Theorising Social Work Research

Doctoral and advanced studies in Social Work Seminar topics

Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick

Doctoral Research Training: The American Way

Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE)

Charles Garvin Professor of Social Work, the University of Michigan

Doctoral education in social work in the United States was initiated early in this century and grew slowly during its first half. The number increased in the 1960s and this development accelerated in the 1980s. At the present time there are over 60 programs in the United States and Canada and a number of universities are in the process of creating additional ones. Despite this, the number of applicants to, and the resulting enrollments in, such programs has remained relatively constant.

Concept of Doctoral Education in the United States

In the United States, the qualification for professional practice is the Master's degree. While different universities, for historical reasons, may use different terms for this degree, the typical one is the Master of Social Work (MSW). Many universities also award a first degree in social work called the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) in addition to or instead of the MSW. For this reason, the doctoral level of education in social work in the United States has, from its inception, was intended to prepare graduates for research, teaching, or leadership roles in social work, the latter in major policy or program leadership positions. However, a few programs sought to educate students for advanced practice and this has created some tensions among doctoral programs and their faculties. These tensions relate to how well the students in these programs should be trained in research as well as so-called advanced practice.

BSW and MSW social work programs for many years have given priority to employing faculty who possess a doctoral degree and this has been the main market for such graduates. It is not unusual, however, for a faculty member to have an MSW and a Ph.D. in another field such as sociology, psychology, or political science. Faculty members are expected to do research or contribute to scholarship in other ways as a condition for obtaining tenure and this has strengthened this requirement. Doctoral graduates, however, are employed in research and policy positions and some do return to professional practice, especially if they have been educated in one of the schools that focuses on advanced practice.

When doctoral social work education was developed, its pioneers adopted the general pattern found in American universities for doctoral education in other professions and disciplines. This pattern prescribed that students (1) take advanced course work in the discipline as well as in allied fields related to the student's scholarly focus, (2) pass one or more examinations covering that focus, and (3) complete a dissertation that makes a significant contribution to knowledge in the field.

Scope of Social Work Doctoral Education

In the past, some social work doctoral programs awarded the Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) while others awarded the Doctor of Social Work degree (DSW). In most cases, the Ph.D. programs were research oriented and the DSW programs had a professional emphasis. In recent years this distinction has all but disappeared and many universities changed the designation of their advanced degree from DSW to Ph.D. There are a few institutions not located in universities that award a Ph.D. in advanced social work practice. The existence of such institutions is frowned upon by GADE, which does not admit them to membership. The reason for this is the assumption that only a university can provide the research and scholarly resources required for social work doctoral education.

Because of the concern of doctoral educators in social work in the United States and Canada with respect to the many issues they faced in developing their programs, they created the Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education in Social Work (GADE) almost 30 years ago. This organization is a very active one and it sponsors annual program meetings of the doctoral program directors. These meetings usually consist of keynote speakers on issues in doctoral education as well as working group sessions on such concerns as the quality of research training, the types of examinations given students, and standards for dissertations. The financing of doctoral students, the recruitment of students, and the administration of doctoral programs may also be discussed. Committees of GADE are likely to hold data gathering and problem-solving meetings between the annual gatherings and to report on these to the full membership of the organization. GADE is financed by a contribution from the member schools.

The GADE membership has always opposed accreditation of doctoral programs because of the beliefs that this process may inhibit programs from being creative in generating new solutions to the problems facing doctoral education. Another conviction is that doctoral programs should reflect the missions and contexts of their host institutions and each university usually applies procedures to assess the quality of all of its doctoral programs.

Because of the leeway given to social work doctoral programs, there are significant differences as well as similarities among them. All follow the pattern of course work, examinations, and a dissertation. One major difference is the nature of the course work, especially with respect to the degree to which the students are expected to gain knowledge of other fields, especially the social sciences. At one end of the continuum is the University of Michigan whose doctoral program requires all students to earn a joint degree in one of the social sciences (anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, sociology) and to have the same education in the social science as the other doctoral students in the social science. This is based on the conviction of that institution that all social work doctoral graduates should also be competent social scientists. A few other schools offer such joint degrees but these are not as extensive. Boston University, for example, has a joint degree in social work and sociology.

