Qualifying Exam and Paper

Research Qualifying Examination

The research qualifying exam is taken after the student has completed at least 32 hours of academic credit beyond the master’s degree and has a 3.0 GPA (B) or higher. The exam is offered in the Fall and Spring semester. After completing 32 hours, students must take the qualifying exams within one calendar year. If a student fails the exam, it must be retaken and passed within six months. The exam will encompass several areas central to social work research: philosophy of science, design, methods, analysis, and application.

Examination questions are developed by three or four faculty members. These faculty members include two members from the PhD committee, and the other members will be rotated among faculty who are outside PhD committee. The examination is written and is in take-home format. Students have up to 3 days to complete the examination. The student’s printed answers, as well as a Word file, will be turned in at the end of the examination.

Examinations are graded by the three faculty members who develop the exams. Answers are judged on the basis of factual accuracy, knowledge and integration of professional literature, success in applying theory to professional situations, and in developing and substantiating positions on issues. The level of performance expected is higher than that of course work. Results of the examination usually will be available within 30 days.

Qualifying Paper

After passing the qualifying exam and completing required course work, students begin work on their qualifying paper. In this paper students critically review literature addressing an issue in their focus area. The qualifying paper is intended for the students to demonstrate familiarity with practice theories, intervention research and policies associated with their focus area.  Passing the qualifying paper demonstrates that they have achieved a level of knowledge sufficient to begin the dissertation stage.

Process/Time Line

Once a student has discussed their topic with their advisor they meet with the PhD Program Director to approve their topic and to review the procedures. The student and his/her advisor, in consultation with the PhD Program Director, identify three professors to be the qualifying paper graders. At least two graders must be members of the School of Social Work’s graduate faculty. The third grader may be either a professor from another department/college or a member of the Social Work graduate faculty. If the third grader is from outside the School of Social Work and they should be experts in the student’s focus area. In selecting social work professors, students are advised to select one with expertise in policy implications and one with expertise in practice implications. These faculty members may go on to be a part of the students’ dissertation committee, which allows the qualifying paper to serve as a bridge into the dissertation. However, this is not required.

The student then meets with each professor to secure their agreement to participate. If one of the proposed graders declines the student must seek approval from the PhD Director for another potential grader. Once all three graders have been approved and agree to serve the student presents their graders with a reference list and an outline to be used in developing their paper. Graders may make recommendations on additional literature to review and issues to consider. Students then complete their qualifying paper and submit the final product to each professor for grading.


Students are expected to take up to, but no more than, one semester to complete their qualifying paper. Papers may vary from 25-30 pages, not including references. The goal is to develop this as conceptual paper that could be publishable. All papers must contain a critical discussion of practice theory and empirical research from their focus area. It is expected that papers critically discuss multiple theoretical perspectives, a variety of methodological approaches and important findings from existing intervention research in the area.  Papers must contain sections elaborating the implications of this scholarship to social work practice and to social work policy. Intervention and policy sections should contain a critical discussion of relevant social work scholarship. Issues to be addressed include: specific implications of scholarship for social work interventions and policies, how particular policies have supported or obstructed particular interventions, and how beliefs about certain kinds of interventions have informed policy decisions.


All 3 qualifying paper graders read and evaluate the paper. They grade the paper as either “pass” or “fail”. A passing grade indicates the paper has met the criteria stated above and displays the student’s readiness to begin the dissertation proposal process. Graders are expected to notify the PhD Program Director of their grading decision within 3 weeks of when the student submits the paper. To pass the qualifying paper, all three graders must judge the paper as a “pass.” Should one of more grader judge the paper as a “fail,” then the student may consult with that professor(s) and submit one revision. If one or more professors still judge the paper as a “fail,” the student may appeal to the PhD committee or choose to discontinue the PhD program. If a student’s appeal is denied by the PhD committee they will be dismissed from the PhD program.