E. Roberto Orellana
               E. Roberto Orellana

Message from the Director

I am delighted to welcome you to the PhD Program at the UW School of Social Work.  Based in one of the leading schools of social work in the world, our doctoral program attracts a cadre of students committed to research and teaching that makes a difference in the world.  With over a dozen thriving research centers and faculty who are at the cutting edge of research in a variety of fields, students in the UW doctoral program have the opportunity to work with leading scholars in social welfare.

Bringing a social justice lens to translational and cross-disciplinary research is at the core of our educational mission. Our School is leading research responses to several of the Grand Challenges for Social Work, a groundbreaking national effort to use science to create social progress in strategically determined areas.  Faculty at the School are part of the research leadership for the following Grand Challenges: Reducing Extreme Economic Inequality, Ensuring Health Development for All Youth, Closing the Health Gap, Advancing Long and Productive Lives and Creating Social Responses to a Changing Environment.  By addressing these core social problems, social work students and scholars are at the front lines of developing practice and policy changes to improve the lives of communities experiencing systemic oppression.

We invite you to learn more about our doctoral program and the future scholars who are at the heart of our program!

Program Description

The PhD Program in Social Welfare, which began in autumn 1975, awards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The program prepares students to become leaders in the advancement of knowledge in the profession and relevant interdisciplinary domains. Students acquire both the substantive and methodological competence to contribute theoretical formulations and empirical research that inform effective social work practice and advance scholarship in social welfare for the promotion of social justice. Our graduates primarily work in academic and research positions. 

Research and Teaching

In our PhD program, we emphasize preparation for research and teaching roles, including hands-on experience in supervised practica in addition to special training involving expert invited speakers, workshops, and seminars. Our doctoral faculty are ranked among the most productive in the nation and have a high level of grant funding. (Here is a partial listing of School research projects.) In addition to being among the top contributors nationwide to research and scholarship, the School has developed special depth in prevention/intervention research opportunities.  The University of Washington has achieved national recognition for its educational innovations and initiatives for preparing students for teaching roles, and our School participates in many innovative programs to develop teaching skills.

Cohort Size

Cohort sizes are kept small, which allows intense faculty-student interactions and mentoring throughout the various phases of the program and fosters supportive, collaborative relationships among students. As a result, students in our doctoral program enjoy an unusually high rate of completion.

Interdisciplinary Character

One feature of the PhD program is its interdisciplinary character. The program's nationally prominent, multicultural faculty includes scholars with a range of research foci and collaborative ties with other disciplines. In addition to being among the top contributors to research and scholarship, the School's faculty members have developed special depth in prevention research. Faculty research emphasizes prevention and intervention services and encompasses topics related to health/mental health promotion and disparities, aging, child and adolescent services, family-based practice, interpersonal violence, substance abuse, income distribution, and issues related to gender, communities of color (including American Indian and Alaska native health), and gays and lesbians. The program also benefits from being a part of one of the top public research universities in the nation with strong community ties in a diverse metropolitan area.

Plan of Study

Students develop an interdisciplinary plan of study to meet their scholarly and professional goals and complete a portion of their coursework outside the School of Social Work. They are expected to develop a strong theoretical framework for their knowledge-building activities, and they frequently work with faculty in other schools and departments in the University. Students are encouraged to include scholars from other disciplines on their supervisory committees.

The PhD program is constructed so that each student develops a plan of study that focuses on a well-defined substantive area of interest in the field of social welfare. During the first 2 years, the student completes required classes before moving on to a specialized area and set of research objectives anticipated as being the focus of subsequent research priorities. The program of study encompasses substantive work in a field or issue of social welfare, relevant intervention development needs or responses, and appropriate research methodologies, with all aspects integrated through a social justice framework. It involves close working relationships with faculty whose expertise complements the student's learning objectives. Analytical reasoning, sensitivity to diversity factors, and the ability to develop and integrate a theoretical and empirical framework and to articulate social justice learning objectives for one's current and future work are emphasized.

Specific plans for the program of study are outlined in each student’s 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. (For more information, see the Guidelines for Overall Program of Study.)

Research Competence

An expectation common to all students is that they exit the PhD program with substantial research competence. Effectively, this means that in addition to a basic grounding in research and statistical methods, students are expected to acquire specialized competencies in the methodological and advanced data analysis skills necessary for productive scholarship in the substantive area they have chosen. Research training also focuses on social justice aspects of research. (See Guidelines for Research and Teaching Competencies.)

Teaching Skills

In parallel with the research expertise, the program promotes the development of teaching skills. Students participate in required courses on teaching training and acquire the necessary skills to function effectively as classroom teachers and educational leaders. (See Guidelines for Research and Teaching Competencies.) Students are encouraged to seek additional teaching experiences beyond the coursework, and they have opportunities to become teaching assistants and often independent lecturers as they progress through their doctoral studies.


By its very nature, the PhD program requires that students work independently. Although assistance and support from faculty advisors and instructors, staff, and fellow students are readily available, the responsibility to search out opportunities and information and to initiate collaborative relationships with faculty rests primarily with each student. This necessarily requires that the students be proactive in defining their own goals and in achieving appropriate learning experiences that build upon available resources.

Program Completion 

The pace of program completion is a balance of efficiency with academic rigor and excellence. Time to degree varies quite a bit depending upon the type of training sought and the type of dissertation research undertaken. Since 1995, the median time to degree has been five years. 

Financial Support

The preparation of future social work faculty and scholars includes paid assistantships in a variety of teaching and research roles. Our School ensures financial support during the first four years of study by assisting the student in acquiring funding. In each of the first four years, the PhD Program Director and Associate Deans work with students to obtain funding from the School, other University of Washington sources, or external federal and private granting agencies. Multiple means of funding beyond the first four years are common. Students frequently build upon teaching assistantships to take on more autonomous teaching roles, and they are strongly urged to begin efforts to secure dissertation research support early in the program. The School provides staff support to assist students with grant proposals and human subjects applications.

Application & Admissions

Admission is highly selective, and students are admitted only for autumn quarter. Factors considered in admission include aptitude for social welfare research and scholarship as shown by articulation of social welfare research area(s) of concern to the applicant and capacity to undertake such training and research, professional experience, commitment to diversity and social justice, scholastic achievement, and institutional resources available to support the applicant's research. An applicant must have a master's degree in social work, social welfare, or a closely related field.

Although we do not require an MSW degree specifically (many of our students' master's degrees are in other related areas), the Council on Social Work Education requires that faculty who teach required practice courses in accredited programs have an MSW degree and 2 years of practice experience (i.e., CSWE EPAS 3.3.1). Thus, obtaining an MSW and this experience can be valuable for those who ultimately seek academic positions following graduation.