Comprehensive Examination

Prior to admission to candidacy, each student must pass a comprehensive examination that demonstrates mastery of the theory and research for the broad subject area in which the student proposes to conduct his or her dissertation research. The comprehensive exam has both a written and an oral component, supervised by three members, two of whom must be faculty on the graduate studies committee of the School of Social Work.

The comprehensive examination is designed to measure each student’s ability to conceptualize, critically analyze, and present knowledge in an organized and cogent manner. The examination requires students to demonstrate competence in the integration, synthesis, and application of social work theory and research methods drawn from course materials and independent readings.

Once a student has selected a proposed field of research for the dissertation (e.g. child welfare, mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, etc.) and has begun taking electives as foundation for research in that specialization area (typically in the third semester), the student submits a written proposal to the assistant dean for doctoral education that identifies the broad, proposed subject area of the dissertation research and a proposed supervisor. The student in consultation with the chair will determine the additional committee members. The supervisor (must be either a full professor or an associate professor) and one committee member must be members of the program’s Graduate Studies Committee (GSC). The third committee member may be a member of the GSC or may be a social science faculty member (includes tenured and tenure-track faculty, research faculty, and research scientists employed by The University of Texas at Austin) who brings content experience. All committee members must have obtained a PhD or equivalent degree. Students are advised to discuss the selection of the two members with their chair prior to any discussion with potential members. The committee chair must approve the selection of research faculty, research scientists, or tenure track faculty from other departments prior to contact by the student. The comprehensive examination structure and/or outline will be approved by the student’s comprehensive examination chair during the semester in which the student is enrolled in the comprehensive examination course.

The student prepares a proposed reading list that encompasses materials on the theory, research, and research methodology that addresses the major themes in the proposed area of research. When the student has prepared a proposed reading list, an initial meeting of the supervising committee is convened by the committee supervisor to review, modify, and approve the scope of the reading list, and to set the timetable for completing the paper.

Following committee approval, the student prepares a substantial integrative paper (75-100 pages) that synthesizes and critically analyzes the literature pertinent to the specialization area, summarizes the literature reviewed, identifies gaps in the research, and proposes research strategies that respond to these gaps. The integrative paper is expected to be a resource for the literature review in the dissertation, but it should not be equated with the literature review.

Students submit their paper to committee members and the oral defense is scheduled when each committee member reports to the chair that the written paper satisfies expectations. In consultation with the supervisor, the student will be responsible for negotiating a time and place for the oral defense.

In the oral defense the student should be prepared to answer questions about the integration of the theory, research, policy, and methodological issues in the specialization area and the implications for future research, practice, and education. The committee will not provide the student with a list of questions prior to the defense, but the student should be prepared to address key theoretical issues and controversies in the specialization area, discuss and critique research methodologies utilized in the specialization area, propose alternative research strategies that might yield more beneficial results, and address the pragmatic issues that would be involved in implementing the alternative research strategies. Committee members may also raise questions that focus on areas in the paper that are unclear, require further elaboration, or are otherwise of concern.

At the completion of the oral exam, the student is excused so the committee can deliberate to reach consensus on the student’s mastery of the substantive area and demonstrated preparation for dissertation research. If performance on either the written or oral exam is judged to be deficient, the student has one additional opportunity to redo the paper and repeat the oral defense. It is the student’s responsibility to remedy the deficiencies in the written paper which may include elaboration of topics or the addition of materials related to the specialization area. Questions in a repeated oral defense are not limited to questions and issues raised in the initial defense.

When the committee has approved the written paper and oral defense, the committee will recommend to the PhD committee whether the student should be advanced to candidacy. When the PhD committee has approved this recommendation, the student will complete the requirements for application to candidacy for the School of Social Work and the Graduate School.