Dec 10, 2023  
USC Catalogue 2021-2022 
USC Catalogue 2021-2022 [ARCHIVED CATALOGUE]

Social Work (PhD)

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With the enrollment of a small group of highly qualified experienced social workers, the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work established the first social work doctoral program in the Western United States in 1953. Over the years, the school has continued the tradition of providing opportunities for learning in small classes, seminars and tutorials.

The major goal of the doctoral program in social work is to produce social work scholars who will have the capacity to make valuable and significant contributions to the knowledge base of the profession. Students acquire the skills necessary to become professional scholars and develop a significant capacity for professional leadership. Toward this end, the school is committed to pursuing excellence in education with persons of definite promise and to seeking gifted students of varied social, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

Through training in specific areas, graduates of the program develop theoretical, conceptual, critical and analytic skills which can be applied to social, organizational, interpersonal and personal problems. They emerge from the program with substantive knowledge and analytic skills that enable them to contribute to understanding social problems and ways of solving them. With these skills, they are able to take a disciplined approach to the issues confronting the profession of social work and the field of social welfare and are prepared to make a significant contribution to the research and scholarship that informs society’s effort to improve the human condition.

The PhD program in social work is administered by the Doctoral Committee of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in accordance with the policies set by the Graduate School. The requirements listed below are special to the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and must be read in conjunction with the general requirements of the Graduate School .

Admission Requirements

Applicants for admission to the doctoral program must meet the following requirements:

  1. A master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education or from another field related to social work.
  2. Academic promise, as evidenced by above average achievement in undergraduate and professional education and a personal statement outlining the applicant’s scholarly goals.
  3. Professional competence as demonstrated through substantial experience in responsible social work, internships or other positions either during or subsequent to the master’s program.
  4. Personal qualities compatible with performance in social work and indicating a potential for leadership in the field: skill in relationships, flexibility and openness to new ideas, maturity, identification with the profession of social work, and commitment to furthering the development of the profession.
  5. Satisfactory performance on the Graduate Record Examinations — existing test scores may be submitted if the GRE has been completed no more than five years prior to the date of application. Information may be obtained from the USC Center for Testing and Assessment, Student Union 301, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0896, (213) 740-7166, or from the Educational Testing Service at
  6. Satisfactory performance on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for all international students prior to the date of application. Existing test scores may be submitted if the TOEFL or IELTS has been completed no more than two years prior to the date of application. Information may be obtained from the USC Center for Testing and Assessment, Student Union 301, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0896, (213) 740-7166, or from the Educational Testing Service at
  7. Submission of application materials as required. Instructions for application to the Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work program may be obtained by writing to the director of the program.

Under unusual circumstances, applications from persons who do not meet these requirements, including those who have just been awarded the MSW degree, will be considered. In cases where the MSW (or its equivalent) has recently been granted and the applicant does not have the prerequisite post-master’s degree employment experience, it may be required that such experience be acquired concurrent with enrollment in the doctoral program.

Under very unusual circumstances, applications to the doctoral program in social work will be considered from those who do not hold the MSW or an equivalent degree. Such applicants, in order to be admitted to the program, must have a master’s degree (or its equivalent) in a field related to social work and a demonstrated commitment to the field of social work as evidenced by substantial contribution to the knowledge base of the profession. Admission decisions on applicants who do not hold an MSW or equivalent degree will be made by the full Doctoral Program Committee of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work rather than by a subcommittee of that body.

Priority will be given to applications that are completed by January 1.

Application Procedure

All applicants to the doctoral program must submit the following information: (1) graduate admission application using the university’s online system; (2) statement of purpose which is submitted as part of the online application; (3) current resume which is uploaded as part of the online application; (4) all undergraduate and graduate transcripts; (5) four letters of reference, at least three of which are from persons who can assess the student’s scholarly potential; (6) recent GRE scores; (7) recent TOEFL or IELTS scores; (8) documented evidence of financial support is required of all international applicants; (9) PhD Information Form for the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work; (10) career plans and goals; and (11) scholarly writing sample.

Foreign Language/Research/English Language Requirements

There is no foreign language requirement for the PhD degree. Competence in advanced research methodology and statistics is required through satisfactory completion of required courses. All international students are required to submit their TOEFL or IELTS scores from a test date prior to application and to meet university requirements for teaching.

