To prepare for their general exams and dissertation research, students develop individualized programs of study typically encompassing four main domains:  a) substantive; b) theoretical; c) interventive; and d) methodological. At the same time, students are encouraged to develop plans for building crosscutting skills (or meta-competencies) needed for effective participation in collaborative research, translational research and team science, such as communication and interpersonal relationship building. Specific plans for the program of study are outlined in each students’ Individual Development Plan (IDP), which describes the areas of specialization and crosscutting career skills that the student plans to undertake in the PhD program and how the student will build competence in these areas through coursework, teaching, research, cross-disciplinary, community engagement, and professional development experiences.

More information on the main domains in the Program of Study is provided below. Note: because theoretical preparation typically cross-cuts and is closely tied to the other domains, guidance here is provided in general rather than specific terms.

A. Substantive or Problem Area

1. Specification

The student’s “Substantive Area,” must pertain to the field of social welfare. Frequently, the substantive area brings together an interest in a particular population (e.g., youth, older adults) and a social issue or problem (e.g., gender identity, poverty). Many students also have an interest in particular life or social service settings (e.g., neighborhood and community, public child welfare). The following list, though by no means exhaustive, provides examples of topics that might be subsumed in the substantive area definition.

Examples of Substantive Areas:

• child care and labor force participation

• multigenerational health, development, and equality

• child maltreatment

• neighborhood influences

• disabilities

• older adults

• health/mental health disparities

• people living with HIV/AIDS

• immigrant health

• poverty

• indigenous well-being

• racism

• inequality and social structure

• spirituality and mental health

• interpersonal violence and trauma

• substance use

• local and global community development

• well-being of marginalized/oppressed populations, e.g., GLBTQ, immigrants, refugees, and populations of color


• youth development

2. General Learning Expectations

The student is expected to acquire a basic understanding of the substantive area, how it is defined, and its historical, policy, and institutional context/s. This includes, but is not limited to, the history of the substantive area, major governmental policies (e.g., laws, regulations, court decisions, treaties), and characteristics of the focal population that are most salient to the area of interest. Students should also gain a critical understanding of major theoretical, ideological, and empirical perspectives that characterize the area of study, including those relevant to social justice aspects of the area. The program of study should enable the student to master and critically assess the state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the specific substantive area, including adequate attention to factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation, and culture.

Given the breadth of these expectations, the student is not expected to have an in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the substantive area. The intent is that each student acquires a sufficient grasp of a particular area of social welfare so that more specialized interests can be placed in their larger context.

3. Specific Learning Expectations

Since most substantive area topics are too broad to feasibly be mastered within an individual program of study, the student and Supervisory Committee select a component part of the larger topic to serve as a focal point for the program of study. This specification will not only aid the student in preparing to write the Qualifying Scholarly Paper (e.g., General Exam), but also may provide a foundation for their dissertation research.

Specification can take a number of forms. One approach is to focus on a policy or program issue that has special significance for a particular substantive area: for example, key legislation within immigration policy, welfare policy, or  domestic violence policy. Another approach might be to focus on the historical and social construction of the focal area: for example, social understandings of child abuse, interpersonal violence, or gender. A third approach may be to focus on the historical context or evolution of the area: for example, the historical context of child care, or the genealogy of the discourses of “HIV/AIDS.”

However, it is important that the student's study efforts is not too specialized. This can be accomplished, in part, by ensuring that preparation addresses the larger context within which students’ specific interests are embedded.

B. Theoretical Area

1. Specification

The theoretical area of the program of study requires students to identify and gain competence in theories relevant to their substantive, interventive, and methodological interests.  Work in this area sharpens and deepens work that students have begun in the theory courses offered in the first year of the program. For example, a student with substantive interests in violence against women, an interventive focus on interventions with male perpetrators, and methodological interests that center on narrative inquiry will progressively identify and become conversant with the social science, practice, and methodological theories most relevant to their areas of inquiry. A second student, whose interests focus on indigenous health disparities, place-based interventions, and community-based participatory research, will identify and immerse themselves in a different set of substantive, interventive, and methodological theoretical perspectives. Similarly, a student interested in child poverty, interventions focused on economic policies and asset building, and critically-informed policy research, will craft a plan of study that provides opportunities for immersion in the theoretical perspectives relevant to these particular areas of interest.

