PhD Program Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between the Master of Social Work (MSW) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programs

The MSW program offers a pre-professional degree that prepares individuals to become practitioners and provide direct social work services. In contrast, the PhD program offers the highest level of preparation for research and teaching careers in leading academic and social welfare institutions worldwide. It should not be confused with a professional practice program. Our interdisciplinary doctoral program is designed to produce high-ranking scholars who will make significant contributions to the knowledge base of the profession in social work academia.

What makes the USC School of Social Work’s doctoral program different?

  • Close faculty-student mentoring relationships
  • National visibility for students and their research through publications, funding and conference presentations in the United States and abroad
  • Faculty that ranks in the nation’s top three for funded research
  • Our own independent research institute, the Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services
  • A curriculum focused on understanding social issues from a global perspective customized for each student’s specific research area
  • Interdisciplinary research opportunities within the broader university
  • Two research labs dedicated solely to doctoral students
  • Valuable teaching experience in our MSW program
  • Four-year fellowship award package
  • Preparation for a career in the professoriate through innovative courses, workshops, seminars, renowned guest speakers and trainings
  • An opportunity to live and learn in Los Angeles, a melting pot of cultural and ethnic richness and diversity

What types of careers do PhD graduates pursue?
The majority of the doctoral program’s graduates accept positions conducting research and teaching in universities and research institutions throughout the world. Other graduates choose to work with governmental organizations shaping policies and providing leadership in a managerial or executive capacity.

Do you provide advanced clinical practice training?
The purpose of our program is to produce high-ranking scholars interested in the fields of research, scholarship and teaching. Although opportunities to build practice experience are available through research, our program is not designed for those seeking advanced clinical training.

Does the doctoral program have concentrations?
Given the current expertise of the faculty and available resources, the doctoral program offers the following specializations: families and children, mental health, health, work and family/organizations, aging/gerontology, and economic security/income maintenance. Additional fields of practice can be added to these choices depending on faculty interest, expertise and availability. Doctoral students are encouraged to follow their own research trajectory, not just support their faculty mentor’s work. All students also develop a concentration in another discipline, such as homelessness, poverty or family violence.

How would you describe the faculty mentoring relationship?
The faculty mentoring relationship is an important component of our student’s progression and success in academia. Faculty mentoring prepares students for leadership in research, teaching, the application of knowledge and professional practice, and strengthens the values of excellence, mutual respect, collegiality, honesty and integrity. Each student is assigned a faculty mentor to help guide them throughout the duration of the program. Students also will be part of a faculty mentoring team comprising the program’s research clusters.

Does the PhD program encourage interdisciplinary work?
Yes, our doctoral curriculum is highly interdisciplinary with the intent of producing graduates who are capable of original research and passionate about advancing the profession’s knowledge base. The PhD program encourages students to develop expertise in other disciplines, as each student must develop a specialization either in another discipline outside the School of Social Work (such as gerontology, sociology, psychology, preventive medicine, business, political science, or policy, planning and development) or in an area where external courses in different departments or schools bear on a specific social problem (such as homelessness). Many of the PhD faculty hold joint appointments with other schools and contribute their unique knowledge and expertise to the field of social work through research and teaching.

How many units are required for the PhD degree?
Students must complete a minimum of 48 course units (exclusive of SOWK 794 - Doctoral Dissertation), with at least 24 units within the School of Social Work and at least three courses (12 units) in other departments or schools within the university. At least eight of these 12 units must be in courses with a substantive focus, rather than a research-methodology or statistic focus. Students must also take at least one three-unit elective and one additional research or statistics course either in the School of Social Work or elsewhere in the university. However, many students exceed the 48 units, as they take additional courses related to their research area. For a complete list of program requirements, please refer to the USC Catalogue.

How does the doctoral program maximize research learning?
The school promotes research learning in many ways, beginning with required research collaborations with an assigned faculty mentor and other members of our doctoral faculty through our research clusters. These collaborations continue for the duration of the program and aid students in the preparation of publishable journal articles and grant writing with funding opportunities. Yearlong seminars are held periodically to help students successfully compete for federally sponsored dissertation grants. Formal training is provided in multiple research competencies, with emphasis on methods and statistics courses. Comparative research training is offered for international scholars, and research agreements with foreign institutions support data collection abroad.

What are research clusters?
Research clusters were established to bring people with common academic interests together, allowing for meaningful ways to foster interdisciplinary and community collaboration and bolster high-impact research.

What Hamovitch affiliations might doctoral students find useful?
The Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services maintains several strategic affiliations to promote research and scholarly activity, including an agreement for research development with the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center based at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, representing a consortium of more than 100 investigators and staff from research organizations throughout the nation. In addition, the Hamovitch Center is home to the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging; the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, the California Social Welfare Archives, which houses the most extensive and complete collection of social welfare history in Southern California; and the USC School of Social Work journal holdings, including three international journals. The center also has a leading role in promoting evidence-based social work and translational research by actively working with and supporting the international Campbell and Cochrane Collaborations and several evidence-based clearinghouses.

How long does it take to complete the doctoral program?
It typically takes four to five years to complete the doctoral program.

Where should I live in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is home to a variety of intriguing neighborhoods, diverse culture and a plethora of activities. For the first year, we recommend PhD students live near USC’s University Park Campus or in downtown Los Angeles, where access to the university and its resources is most convenient. Visit USC Housing for more information.