Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work

The goal of the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare doctoral program is to prepare students to become leaders nationally and internationally in advancing social work practice and policy through research, teaching, and scholarship. Our students graduate from the program with the critical knowledge and skills they need to become innovative stewards of the discipline who generate and disseminate knowledge as researchers, scholars and educators.  The school is known internationally as a prime innovator in the Strengths Perspective for social work practice. Doctoral students have played a key role in this exciting initiative.

Program Highlights

  • Creative, critical thinking about practice, policy, and theory
  • Quantitative and qualitative skills for research
  • Innovative scholarship and teaching
  • Student-centered educational approach
  • Financial support and mentoring for students
  • Full- and part-time enrollment options
  • Personal and community strengths
  • Appreciation for human diversity and global perspective
  • Social justice
  • Study Abroad opportunities

Doctoral students become conversant with the excitement and creativity in the profession — how professionals come to know what they know, how they put that knowledge into practice, and how it affects consumers.

Consider Our Program

The Ph.D. program offers effective alternatives for building knowledge and inquiring into social work practice and social welfare policy. We are dedicated to educating scholars who can develop knowledge for the profession through quantitative, qualitative, theoretical, or conceptual analyses, and historiographic investigations. Demand for our Ph.D. graduates is high. Recent alumni are employed in teaching, research, and combined teaching/research positions at large and small universities.


Doctoral courses prepare students as scholars with conceptual and methodological sophistication.

  • The history and philosophy course focuses on the intellectual history, current status, and innovation of social work ideas, ideologies, and theories.
  • In the research sequence, students learn both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, designs, advanced modes of analysis, theory for research, and appropriate applications.
  • The policy/practice courses provide the opportunity to analyze policies of interest to the student and discover “best” practices as they affect a population. Students critically consider human problems, strengths, and strategies for change and transformation.
  • Qualifying papers and electives help students develop deep understanding in areas of special interest.
  •  A required course as well as teaching seminars for GTAs prepare students to be effective educators.
  • The dissertation involves advanced and focused research into a topic selected by the student, based on quantitative, qualitative, historical, or other methods of inquiry.


Teaching and Research Opportunities

Our Ph.D. program contributes significantly to the model of strengths and community-based research, service, and education developed by the school. Under the direction of faculty members, many Ph.D. students help with research projects and serve as teaching assistants. For example, doctoral research assistants work in such areas as aging, asset-building, child welfare, criminal justice, diversity issues, domestic violence, health and disability, child and adult mental health, poverty, social policy, and spirituality.

It is part of the school’s mission to focus on teaching, inquiry, and practice that benefit populations who experience oppression of all kinds. The school is committed to diversity and multicultural perspectives. Many of the research and service projects of faculty members and doctoral students are committed to direct and positive impact on people of color, status minorities, and oppressed peoples, individually, collectively, and internationally.

Responsible Scholarship

Current Lawrence and Edwards Campus policies on Doctoral Research Skills and Responsible Scholarship are listed in the KU Policy Library.

Admission Criteria & Requirements

Criteria used in judging applications include the applicant’s potential for excellence in academic performance, professional practice experience, and potential for contributions to knowledge-building for social work.  


  • Master's degree in social work or related field.
  • Graduate grade-point average of 3.5 or higher.
  • Personal statement.
  • Three letters of reference.
  • Completion of the Graduate Record Examination's (GRE) Quantitative and Verbal tests within the past 5 years. The GRE Writing/Analytic test is not required.
  • Completion of a basic statistics course within the past two years with a grade of B or higher. The applicant must include a written statement showing how this requirement has been met or how it will be met before entering the program. 
  • Online graduate application.
  • For international students, completion of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the IELTS within the past two years, demonstrating high proficiency.


  • GRE scores in at least the 50th percentile on the Quantitative and Verbal tests.
  • Undergraduate grade-point average of 3.0 or higher preferred.
  • M.S.W. degree preferred. Applicants with master’s degrees related to social work and affiliation with social work activities and values are considered.
  • Two years of social work or related practice; two years of post-master’s professional social work experience preferred.
  • Personal interview (telephone or email contacts with the chair of the program are recommended before submitting application).

Application Timeline and Procedure

Applications are not reviewed until all materials are received. The deadline is January 15. Applicants are strongly encouraged to take the Graduate Record Examination well in advance of the January 15 deadline. Late applications are considered only on a space-available basis.

Learn more about the admission process.

International Students

International students from all regions of the world are encouraged to apply. Contact the school at for more information about international student applications and resources and regulations of International Student and Scholar Services and the Applied English Center.

Ph.D. Degree Requirements

The program requires a minimum of 54 credit hours, as follows:

  • 27 credit hours of required coursework.
  • 9 credit hours of electives.
  • A qualifying paper.
  • A comprehensive examination process.
  • Completion of a dissertation.

In fulfilling the elective hours, students may take graduate-level courses in any substantive area or research skills necessary for successful completion of their goals. Students can take electives in social science or other relevant graduate disciplines.  They may also complete Independent Study under faculty direction and/or choose from on of several study abroad courses offered by the School.

Beyond course work, students complete one qualifying paper under the guidance of a faculty committee. This demonstrates their ability to integrate knowledge and skills across the three curriculum areas in relation to a theme of inquiry developed by the student in his or her chosen specialization. After the qualifying paper is completed, students complete an oral comprehensive exam (dissertation proposal defense) and then write and defend a doctoral dissertation. 

Commuting for 1 or 2 days a week is possible. Required course work can be completed in 2 years. Additional time is needed to complete the qualifying papers and dissertation. The program can be completed in 4 years of focused work. Students may start on a part-time basis but eventually must spend 1 year in residence, which entails 2 semesters of full-time course work (9 hours) and may include one summer session (6 hours); or a combination of 6 hours of course work and half-time appointment as a teaching or research assistant for 2 semesters.

Doctoral Courses (43-54)
SW 978Research Design and Methods3
SW 979Methods of Qualitative Inquiry3
SW 980History and Philosophy of Social Work3
SW 981Advanced Quantitative Research Methods I3
SW 982Social Welfare Policy3
SW 983Advanced Quantitative Research Methods II3
SW 984Social Work Practice: Identifying and Improving "Best Practices3
SW 985Theory for Research: _____3
SW 987Teaching Social Work: Philosophy and Methods3
SW 988Mixed Methods in Social Science Research (optional elective)3
SW 999Dissertation1-12