2. General Learning Expectations

The student is expected to acquire a solid working understanding of key theories relevant to their substantive, interventive, and methodological foci. The program of study should enable the student to identify key theoretical perspectives in each of these domains, and in consultation with members of their supervisory committee, to become familiar with foundational as well as current theoretical foundations in their area, as well as areas identified as ripe for theoretical development, amplification, or, potentially, revision. The program of study should also introduce the student to both key theorists in their areas of focus, and to relevant theoretical debates. A primary function of theoretical components of the program of study is to advance the student’s capacity for identifying and articulating the conceptual and theoretical foundations informing their own work.

C. Interventive Area

1. Specification

The term “interventive area” refers to strategies used to effect change in the target area of social welfare. Strategies include but are not limited to the following:

• education

• clinical treatment

• dialogue

• advocacy

• administration

• care management

• community organizing

• organizational development 

• policy

• community development

• prevention

• coalition-building


Distinctions among strategies can be made on various grounds, e.g., point of intervention (e.g., prevention or crisis intervention), level of intervention (e.g., individual, community, or policy), focus of intervention (e.g., service to a particular community), or interventive approach.

Each overall change strategy incorporates a range of theories, practice approaches/models, and specific interventions or techniques. The distinctions among these are often somewhat arbitrary. Students should be clear what change strategies they are focusing on and the reasons for this. Special emphasis should be placed on the theoretical and empirical foundations that underlie the strategy(ies) in question. 

2. General Learning Expectations

Students with interventive interests are expected to acquire a basic understanding of a change strategy. This would include, for example, a general comprehension of the array of models of practice relevant to the strategy selected, including their essential similarities and differences, including their theoretical foundations, as well as emergent directions in this interventive area. The student should also have an understanding of factors within the organizational context, community context, field, or profession that are likely to affect the transferability, implementation, and ultimate usefulness of this intervention, including issues relevant to social justice.

3. Specific Learning Expectations

The student is encouraged to select a specific focus within the interventive area. This can take several forms. For example, the student might concentrate on one model of practice, such as evaluate current interventions to change cultural norms regarding sexuality and condom negotiation skills; investigate empirically based strategies and spiritual practices designed to increase personal empathy and compassion; or examine critical awareness as a transformative intervention that impacts individuals, communities, and structural concerns. The student may choose to focus on a more in-depth analysis of contextual issues that impact intervention delivery: e.g., identify and examine organizational factors related to quality of psychosocial care in skilled nursing facilities or community level factors that support wide spread diffusion of prevention strategies.

The student is expected to develop a thorough familiarity with the latest methods and procedures used in the interventive area, including the research and practice literatures on its application to various populations or systems, its variable effectiveness in different contexts, and the most recent technical developments. Lastly, there must be adequate correspondence between the substantive and interventive areas of the student’s program of study: i.e., the change strategy addresses issues specified within the target social welfare area.

C. Research Methodology Area

1. Specification

The research methodology area must include the necessary tools for the rigorous investigation and study of the target field of social welfare. This involves choice of a methodological approach to be used in the inquiry (e.g., exploratory, descriptive, experimental, quasi-experimental, ethnographic, interpretive, participatory) including the procedures to be used for selecting the population to be studied, for collecting data, and for analyzing the data. The process of selecting a methodological approach and gaining expertise in relevant methods should also further immersion in relevant methodological theory/ies (e.g., those related to community-based participatory methods, to critically informed research, or to ethnographic methods).  Research methodology can be applied in a broad range of studies, including those of historical, policy, community, or organizational nature.

2. General Learning Expectations

Students are expected to acquire both basic and more specialized knowledge of research methods, concepts, and procedures, and to draw appropriately on this knowledge base in addressing applications of research methodology relevant to their field of study. This knowledge will build upon the minimum research competencies that have been outlined within the initial foundation courses of the program (see Appendix: Research and Teaching Competencies). Knowledge should also be acquired concerning social justice issues relevant to the specific strategies used (see Appendix: Social Justice Learning Objectives).

3. Specific Learning Expectations

In addition to developing the student's general knowledge of research concepts and procedures, the research methods learning objectives need to include acquisition of the knowledge and skills in relation to issues, methods, and techniques that are especially pertinent to the conduct of research in their substantive/interventive areas. This aspect of learning is critical since it will enable the student to acquire the skills necessary to do sound research in their specialized area of interest, a major objective of the doctoral program. Finally, the student develops a good grasp of the significant existing research studies in their special area as well as the major issues and questions being posed by the community of scholars in this field.

Specificity might include acquiring skills in a particular type of analysis strategy (e.g., growth-curve mixture modeling within the range of longitudinal analysis techniques; or to examine the use of critical discourses analysis as an interpretive methodology). A student may choose to investigate common difficulties encountered in policy research methods and examine current methodological solutions for addressing these concerns.