As we noted earlier, some programs describe themselves as preparing students for advanced practice usually treatment oriented in nature. These programs are likely to have an advanced field work requirement and a set of practice oriented seminars. To fit with the usual university concept of a doctorate, these schools will also have research training and a dissertation requirement but this may not be as rigorous research training as that offered in other doctoral programs.

All schools, however, are likely to require study outside social work. This work is not necessarily in the social sciences but may be in social policy, public health, law or philosophy. The social work courses are typically taken in the first year or two of the programs with the remaining several years devoted to preparing for and taking examinations as well as completing the dissertation. It is difficult to determine the length of doctoral education as students vary in the courses they need for their idiosyncratic scholarly purposes as well as the amount of work required for their unique dissertation. Also some students are enrolled full time and others part time, usually because of their employment.

The course work, in addition to the work in cognate fields, is likely to consist of the following content categories: social work practice theory (including the philosophy of social work), social policy, and research methodology (including statistics). Some schools include a course in the teaching of social work. Increasingly doctoral programs are requiring students to complete a research internship in which they often assist with a research project of a faculty member. The purpose of this internship is to have an opportunity to practice such research skills as creating instruments, generating hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data before they have to perform these tasks on their own through their dissertation work.

Strengths and Problems

The above pattern of social work doctoral education has both strengths as well as problems. One of the strengths is that all programs are located in universities that within the norms and expectations of higher education in the United States are expected to promote quality education and knowledge creation. A problem is that there is a good deal of variation in how well these institutions meet this objective. Some state universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington and private universities such as Chicago, Columbia, and Washington University at St. Louis are major research institutions and their Schools of Social Work, as well as social work doctoral programs, are expected to follow suit. Other universities are not ranked as highly in various assessments of higher education in the United States and the demands and opportunities they afford social work doctoral programs are less than the aforementioned.

All doctoral programs affiliated with GADE must be sponsored by institutions that also offer the MSW. This is an asset as the institution can hire a larger and more diversified faculty than if the institution only offered doctoral studies. It also presumably keeps the school in close touch with the needs of the practice community through such devices as the connection of the school with MSW student field placement agencies. Nevertheless, when scarce resources is a major issue, the MSW and Ph.D. programs compete for such things as faculty and student financial support. Doctoral education is a very expensive entity because doctoral seminars are usually smaller than MSW classes; doctoral students require much more mentoring for such tasks as dissertation research; and students must find financial support for a long period.

There is also a great deal of variation among schools that has implications for the quality of doctoral education. Some schools have a large proportion of faculty engaged in research, others do not; some schools have faculty with a variety of research interests who can relate to the intellectual interests of a variety of students, others are more limited in this respect; some schools have many interdisciplinary intellectual and research activities while others are more isolated from scholars in other fields.

The members of GADE became aware of the fact that there was this wide variation in the quality and nature of doctoral program components, especially with respect to research training. They did not wish to create an accreditation mechanism; instead, a task force was appointed to generate guidelines for quality in social work doctoral programs and such a document was completed and published in October, 1992. The National Institute of Mental Health supported the task force that worked steadily for over a year. There was no expectation that any one program fully lived up to the guidelines; rather they were seen as describing an ideal situation toward which all programs should strive.

The Guidelines

The guidelines were introduced with a statement of assumptions about the mission and purpose of doctoral education in social work as follows:

Doctoral education in social work has as its primary purpose the production of scholars. Social work scholars use systematic methods to develop through research and disseminate through teaching and writing knowledge concerning social welfare problems and professional practice. Social work professional practice includes direct service with clients, the organization and management of service delivery systems, and the formulation and analysis of social policies. Drawing upon the social and behavioral sciences as well as social work knowledge and experience, doctoral education seeks to produce scholars with the skills to expand and disseminate the base of tested knowledge that can guide the profession of social work in its efforts to address major social problems and concerns. (GADE, 1992: 5)

The Guidelines address the following dimensions: (1) Organizational Characteristics; (2) Faculty; (3) Students; (4) Curriculum; and (5) Resources. Each of these dimensions was seen as interactive with the others. We shall now elaborate on each of these dimensions as enunciated in the report.