Course Requirements

Students must complete a minimum of 48 course units beyond the master’s degree (exclusive of SOWK 794a , SOWK 794b , SOWK 794c , SOWK 794d , SOWK 794z  Doctoral Dissertation). Students must complete at least 24 units within the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and at least three courses in other departments or schools within the university. At least 8 of these 12 units must be in courses with a substantive rather than a research-methodology or statistic focus. Students must also take at least one 3-unit elective and one additional research or statistics course either in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work or elsewhere in the university. Each student must develop a concentration either in another discipline outside the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work (such as gerontology; sociology; psychology; preventive medicine; business; policy, planning and development; or political science) or in a problem area where different external courses in different departments or schools bear on a specific social problem like homelessness. An overall grade point average of B (3.0) on all graduate work attempted in the doctoral program is required for graduation.

Core Content

All students are expected to master core content. They must also complete 12 units from the substantive five core courses.

Other Requirements

  • Elective Units: 3 *
  • Research or statistics course Units: 3 *
  • Units: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 (6 units required)


*Must be taken in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work or elsewhere at USC

Additional Requirements

Students must complete a minimum of 12 units per semester in their first semester and second semester of their first year in the program to maintain their status as full-time students and eligibility for financial support from the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Individualized Course of Study

The second year of the curriculum is largely individualized to meet each student’s educational goals. It is organized around a specific field of social work practice or a problem area. In the case of fields of practice or problem area, students gain knowledge of that field’s development and policies; one level of comparative practice theory applicable to that field; comparative explanatory theory appropriate to the field and the chosen practice level; and advanced research methods which can be used to explore field-specific questions.

Field of Practice is defined as a field of activity in which there is an identifiable service delivery system, a continuum of care for clients, and a defined or established role for social workers.

Given the current expertise of the faculty and available faculty resources, students may choose from the following fields of practice specializations:

Given the current expertise of the faculty and available faculty resources, students may choose from the following fields of practice specializations: (1) families and children, (2) mental health, (3) health, (4) occupational/industrial employment, (5) aging/gerontology, or (6) economic security/income maintenance.

Additional fields of practice can be added to the above choices depending on faculty interest, expertise and availability.

Problem Area is defined as a social or service delivery problem that is relevant to the field of social work such as homelessness or urban health systems.

Practice Theory is defined as advanced knowledge of comparative practice theories at one point on the intervention continuum as they relate to the field of practice chosen. The practice intervention continuum is defined to include practice with individuals, families and groups, as well as community practice, administration, planning and policy practice.

Explanatory Theory is defined as advanced knowledge of comparative social science theories as they relate to the field of practice and level of intervention chosen.

Specialized Research Skills is defined as advanced skills in research methodology and statistics which support the student’s dissertation within the field of practice.

Students fulfill the requirement for the mastery of the content of their individualized course of study through a combination of at least three (2-unit) directed tutorials (SOWK 790 ) with members of the social work faculty, at least three university courses in other departments of the university and an elective.

Students prepare an individualized course study plan with their faculty adviser in the spring of the first year that is approved by the doctoral committee. It details classes and tutorials that each student will take during the second year of the program.

Opportunities for Further Skill Development

The program offers students skills training in both teaching and research.

Teaching Skills

All doctoral students must teach for two semesters before they graduate. Requirements may be fulfilled by coteaching, teaching as an assistant or solo teaching. Before beginning these teaching experiences, students must take a teaching course approved by the  doctoral committee. International students must meet the English proficiency standards set forth by the American Language Institute and participate, if necessary, in specialized training offered by the Center for Excellence in Teaching.

Additional Research Skills

Students are also offered the opportunity for enhanced skills building in research through a research internship. The one- or two- semester internship (SOWK 785 ), starting typically in the spring of the second year, is designed to provide students with hands-on, practical experience with an ongoing faculty research project prior to the start of their own dissertation research. Typically, activities include data collection and/or analysis. The practicum is expected to yield a paper of publishable quality co-authored by the student and the faculty member.

Students may enroll in SOWK 599  by petitioning the doctoral committee in writing. The decision to grant or deny admission will be based on each applicant’s learning and research interests and permission of the instructor.

