PhD in Social Work

The PhD in Social Work at Boston University aims to prepare the next generation of social work and social welfare scholars and leaders to address the complex social challenges of the 21st century. Building upon the School of Social Work’s robust commitment to social justice and empowerment of historically marginalized and vulnerable populations, the program provides rigorous training in the theory, research methods, and values of the social work profession necessary to solve urgent human and societal problems. Graduates are exceptionally well trained in multiple methods and interdisciplinary linkages to other social and behavioral sciences. Through a curriculum that encompasses research, clinical and policy practice knowledge, and teaching pedagogy and practice, the program offers a rich educational foundation for future social work leaders in the academy, as well as the practice and policy arenas.

Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate mastery at a doctoral level of core social work and social justice theory.
  • Demonstrate mastery at the doctoral level of interdisciplinary area of inquiry (specialization).
  • Demonstrate the ability to conduct rigorous applied scholarship and make a significant original contribution to social work.

Curriculum and Course Requirements

The PhD program is a full-time course of study. Students must meet all requirements set forth in the PhD Handbook, including a minimum of 16 courses for the post-master’s PhD (as indicated below), and complete a minimum of 63 credits.

Core Program

Core Social Work Knowledge (16 credits)

  • SSW KC 902 Proseminar in Social Work (0 cr)
  • SSW SR 910 Doctoral Dissertation Seminar (4 cr)
  • SSW SW 905 Contemporary Social Problems: A Social Work Perspective (4 cr)
  • SSW WP 901 Social Justice, Values & the Social Work Profession (4 cr)
  • SSW WP 903 Perspectives on Social Welfare Policy (4 cr)

Core Mixed Methods (19 credits)

  • GRS SO 702 Sociological Methods (4 cr)
  • SPH BS 704 Introduction to Biostatistics (3 cr)
  • SPH BS 723 Introduction to Statistical Computing (4 cr)
  • SSW SR 906 Qualitative Research Methods (4 cr)
  • SSW SR 907 Advanced Qualitative Research Methods (4 cr)

Advanced Research Methods Electives Coursework (8 credits)

Students will take two courses in advanced research methods relevant to the individual conduct of research in an area of specialization.

Teaching Excellence Sequence (8 credits to be taken concurrently in the Spring Term)

  • SSW SW 908 Teaching Seminar (4 cr)
  • SSW SW 909 Teaching Practicum (4 cr)

Guidelines for the Teaching Practicum

Students must complete a teaching practicum with an instructor of record for a traditional in-person MSW classroom course. The Teaching Practicum is graded as Pass/Fail, with grades submitted by the faculty mentor at the end of the grading period.

Interdisciplinary Specialization (12 credits)

Students identify an interdisciplinary specialization organized around a population (i.e., children, immigrants and refugees, older adults) and/or a social problem/issue (i.e., poverty, housing, trauma, health disparities) and complete 12 credit hours of study in their chosen area of specialization. Four credits of the specialization must be taken in a theory course. Students have considerable flexibility with respect to electives; however, it is expected that all electives include content and assignments appropriate for doctoral study.

The specialization is developed by the student in collaboration with his or her faculty advisor and approved by the doctoral program director.

Teaching Requirements

Students will teach as the Instructor of Record in a traditional classroom setting on-campus and also as an Online Facilitator or Instructor. These teaching requirements must be completed during the third, fourth, and fifth years in the program.

Qualifying Examinations

Students will be eligible to take the qualifying exam within six months of their fourth semester of coursework. The qualifying examination is a take-home exam intended to assess students’ ability to conduct independent social work research and thus begin work on the dissertation. Accordingly, the exam focuses on core social work knowledge and theory, social justice and ethics, research methods, and a student’s area of specialization. The written examination is graded Honors, High Pass, Pass, and Fail.

PhD Candidacy

Upon successful completion of the qualifying examination, a student is accepted to PhD candidacy. The maximum period allowable between matriculation and acceptance to PhD candidacy will be four years. Once in PhD candidacy, a student will have three years to complete the dissertation requirements successfully; this period can be extended only if approved by the doctoral committee, program director, and dean of the School of Social Work.


Doctoral candidates will demonstrate their abilities to conduct independent and original research through the dissertation project. The dissertation may take the form of a traditional monograph or a three-paper format (See PhD Handbook). Upon completion of coursework and all other pre-dissertation requirements, a student will develop a prospectus in which the dissertation research is described. Students will work with advisors and the program director to identify an interdisciplinary committee of five faculty members, at least two of whom must be SSW tenure-line faculty, with additional readers from the student’s area of specialization. Approval of the dissertation proposal is obtained through a prospectus defense before the full committee.

Candidates, upon completion of the dissertation, present themselves for a final oral examination before the full committee.

Residency Requirement

Students are expected to complete a minimum of four consecutive regular semesters of full-time graduate study at Boston University. Full-time study in this context is full-time commitment to the discipline as determined by the department. Doctoral students holding appointments as teaching fellows or research assistants are considered full-time students for purposes of the residency requirement, provided that the time beyond that required by their appointments is devoted fully to their graduate program. In order to graduate, students must be registered part or full time in the semester or summer term in which they complete degree requirements, as well as in the preceding semester.