Organisational Characteristics

The guidelines indicate that the "culture of the sponsoring institutions must demonstrate clear commitment to quality in doctoral education" (p. 6). This means that the director of the school's program must provide strong support for knowledge development and the expectation that faculty should conduct research. There should also be administrative supports to facilitate carrying out research. This usually means that the institution has personnel who can assist in planning research budgets and facilitate the submission of research proposals. The institution also should be able to provide physical space for projects.

The school should set a high priority on employment of faculty who can do research as well as teach doctoral courses and supervise dissertation work. It is not sufficient to employ this kind of faculty member. Researchers should receive workload credit for their research activities as well as their mentoring doctoral students by supervising dissertations and administering qualifying examinations. The doctoral faculty also should be given some autonomy in the development of the doctoral curriculum.

The person who is appointed to direct the doctoral program should be a senior researcher. The director should also be given workload recognition for the time consumed in administering the program. There are many administrative tasks that are very time consuming that involve recruiting students, making admission decisions (usually through committee deliberations), developing curriculum, chairing a doctoral policy committee, and assigning faculty to teach doctoral courses. The director usually must approve students' plans for dissertations as well as their preferences for faculty to supervise their research.


The doctoral faculty must have competence in conducting doctoral seminars, formulating doctoral program policy, mentoring doctoral students, creating qualifying examinations, and supervising research internships and dissertation work. The guidelines state the following with respect to the type of faculty who have these competencies:

Faculty who have these competencies will possess an established record of scholarship as evidenced by the quality of their publications, the frequency with which their work is cited, their activity on research projects (often funded through grants they have obtained), their participation in peer review activities, such as editorial boards and proposal reviews, and their collaboration in interdisciplinary research efforts. In addition to these competencies, doctoral faculty should have a continuing commitment to research productivity, effective teaching, and to ethical behavior toward doctoral students. This latter includes acknowledging the work of students on projects by fully and fairly crediting their contributions to research and their co-authorship of articles; in short by treating them as colleagues. (p. 7)

As can be seen from the preceding material, doctoral faculty must be role models for doctoral students. This is highly related to their research activities; effective research teachers must be familiar with recent theoretical developments in their fields as well as the research methodologies that are relevant to these developments. It is unlikely that someone who is not actively involved in research will possess these kinds of knowledge. These types of faculty members are likely to be committed to assisting in the further evolution of the doctoral program; they are also likely to contribute a great deal to the scholarly climate of the school.


It is a mistake to assume, to paraphrase a key line in a recent movie, "if you build it they will come." While good doctoral students are likely to be attracted to a school with the administrative supports and faculty characteristics we have just enumerated, this is not enough. As the Guidelines state: "A stimulating diverse, involved, and interacting student cohort enhances the quality of the educational experience. Students learn from each other and more senior students are sources of information, advice, knowledge, and collaboration of their junior colleagues" (p. 8).

The Guidelines recommend that students admitted into the doctoral program should have adequate academic preparation, strong intellectual abilities, a demonstrated professional commitment to advancing social work's knowledge base, communication skills, objectives for their personal development consonant with the goals of the program, and a strong record of academic and professional achievement. Such students must be actively recruited as they may well be attracted to doctoral work in other disciplines because of the regard with which these disciplines are held in academe as well as their longer established standing in the academic community.

The typical doctoral program in the United States uses several means to ascertain whether the applicant meets the above standards. These include the applicant's previous academic and professional record, scores on standard tests used for admissions to post graduate programs, personal statements regarding the reasons the applicant seeks doctoral education, writing samples, personal interviews, and letters of reference. Programs differ widely in the amount of professional experience required prior to application. Some programs also admit students who only possess a first degree and who wish a continuous program of study that combines MSW and doctoral work.

The Guidelines also recommend that the number of students in the doctoral program be sufficiently large to promote student interactions both in classes and in informal ways. An important issue in United States universities is to enroll a student body that is diverse in cultural, gender, religious, and ethnic backgrounds so student interactions will elicit points of view and experiences related to these differences.

The doctoral programs submit data regarding their students to the Council on Social Work Education for analysis. Such data show that "more than half of the applicants to doctoral programs are accepted; that many of those enrolling have performed below average on standardized tests; and that social work doctoral programs are accepting some students with less than adequate undergraduate and graduate preparation " (GADE, 1992:p. 9). While this may not be true of the programs in the most prestigious universities, it still is a problem for doctoral education. GADE has sought to raise this issue with all of the doctoral program directors and to grapple with how to attract highly qualified students to social work doctoral education. In my opinion the problem lies with a number of doctoral programs that are not as attractive to the best students and yet must enroll some students in order to continue their existence.

