Virginia Commonwealth University

Ph.D. Program

About the Dissertation


After admission to candidacy, students will proceed to propose, complete and defend their dissertation. Students are required to maintain continuous enrollment (summer semesters excluded) in SWKD 898 Dissertation Research until completion of the dissertation requirement. A minimum of three credit hours per semester are required until 12 credits are accumulated, after which only one credit per semester is required. The dissertation must represent independent research, and should be based on an original research question or hypothesis. All students should be familiar with the VCU Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines prior to beginning work on their dissertation.

» View Dissertations completed in 1982-2010

Dissertation Committee

Upon successful completion of the Comprehensive Exams, the student will submit his/her Dissertation Committee nominations in writing to the Program Director. Typically, the student chooses a chair first and works with her/him to choose the additional members based on faculty expertise, or previous association or collaboration. Student nominations should include a brief rationale for the selection of each faculty member. Dissertation committees consist of a minimum of four (but not more than five) graduate faculty members. The dissertation chair must be a member of the faculty of the School of Social Work and have previously served as a member on at least one School of Social Work dissertation committee. At least one member of the Dissertation Committee must be a graduate faculty member from a department other than the School of Social Work however the majority of the committee must be comprised of School of Social Work faculty members. Some students elect to appoint Ph.D. scholars and practitioners from outside the university with permission. In these cases, a letter of explanation and a copy of the person’s vita is required. The Program Director clears such appointments with Graduate Studies and provides written approval of the Dissertation Committee’s appointment.

Dissertation Standards

Generally, all dissertations will demonstrate the student’s ability to conduct empirical research, adhering to canons of (1) logic in conceptualization and design, (2) valid and reliable/trustworthy measurement, (3) appropriate analytic techniques, and (4) appropriate interpretation of results. Dissertation studies should be based on or draw from a formal theoretical or conceptually explicit framework for investigating a question or testing a hypothesis relevant to the human service field.

Dissertation Proposal

A dissertation proposal must be developed and submitted to the Dissertation Committee. The proposal defines the problem to be studied and justifies the choice of subject and its relevance with respect to the student’s program. It should contain an overview of the literature (current state of knowledge in the area), the research question(s), the proposed methodology, and a data analysis plan. In general, the proposal should be long enough to clearly indicate what the student plans to study, including rationale and procedure, but not so exhaustive as to preclude the possibility and/or necessity of submitting a series of proposals or proposal revisions prior to gaining Committee approval to proceed.

Following a successful formal defense of the proposal with the student’s committee, all members of the committee must sign the Dissertation Proposal Approval. Prior to the proposal defense date, the Program Assistant will prepare the Ph.D. Program in Social Work Dissertation Proposal Approval Form and submit to the chair of the committee. The chair must provide copies of the signed approval form to the student and the Program Director.

Typically the student then moves toward completion and submission of all necessary forms to the VCU Committee on the Conduct of Human Research immediately following the dissertation proposal.

Dissertation Grading

At the beginning of each semester in which the student is registered for any number of dissertation credits, he or she, in collaboration with his/her respective adviser formulates a plan and develops a timeline for making substantial progress toward completion of the dissertation. Dissertation work is graded each semester by the student’s adviser, who is the dissertation chair if the committee has been formally appointed. An “S” is assigned if the student substantially fulfills the commitments reflected in the semester’s planned timeline. A “U” means the student has not satisfied those objectives in some way. If a student in the doctoral program receives a grade of “U” for dissertation research (SWKD 898) two consecutive semesters or accumulates three “U’s” non-consecutively, the student is immediately terminated from the program. An “F” is assigned in cases where work on the dissertation or collaboration with the adviser is abandoned. A student earning this grade is immediately terminated from the program per university policy.

The Ph.D. Program Flowchart [PDF] outlines important milestones in the dissertation process which might represent “substantial progress.” These include submission of nominations for committee membership to the Ph.D. program director (expected to occur within three to six months of admission into candidacy), the submission of drafts of certain chapters to the dissertation chair or members of the committee, the submission of a proposal to the dissertation chair and/or committee members, and/or defense of a completed proposal (expected to occur within a year and a half of admission to candidacy), submission of forms to the VCU Office for the Protection of Research Subjects, or setting an oral defense date for the dissertation (expected to occur within two to three years of admission to candidacy).

Dissertation and Final Defense

Once the proposal is approved, the chair and committee establish procedures for the review of subsequent material submitted by the student. Various options are possible, ranging from a central role for the chair in reviewing material and working with the student on revisions prior to forwarding to the rest of the committee, to full committee participation and feedback in reviewing every chapter of the dissertation as it is written.

The dissertation must be in the format specified in the VCU Thesis and Dissertation Guidelines. When the final draft has been submitted and reviewed by the committee, the committee will plan with the student for the final oral defense of the dissertation. The defense is usually scheduled for two hours. All members of the school faculty, doctoral students and VCU graduate faculty are invited to attend. Questioning is generally limited to the dissertation topic and research.

Beginning in 2009, only electronic media storage of dissertations is required by the university.  However, while the university no longer requires bound dissertation volumes, the School of Social Work requires the student to provide one bound copy for the school at his/her expense. 

>> Also view the VCU Libraries thesis and dissertation information

Prior to the defense date, the Ph.D. program assistant will prepare and submit two copies of the VCU Approval Form for Thesis/Dissertation and Final Oral Examination Form to the chair of the committee. The dissertation committee members, program director and the dean of the School of Social Work sign the form after the successful defense of the dissertation. The doctoral candidate is responsible for obtaining the signature of the dean of the Graduate School. The required forms, with signatures affixed, must be submitted with the dissertation to James Branch Cabell Library for electronic media storage. The student is required to provide one bound copy of the dissertation to the School of Social Work. A list of commercial binders is provided on the Graduate School website. Submit the signature forms and dissertation to the binding company of your choice for processing.

In order to assist with the school’s Ph.D. Program assessment and evaluation plan, students must also submit a Dissertation Completion Form to the Ph.D. program director. The program director’s signature on the dissertation is contingent upon receipt of the responses to six questions that connect the completion of the project to the program’s six learning objectives.

Many of the steps toward dissertation defense and graduation occur simultaneously. It is incumbent upon the student to review and become familiar with the dissertation and graduation requirements and the pertinent due dates set forth by the school and the university.