The usual program includes two years of full-time course work, plus an additional period for completing the qualifying examinations and dissertation. In rare cases, students who are not able to take the full-time program because of employment may spread course work over three years. They must, however, have the equivalent of full-time study in residence for at least one year.

Students should specify whether they are applying for the full-time or part-time program at the time they apply to the program. Part-time students usually carry two courses per semester during the academic year. They may wish to accelerate their progress by enrolling in appropriate courses when available during the summer session.

The time limit for completing all requirements for the PhD degree is eight years from the first course taken at USC to be applied toward the degree. Students who have completed an applicable master’s degree at USC or elsewhere (almost all students in the social work doctoral program) must complete the PhD in six years.

Transfer of Credit

The transfer of post-master’s doctoral course work from another institution will only be considered if a grade of B or better (A = 4.0) has been obtained, and the course has been completed within the last five years. Transfer of credits must be petitioned and approved by both the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Graduate School.

Screening Procedures

When students have completed a minimum of 16 units (but not more than 24 units) of doctoral course work, the doctoral committee assesses their performance and makes a decision about their readiness to continue in the program. If the decision is to deny permission to continue, the students are so notified. If permission is granted, a qualifying exam committee is established.

Qualifying Exam Committee

The qualifying exam committee is composed of five faculty members, four of whom, including the chair, are from the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and one from an academic unit of the university other than the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The function of the qualifying exam committee is to oversee the development of the student’s academic program through the qualifying examination.

Qualifying Examination

As a prerequisite to candidacy for the PhD degree, students must pass written and oral qualifying examinations. In order to take the examinations, students must complete all core courses, at least 6 units of SOWK 790  tutorials and at least 32 units of course work in the doctoral program with a minimum grade point average of 3.0.

All students must pass a qualifying examination by completing a paper that the examination committee judges to be of publishable quality and passing an oral examination on subject matter related to the paper. The paper must deal with a substantive theoretical, model-building or methodological issue in the student’s chosen area. Critical reviews of the literature or reports of empirical studies conducted by the student specifically for the qualifying examination are acceptable. The topic of the paper will be chosen in conjunction with the student’s chair and must be defended before and agreed to by the entire examination committee. The content of the paper is to go beyond products developed for tutorials and must be an independent effort. Further details for completing the paper and oral examination are provided as needed. When students pass the written and oral portions of the qualifying examination, they advance to candidacy.

In accordance with university policy, since the two portions of the qualifying examination are considered part of a single examination, only one retake of either portion of the examination is permitted. When the oral examination has been passed, the student is formally admitted to candidacy.

Doctoral Dissertation

When the student is admitted to candidacy, a dissertation committee is established consisting of three members of the qualifying exam committee, one of whom must be from outside the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The dissertation committee has the responsibility of providing consultation in research, approving the dissertation, conducting the final oral examination and recommending the candidate for the PhD degree. The doctoral dissertation should make a contribution to knowledge and theory related to the profession of social work. Dissertations must not only show technical mastery of the subject and research methodology but must also demonstrate the candidate’s ability to work independently as a scholar.

The first step in the dissertation process is the development of a dissertation proposal. Normally about 25-30 pages, the proposal should contain a clear statement of purpose, a rationale for the research, research questions or hypotheses, a review of pertinent literature, and an explication of the research methods to be used including the design, instrumentation, sampling procedures and plan for analysis. The proposal must include human subject clearances for the anticipated research obtained from the appropriate school and university committees.

The dissertation proposal is submitted to the student’s dissertation committee and defended. Upon approval of the proposal, a copy is filed with the director of the doctoral program.

It is expected that students will begin work on their dissertation prospectus as soon as possible after completion of the qualifying examinations, and that an acceptable proposal will be presented within three months of the completion of the examination.

Abstract of Dissertation

Since the abstract of the dissertation is also published in Dissertation Abstracts International, it should be written with care and must be representative of the final draft of the dissertation. A shorter abstract for publication in Social Work Research and Abstracts is also required.

Final Oral Examination

Upon approval of the final draft of the dissertation by all members of the dissertation committee, the candidate must pass a general final oral examination. After the candidate successfully completes the final oral examination, the committee recommends the candidate to the Graduate School for the PhD degree.

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