A related issue is the financing of doctoral students. American universities are very expensive and this is especially true of those under private auspices. Even the University of Michigan, a state institution, must charge its out-of-state students $20,000. a year in tuition alone. Most programs offer fellowships to most students but the many years required for program completion still make doctoral education an expensive proposition.


Most doctoral students already have obtained the MSW and have some practice experience. They seek, from their doctoral education, the skills and methods for research. Thus, while all doctoral programs devote a significant amount of time to research training, they also offer a variety of other courses. Each program, however, has its own scheme for organizing the doctoral curriculum. Some offer specializations by social work methods such as clinical practice or social policy; others by fields of practice such as child and family or mental health policies and programs. Still others are organized around different interdisciplinary fields such as sociology or psychology and social work.

The Guidelines suggest the following curricular concept for doctoral education, irrespective of which of the above organizing principles has been selected:

The curriculum must enhance the students' ability to conceptualize and think critically about the issues confronting the profession. Thus, curriculum content must include substantive knowledge, of the theory and practice of a social work method, research methodologies, and analytic skills. A high quality doctoral curriculum will include an array of courses that cover the state of the art in those social work methods and fields of practice accordant with the individual program's specific objectives. Thus, courses should be available on the history, theories, interventions, issues, and related research technologies in advanced practice, policy analysis, and/or administration. Courses (including tutorials) should also be available in the major social work fields of practice (or substantive areas or social problem areas) and their relevant history, target populations, policies, programs, interventions, explanatory theories, as well as a range of appropriate research methodologies. (p. 10)

A great deal of thought has been given by GADE as to the kinds of research knowledge that must be imparted to doctoral social work students. The Guidelines stated this as follows:

Doctoral-level research methods encompass, but are not limited to the following: question or problem formulation; hypothesis development; sampling theory and procedures; measurement theory, construction, and testing; and data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Advanced research methods courses could include courses in cost/benefit analysis, microsimulation modeling, analysis of historical documents, field observations, survey research, social measurement, ethnography, discourse analysis, experimental and quasi-experimental designs, and secondary analysis. Advanced statistics courses could include content on applied regression analysis, log linear modeling, event history analysis, factor analysis, path analysis, time series analysis, etc. Additional analytic courses could deal with the appropriate exploration of qualitative methods. (pp. 10-11)

The preparation of the Guidelines was followed up with the development of model course syllabi for research and statistics courses. These syllabi were developed by a task force that collected syllabi from affiliate programs, analyzed them, and generated a model out of this analysis.

The model recommended that students should enroll in at least two statistics courses, two research methods courses, and a course in the application of these techniques to the study and development of interventions. An additional course on the philosophical issues in research was also recommended. The students, however, should have an opportunity to develop research competencies not only through courses but through working collaboratively with faculty members

The Guidelines also recommended that doctoral students should receive interdisciplinary content selected from such fields as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, history, demography, and epidemiology. This selection would be made in view of the student's particular intellectual pursuits. It was also recommended that the faculty should obtain evidence of the students developing competencies through examinations.

The Guidelines also declare that students should learn how to ask researchable questions that "hold the greatest practical and theoretical import for social work practice and public policy" (CSWE, 1992, p. 12). Students should also be expected to participate in professional and agency based meetings at which they contribute information on their works in progress. Thus, their continuing their linkages to the field should be reinforced.


To accomplish the objectives described above, the Schools must have adequate resources. This includes sufficient faculty, adequate library resources, appropriate computer facilities and supports, financial aid and other supportive services for students, and supports for doctoral program administration (GADE, 1992, p. 14). The school should also have good linkage to social agencies. The Guidelines assert that a quality doctoral program places demands on participating faculty that are greater than demands placed on MSW faculty. This is because doctoral instruction occurs through advising, supervising dissertation work, directing tutorials, and directing research assistanceships.

