, in all cases, the official policies and procedures of the University Graduate Council, as published on the VCU Graduate Bulletin and Graduate School websites, take precedence over individual program policies and guidelines.

Visit the academic regulations section for additional information on academic regulations for graduate students.

Degree candidacy requirements

A graduate student admitted to a program or concentration requiring a final research project, work of art, thesis or dissertation, must qualify for continuing master’s or doctoral status according to the degree candidacy requirements of the student’s graduate program. Admission to degree candidacy, if applicable, is a formal statement by the graduate student’s faculty regarding the student’s academic achievements and the student’s readiness to proceed to the final research phase of the degree program.

Graduate students and program directors should refer to the following degree candidacy policy as published in the VCU Graduate Bulletin for complete information and instructions.

Visit the academic regulations section for additional information on degree candidacy requirements.

Comprehensive exam/admission to candidacy

Upon completion of all required course work, students are required to take a comprehensive exam under the supervision of a comprehensive examination committee. Through the comprehensive examination, students must demonstrate the ability to integrate the whole of their educational experience by adequately addressing complex questions pertinent to the current and developing knowledge base of the human service field. Students must register for a minimum of one credit hour of independent study (SWKD 792) in the semester in which they take the comprehensive examination.

Upon successful completion of all portions of the comprehensive exam, students are approved for degree candidacy and for registration for a minimum of one credit hour of dissertation research.

If one or more portions of the examination are not passed upon the first attempt, the student receives a mark of I in the independent study course and the following semester reattempts all (or portions) of the comprehensive examination one additional time. The grade of I is changed to A upon successful completion of the comprehensive exam on the second attempt and results in approval of degree candidacy and registration for dissertation research. If a student fails to pass all portions of the comprehensive examination a second time the grade of I is changed to F in the independent study course and the student is dismissed from the program. If a student chooses not to attempt the failed portion(s) of the comprehensive examination a second time, the grade of I is changed to F in the independent study course and the student is dismissed from the program.


After admission to candidacy, students proceed to propose, complete and defend their dissertations. The dissertation is completed under the supervision of a dissertation committee. A cumulative total of at least 15 credit hours of dissertation research must be completed in order to receive the Ph.D.; however, students may register for as many credits as needed/desired. Students are required to maintain continuous enrollment of at least three credit hours per semester (excluding summer) until they have attained 12 hours of dissertation credit, after which they may enroll for as few as one credit per semester. The dissertation must represent 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 hours of course work and dissertation credits, completes the requirements for the degree.

Upon successful completion of the comprehensive examinations and entering candidacy, doctoral candidates enroll in SWKD 898 every fall and spring semester until graduation. Candidates must have successfully defended their dissertation proposal within four consecutive academic terms (fall and spring semesters), inclusive of the semester entering candidacy. Failure to have successfully defended the dissertation proposal within the time limit specified above will result in an unsatisfactory grade (U) in the fourth term of enrollment in SWKD 898. Failure to successfully defend the dissertation proposal by the end of the next fall or spring semester will result in another U grade in SWKD 898 and dismissal from the program. The semester limits noted above for successfully defending the dissertation proposal are in effect whether a candidate is actively matriculated or on a leave of absence.

Graduation requirements

As graduate students approach the end of their academic programs and the final semester of matriculation, they must make formal application to graduate. No degrees will be conferred until the application to graduate has been finalized.

Graduate students and program directors should refer to the following graduation requirements as published in the Graduate Bulletin for a complete list of instructions and a graduation checklist.

Visit the academic regulations section for additional information on graduation requirements.

Apply online at

Admission requirements

Degree: Semester(s) of entry: Deadline dates: Test requirements:
Ph.D. Fall only Jan 15 GRE-General

Special requirements

  • Submit all additional application materials (personal statement, reference letters, writing sample and resume/curriculum vita) through the Graduate Admissions Office. If desired, an additional copy may be sent directly to the School of Social Work c/o Leslie Choplin, Ph.D., program assistant.

In addition to the general admission requirements of the VCU Graduate School, applicants must meet the following minimum requirements.

Applicants to the program must have an earned master’s degree in social work or a closely related discipline, as well as professional experience relevant to their career goals. The relationship between the applicants’ professional experiences and their career objectives should be clearly articulated in the personal statements submitted with the application materials.