A major concern of American universities is the time many students take to complete their doctoral work. This takes its toll on both faculty and students and also creates a serious shortage of people to fill the vacancies on faculties. This problem is caused by the fact that students often must work to support themselves while they are enrolled in doctoral programs and this cuts into the time they can spend on completing their studies. The Guidelines also assert that an important part of doctoral education is the opportunity to immerse one's self in the academic environment. GADE recommends that more fellowships are needed for students so they can devote full time to their studies. This can be a major burden on the schools. An alternative that exists in American society is the support the federal government gives to support social work doctoral students in selected fields such as mental health and gerontology. GADE, therefore, has sought to bring pressure on government to recognize the value to society of social workers who are well trained and able to be effective in reducing society's ills.

Issues and Future Directions

There are a number of issues faced by American doctoral programs in trying to carry out the recommendations of the Guidelines.

  1. The universities do not necessarily recognize the components of quality doctoral education in social work and may not even value this type of education. The schools of social work must do a better job of convincing universities of the essential roles played by social workers in society and the need for the universities to support education for these roles. Part of this job is to demonstrate to the universities that social workers are effective and can become even more so as knowledge evolves. It is the mission of the doctoral programs to educate people who can create this knowledge. A problem in this respect is that some schools of social work are not of high quality and do not belong "in the business" of offering doctoral education.
  2. A school of social work and its doctoral program cannot "be all things to all people". As stressed throughout the Guidelines, a school should be clear with respect to its mission which may focus on selected methods or problems. Schools have difficulty determining where they "fit" and consequently offer doctoral programs that promise too much. Schools need help, at times, in scaling down their ambitions,
  3. The role of schools that emphasize advanced practice has never been clear in the U.S. It is difficult to attain this objective while offering an advanced research curriculum. With the current resistance to any form of doctoral program accreditation, it is unclear how this problem can be resolved.
  4. There are epistemological debates among social work scholars as to the merits of various research paradigms often characterized by such words as positivist, post-modernist, and so forth. Various research methodologies such as qualitative and quantitative methods are posed as more related to some paradigms than others. These debates have not yet been resolved and leave both faculty and students confused at times as to the more appropriate approaches to pursue.
  5. Students who seek doctoral education or even when they complete it tend to seek academic careers as opposed to careers in research or policy institutes or even in the personal social services. It is probably not the function of doctoral programs to determine student careers but, nevertheless, they should help the students to see the career options their doctoral studies create and to chose among them wisely.

Use of the American Experience in Another Country

Social work faculty in each country must work toward a plan for doctoral education that fits with the needs of the social work profession in that country, the nature of social work education, the conditions found in each university, and the interest in developing new knowledge through a cadre of social workers trained to create that knowledge. As we have described in this paper, these sets of circumstances can create contradictory views as to the priorities for social work education in general and doctoral education in particular. Thus, the resources for social work education can be allocated to educating more and/or better practitioners, teachers, or researchers, the latter being especially the province of doctoral education. In the United States, with its many doctoral programs, some schools can set priorities that are different than others. Even then, this leads to a great deal of confusion as to what a doctorate represents.

In the States this confusion, as I would call it, led to the GADE Guidelines in which high quality research training was given the highest priority. This was not necessarily the view of all of the GADE membership but was promoted by the leadership of the organization with considerable support and encouragement of the National Institute of Mental Health which seeks to create and support more effective mental health programs through carefully executed research.

The implications of the American experience for the UK may well be to remind our colleagues in the latter country that there are costs as well as benefits of any path that is taken. These consequences might be different in a smaller country that is unlikely to mount something comparable to the large array of doctoral programs found in the U.S. I am curious as to the assessment in the UK of the priorities of the profession for practitioners, teachers, and researchers. With respect to research, what kinds of research are important? How important is it at this juncture that teachers do extensive research? Without doubt, more research is needed but since good research is expensive as is the education of researcher what are the research priorities? How necessary is it to duplicate the research done in other countries? What can be unique about social work research in the U.K.? Countries as well as universities can specialize and in this "global village" that many of us envision, how can social work scholars in different countries cooperate so that all may benefit from the work of each.


Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education (GADE). Guidelines for Quality in Social Work Doctoral Programs, October, 1992. Prepared by the Task Force on Quality in Doctoral Education, Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education. Sheila Kammerman, Enola Proctor, Charles Glisson (co-chairs); Mark Fraser, Charles Garvin, Thomas Holland, and William Meezan, members.