Applicants whose career goals include teaching in a bachelor’s- and/or master’s-level social work program should be aware that an M.S.W. degree and social work practice experience, along with the Ph.D., are often considered to be minimal job requirements. In addition, Council on Social Work Education accreditation standards currently require that individuals who want to teach practice courses, in particular, must have an M.S.W. and at least two years of post-M.S.W. practice experience.

The Graduate Record Examination (General Test including verbal, quantitative and analytic sections) is required. There is no minimum threshold for acceptance. Applicants are strongly advised to take the examination by December to ensure scores are received by the priority application date of Jan. 15. For more information on the GRE, visit The institution code for VCU is 5570.

The normal course of study is full-time. While it is possible, in some cases, to combine a limited amount of course work with outside employment, all students must complete at least one year of full-time study prior to admission to candidacy.

Degree requirements

In addition to general VCU Graduate School graduation requirements, students must meet the following requirements.

A minimum of 54 graduate credit hours is required, which comprises 27 hours of core course work common for all students, nine credit hours of electives selected individually to suit the student’s course of study, three credit hours of directed research and a minimum of 15 credit hours of dissertation research. The Graduate School requirements for candidacy exams and dissertation committees apply to students in this program. Up to six credit hours may be granted for courses completed at another university. Full-time students ordinarily complete 18 to 20 credit hours per academic year.

The Ph.D. curriculum is designed for students to specialize in a substantive area and increase their relevant research skills. Students take three hours of directed research (SWKD 797) in preparation for their independent dissertation research and nine hours of elective credit, which includes three credit hours of advanced statistics and/or research courses, and another six credit hours of elective courses or independent study customized to their areas of interest. In addition to elective courses offered by the program, students may enroll in appropriate courses in other schools and departments at VCU with approval of their advisers. A minimum of 39 credit hours of course work, as outlined above, is required before admission to candidacy.

Curriculum requirements

Core curriculum

Course Title Hours
SWKD 701Quantitative Research Methods3
SWKD 702Quantitative Data Analysis4
SWKD 703Philosophical Issues in Social Work Knowledge Building3
SWKD 704Multiparadigmatic Qualitative Methods and Analysis4
SWKD 705Multivariate Analysis in Social Work and Human Services Research3
SWKD 708Social Science Foundations for Social Work3
SWKD 710Social Work, Social Welfare and Social Thought3
SWKD 715Development and Evaluation of Social Work Practice Theories and Models3
SWKD 798Intergrative Seminar1
Total Hours27


Course Title Hours
Advanced statistics and/or research courses
Select one of the following:3
Mathematical Statistics I
Mathematical Statistics II
Biostatistical Methods I
Biostatistical Methods II
Clinical Trials
Analysis of Biomedical Data I
Categorical Data Analysis and Generalized Linear Models
Mixed Models and Longitudinal Data Analysis
Survival Analysis
Applied Bayesian Biostatistics
Intermediate Epidemiologic Methods for Research
Advanced Epidemiologic Methods and Data Analysis
Structural Equation Modeling
Community-based Participatory Research
Linear Models
Nonparametric Statistical Methods
Complex Sampling Designs and Variance Estimation
Design and Analysis of Experiments I
Applied Linear Regression
Time Series Analysis I
Regression II
Evaluation of Human Service Programs
Constructivist Inquiry
Topical Seminar
Introduction to Geographic Information Systems
Community Socioeconomic Analysis Using GIS
Additional elective courses or independent study
Select an additional six credits customized to student's area of interest6
Total Hours9

In addition to elective courses offered by the program, students may enroll in appropriate courses in other schools and departments at VCU with approval of their advisers. Outside elective courses may be selected from classes at the 500 level or higher in BIOS, CCTR, CMSC, CLED, CRJS, ECSE, ECON, EDUS, ENVS, EPID, GSWS, GRTY, GVPA, GRAD, HADM, HCPR, HSEP, HGEN, HUMS, INFO, IDAS, IDDS, MASC, MATX, NURS, OVPR, PHAR, PSYC, PADM, PPAD, SBHD, SLWK, SWKD, SOCY, SEDP, STAT, SYSM, TEDU AND USRP.


Course Title Hours
SWKD 797Directed Research3
SWKD 898Dissertation Research (a minimum of 15 credits)15
Total Hours18

Total graduate credit hours required (minimum) 54

Graduate program director
Denise Burnette, Ph.D.
Professor and Samuel S. Wurtzel Endowed Chair in Social Work
Phone: (804) 828-2859

Additional contact
Leslie Choplin, D.Ed.Min.
Ph.D. program assistant
Phone: (804) 828-1044

Program website: