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Dissertation Proposal In Social Work


Students are encouraged to begin thinking about specific areas for scholarly inquiry early in their course of study and to discuss these interests with full time faculty members who have similar interest and expertise. The educational experiences are planned to facilitate the development of skills of intensive investigation and the application of research techniques to clinical phenomenon, process and/or services. 

A dissertation proposal chairperson may be selected as early as the second semester of study. The selection of the Chairperson is normally a matter of mutual agreement between the student and the faculty member involved.  Once the full dissertation committee is agreed upon by Chairperson, student, and the doctoral director, a form available on the Graduate School website on committee selection, should be completed and submitted for the appropriate signatures within the SSW and the Graduate School.  Copies should be placed in the student’s official file within the SSW and the Graduate School.  

The development of the dissertation proposal is a continuous process of focus, modification, and refinement until the proposal is developed to the satisfaction of the student and the Chairperson as advisor. The advisor may help the student explore an appropriate topic and develop a proposal, and/or assist the student in utilizing other faculty members in the development of proposal. Students are encouraged to confer with faculty during every phase of the process.

Proposal Committee

The proposal committee is composed of three faculty members: the Chairperson and two others. Two of the committee members must be on the regular faculty or Emeriti faculty of  Loyola University Chicago. The Chairperson must be on the full-time faculty or Emeriti faculty of the School of Social Work and must have a doctoral degree. The students may request that the third member be appointed from outside the School (from another university department, or from another university). Request for a committee member from outside the School will be evaluated by the Director of the Doctoral Program. Students will have access to consultation from all proposal committee members in the proposal development process. Students may also avail themselves of other consultants with special knowledge or expertise relative to the proposal. The Dissertation Committee must be formally appointed prior to scheduling a Proposal Hearing. 

It will be the responsibility of the student’s Proposal Chairperson, in concert with the student, to determine when a proposal is sufficiently developed for formal review by the committee. The formal Proposal Hearing will involve the committee and student and may be attended by other special consultants as desired by the student and/or Proposal Chairperson. Only three committee members may vote (See Dissertation Proposal Form on the Graduate School website). Three actions are possible: approval, disapproval, or conditional approval based on the decision and recommendations of the committee. The Committee also shall decide whether a second formal hearing is needed.  If conditional approval is given, the student must re-submit the modified proposal in writing to the committee for final approval.   

Function of the Proposal

The preparation of a dissertation proposal is one of the most important aspects of a successful doctoral education experience. It sets the direction and tone for a major research effort and brings together the creative thoughts of the student and advice of the student’s proposal committee. In essence the proposal is a living document – one which evolves, changes and matures through the research, knowledge, development and committee deliberations with the student.  

Part of the objective which a proposal development process enables is the refinement, clarity of focus, scope and feasibility of the eventual dissertation effort. The student must make appropriate use of faculty advisement by regular consultation with his/her Chairperson as advisor and faculty members who become part of the committee. A balanced perspective regarding the research plan should emerge prior to the formal Proposal Hearing.  

Approval of the dissertation proposal implies the consensus has been reached between the committee members and the student concerning the direction, scope and structure of the planned study. In conducting the dissertation effort, new factors invariably unfold which potentially might alter components of the planned dissertation after the proposal has been approved and which must be reviewed and approved by the committee in a systematic process established by the committee chair. Formal notification of an approved proposal and change process shall be done in writing followed the Proposal Hearing.  

It is critical for the student to recognize that no work can be begun on the proposal, even though it has been approved by the Proposal Committee, until it has received the approval of Loyola University’s Institutional review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects. Approval must also be obtained from any other board or committee for oversight of research on human subjects that may apply to the organizations relevant to the particular study. Copies of all completed forms must be on file in the student’s record. (See the Loyola University Institutional Review Board Policies and Forms on the Loyola website)  

General Dissertation Criteria

The following criteria will be applied by members of the Dissertation Proposal Committee in determining acceptability of the document and in granting final approval:

1. Proposals must have as their ultimate objective a contribution to the knowledge of the practice of social work. This objective may be in the advancement of relevant theory, the improvement of practice, the process out outcomes, or synthesis of existing knowledge. 

2. The formulated research question must be based on informed and extensive knowledge of theory and prior empirical study in the specific area of pursuit.  

3. Clear concepts and well articulated research questions must be formulated. 

4. Client systems, other social systems, and social service delivery systems are acceptable foci for subject matter within the context of practice related problems, situations, interactions, processes, and outcomes. 

5. Replication of other studies is acceptable provided theory is advanced by way of its application to practice. This implies thinking though of alternative explanations of prior findings, the formulation of questions and hypotheses which reflect this thinking and the development of designs which take into account the gaps and/or limitations of prior work.   

6. Proposals must include an acceptable plan and methodology of inquiry. No single research methodology is favored or prohibited. The proposed study may be exploratory, experimental or historic in nature. Appropriate guidelines for the collection of data and data analysis must be stated.  

7. Sample size must be appropriate to the nature of the study, the questions asked and methods to be used. Intensive case study (individual, group or family) and single subject approached may be acceptable. However, replication over series of cases may improve the potential for committee approval as a dissertation topic and would provide opportunity for comparative analysis.  

8. When agency accessibility and cooperation is essential to the study, a plan based on preliminary negotiations when attention to feasibility must be presented. 

9. Proposals must accord with the policies and procedures of all relevant review boards for the Protection of Human Subjects.

Components of a Proposal 

The more thought and thoroughness which the student invests in the proposal, the greater will be the likelihood of a successful dissertation project. A well-presented proposal also should contribute to the formulation of the final product, since rationale, literature, question formulation, methodology and plan of an analysis all are essential ingredients of the document.  

The proposal process also established the style of the working relationship between the student and his/her committee. Implicit in this agreement is the commitment of the committee to guide the student and the commitment of the student to following the negotiated protocols on the conducting the dissertation. It is desirable that each of these components be as clear as possible by the time the dissertation proposal is approved. 

The following elements are essential ingredients of the written proposal and thus may serve as general guidelines to the student: 

A. Statement of the Study Issue

Indicate a tentative title for the project and try to state the central focus of the study in as few words as possible. Then clarify and elaborate the issue so that the reader can grasp the subject of the proposed inquiry. This section should include the core statement of the research question or hypothesis.  

B. Rationale

Indicate the basis for your choice of the study issue and discuss its promise for contributing to knowledge likely to be useful to the profession. Specification must be made concerning the significance of this study to clinical social work practice.  

C. Prior Related Work in the Profession

All good research and scholarship starts with a thorough examination of the literature. Attention should be directed to both theoretical material related to the topic as well as to investigations bearing on it. Rather than cataloging the work of others, present your analysis of it. Make clear its scope and limitations for illuminating the issue of concern. This section should specify why this choice of study is pertinent; i.e., the theoretical basis for this study.  

D. Method

This section should include a description of the general plan of the study. The form of the project and the basis for its choice should be stated. For projects emphasizing collection of empirical data, the plan should identify the data source, sampling techniques, and the size of the sample envisioned. The method by which the student expects to secure and analyze the data and the procedure he/she expects to follow in the research should be outlined. For projects not emphasizing the collection of original data, and outline of the proposed course of work should be sampling plan (e.g. are standardized measures to be used or new data collection instruments developed); and what form(s) if analysis will be applied. If human subjects are involved, plans for approval by the Institutional Review Board on Human Subjects must be developed following university guidelines. 

F. Feasibility

It is important to determine whether the student resources needed for the pursuit of a particular dissertation project is readily accessible. The student must be able to point toward possible impediments in the dissertation plan and have alternatives strategies in mind. The student should have adequate faculty support available for consultation and review. In same instances, pilot studies may be advisable in order to refine instruments, test accessibility to give client populations, refine study questions or experiment with analytical procedures. Approval of proposal will depend in part on feasibility. It is recognized that it may not be possible at the time of the hearing to clarify every part of the plan in full. It is useful however, to attempt to specify as much as possible the plan in its entirety on order to identify the aspects of the plan which cannot be specified, the statement of design should indicate the procedure by which clarity about these matters may be achieved.  

Format of Proposal  

The written format of the proposal must conform to the norms of acceptability in scholarly publications. {Recommended: Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Dissertation. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press}. Proposal outlines are found in most research texts. They should be used as guidelines in proposal writing since these organizational formats will not apply to all studies.  

The use of a computer for word processing of dissertation material is required. Students may wish to utilize their personal equipment for this purpose but  also have access to Loyola University Chicago’s resources. 

Completed copies of the proposal must be made available to the Proposal Committee members and participating special consultants at least 10 days prior to the date of the formal proposal hearing. 

Implementation and Completion of Dissertation

The student and his/her Dissertation Committee Chairperson are expected to maintain contact with each other throughout the implementation and completion of the dissertation. While the extent of communication is partially based on the mutual decisions of the individuals involved, decisions relative to the alteration and/or fine tuning of aspects of the research proposal must have the approval of the Chairperson and the committee members. It is therefore, in the student’s best interest to be certain that the Chairperson is fully informed of the developments in the progress of the project and agrees with any of the decisions made regarding the shape of the research.  Ordinarily, at any Proposal Hearing the Committee members agree as to how they will proceed to work with the student and at what point each wishes to be informed. The student should rely on the advice of the chairperson in matters pertaining to the specific involvement of the committee members.  

It is the responsibility of the student to schedule and maintain appointments and the responsibility of the Chairperson to be reasonably accessible and flexible in time commitments. Since it is assumed the Dissertation Committee members are selected on the basis of the substantive contributions they can make, the student should utilize the expertise of the committee members when appropriate.

It is the right of the student to be informed of the expectations of the Dissertation Committee and the evaluation of any work to date. Any student who believes there to be difficulty in communication with his/her Dissertation Committee may petition the Director of the Doctoral Program to call a formal meeting of the Dissertation Committee. Should circumstances necessitate a change in the membership of the Dissertation Committee, the Director of the Doctoral Program will consult with the Chairperson and the student before making any necessary changes.

Dissertation Hearing

It is expected that the Student will work closely with the Chairperson in drafting the report of the completed research. In order to receive acceptance of the final dissertation report, the student must have the approval of the Chairperson and at least one of the other two committee members. The student should work with the Chairperson regarding the manner in which the drafts are shared with the other committee members. 

When the Chairperson is satisfied that a report is reaching a stage at which approval from the Committee is likely, the Chairperson will request the Director of the Doctoral Program to schedule a Dissertation Hearing which will be open to the public and advertised to the students and faculty and the School of Social Work. Following the student’s presentation of an overview of the research project, the committee members will seek any clarification or further information they may require. The audience may also be allowed to ask questions or make comments on the research. The Committee will then take a vote. The Dissertation draft may be rejected, approved in full, or approved upon conditions of satisfactory revisions.  

Dissertations Filing

After the Dissertation Committee has given final approval to the Dissertation, the student must work with the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School to bring the manuscript form into conformance with official specifications and to submit all appropriate abstracts and forms. Students should be aware that they will not be allowed to graduate unless the Assistant Dean is satisfied that they have met all the requirements related to the submissions of the final document.  Again, all instructions related to the number of copies, format, etc. are available on the Graduate School website.

The Dissertation

The research question for the student’s doctoral dissertation shall derive from the student’s focus area and have significance for social work theory, practice, policy or administration. Information on various aspects of the dissertation follows.

Useful dissertation resources are available online at: http://www.grad.illinois.edu/thesis

Dissertation Proposal Guidelines

The dissertation proposal is the product of a careful and searching inquiry into a significant problem or question in the field of social work.  The proposal will be a cogently argued description of the proposed research study, its rationale, and its significance.  It includes a description of the study questions or hypotheses as well as a feasible plan for the research.  In situations where agency cooperation is required, negotiations with participating agencies should have begun.  All proposals must abide by University IRB guidelines.

Criteria for Evaluation of a Dissertation Proposal

  1. A question must fall within the area of social welfare, have significance for the field, and not have been satisfactorily resolved by existing knowledge.
  2. The proposed investigation must be feasible with respect to the candidate’s qualifications to complete the investigation as well as the resources available. This includes the necessary clearances to access data, protection of human subjects, a reasonable time table and available resources to conduct the study.


Specific Guidelines on Developing Dissertation Proposal

Preliminary Dissertation Exam Procedures

The student should work with their advisor and committee to determine an exam date that will work with all member schedules.  Once the date has been set, the student should reach out to the Admission and Records Officer to complete the request for committee assignment and reserve a room for the hearing.  The request for committee assignment form needs to be submitted to the Admissions and Records Officer at least two weeks prior to the hearing.  The Admissions and Records Officer will request the Graduate College Appointment of Doctoral Dissertation Committee form and will give this document to the Advisor the day of the hearing. Notification regarding the hearing will be sent out on the Faculty and PhD student listservs 1 week prior to the hearing and the day prior to the hearing.  The dissertation proposal must be circulated to the preliminary committee at least 10 working days prior to the hearing.  Students must be enrolled during the semester they complete their preliminary exam.

Preliminary Exam/Hearing

Except for time set aside for committee deliberation, the dissertation preliminary exam is a public hearing. The hearing has two objectives: to examine the candidate’s knowledge of the supporting literature and research methodology, and to contribute to the intellectual and educational climate of the School.

Preliminary hearings begin with the student making a brief (20-25 minute) presentation of the research plan. This presentation is a summary of the proposal. Committee members then question the candidate. Upon completion of committee questioning, non-members of the committee are invited to participate/ask questions. Upon completion of the discussion as determined by the chair, the candidate and the non-committee members present are asked to leave for the committee to deliberate.

The committee has the following choices:

  1. Pass: The candidate may proceed with the dissertation.
  2. Fail: The student may be granted another opportunity to take the examination after completing additional work. The chair will inform the Graduate College if the student should be given a second examination.
  3. Decision Deferred: If this option is chosen:
    • The same committee must re-examine the student,
    • The second exam must occur within 180 calendar days of the date of first exam, and
    • The outcome of the second exam must be pass or fail

The committee must render a unanimous decision and sign the Certificate of Result. Upon completion of the deliberations the candidate is invited back into the room and told of the committee’s action. The committee chair is responsible for turning in the Certificate of Result of Preliminary Examination for the Doctoral Degree to the Admissions and Records Supervisor to be filed in the student’s record and the original sent to the Graduate College. The Dean of the Graduate College shall notify the student in writing of the official outcome of the examination after it has been received and recorded by the Graduate College.

Final Dissertation Defense

The procedure to arrange the final dissertation defense is the same as for preliminary exam. The composition of the final doctoral committee need not be identical to the preliminary examining committee. However, only in unusual circumstances will the composition of these committees differ. The final doctoral committee is responsible for final examination and approval of the student’s dissertation. The final doctoral committee is appointed in the same manner as the preliminary committee. The students must be enrolled during the term in which they take their Final Examination.

  1. The completed dissertation must be submitted to committee members at least 10 days prior to the final examination.
  2. The dissertation must follow the APA editorial style and Graduate College guidelines (in writing the dissertation), free of typographical and spelling errors, and grammatically correct. To facilitate writing the dissertation in compliance with APA editorial style, students are encouraged to use this style in writing all scholarly papers prior to writing the dissertation. The chair of the dissertation committee has the right to refuse any copy that does not meet these requirements and hence to postpone the hearing.
  3. The defense is handled in the same manner as the preliminary hearing. Questions are normally restricted to the findings and analysis, because questions of design are handled at the proposal hearing prior to the beginning of the research.
  4. The committee has the following choices
    1. Pass
      A. Satisfactory
      B. Satisfactory pending revision
    2. Fail
      A. The student may be granted another opportunity to take the examination after completing additional work. The student may be granted another opportunity to take the examination after completing additional work.

B. The student may not be granted another opportunity.

Composition of Doctoral Committees

The Dean of the Graduate College shall appoint voting members of doctoral committees, upon recommendation of the executive officer of the student’s unit. Upon unit request, the Dean may also appoint non-voting members of doctoral committees, such as an external reader, a faculty member who is on leave off campus, or others who have made a significant contribution to the dissertation but who cannot be present at the examination.

  1. The committee shall consist of a minimum of four voting members, three of whom must be members of the graduate faculty of the UIUC and two of whom must be tenured. One voting member must come from outside the department.
  2. The chair of the committee must be a member of the graduate faculty and a tenure track faculty of the School of Social Work; this includes a member on leave or on zero-time appointment. Committee chairs are typically tenured and/or have had experience directing dissertation research in the past.  A faculty member who resigns or retires from the University is automatically terminated from membership in the graduate faculty unless the unit asks that the faculty member continue for a specific period of time. Emeriti faculty who have been awarded continuing membership on the graduate faculty may chair committees. Co-chairs and co-directors of research may be appointed.
  3. A person who is not a member of the graduate faculty, but who is especially qualified to participate in an examination, may be appointed a voting member of the committee. A brief description of qualifications should be stated on the Request for Appointment of Doctoral Examination Committee. The Graduate College does not defray expenses for committee members to be present at the examination.
  4. All members of a committee need not be present in person at an examination. However, the committee chair, student, and at least one additional voting member of the committee must be physically present for the entire duration of all oral components of the prelim and final examinations. If the committee has more than one chair, all chairs must be physically present; in these cases, no additional voting member is required to be physically present. If not present, committee members must participate in the examination via an appropriate electronic communication technology. Preliminary and final examination committees need not have the same membership or chair.

Procedure of Dissertation Format Check

When you provide your dissertation to your committee for your final dissertation defense, you should give a hard copy to the Admissions & Records Supervisor to have your format checked. You can then incorporate format changes with your final revisions. Once that is completed you will return the dissertation to the Admissions & Records Supervisor for one more final format check. It is recommended that you meet with the Admissions & Records Supervisor in person to discuss her feedback if necessary. Please submit your final draft to the Admissions & Records Supervisor at least 10 working days before the dissertation deposit deadline. Please provide your UIN for dissertation approval.

Students who choose not to deposit their dissertation for a period of time after completion of their final defense must have their dissertation completed with revisions and format changes while still on campus. Once this is done and you are ready to deposit you may send an email to the Admissions & Records Supervisor with your UIN for your dissertation to be approved with the Graduate College.

The School does not provide editing.

Campus Requirements for Dissertation Format

An abstract is required with the title of ABSTRACT.

Please use all capitals and bold for major headings, e.g. ABSTRACT, ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, TABLE OF CONTENTS, CHAPTER HEADINGS, etc. Subheadings should be in upper and lower case. All chapters must say CHAPTER 1, etc.; single space and then the next line should be the title of the chapter. Center all chapter headings; multiple line headings need to be single spaced. Use bold, italics or underlines for subheadings. These need to be easily seen on the page. Do not center all of your subheadings.

The title “TABLE OF CONTENTS” should be in bold print, but no other bold lines, italics or underlining should appear on the table of contents. If there are two lines to a heading, single space and line up the second line of text with the first word of the heading; make sure the first line does not overlap the page numbers. Main level headings from within chapters should be listed in the Table of Contents, do not include lower level headings in the Table of Contents (per Grad College request). Please use this format CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION on the Table of Contents only.

The list of References should start on a new page using the heading of REFERENCES. Please make sure references are single-spaced and double-spaced between and that you do not split the reference citation on separate pages: if some of the lines automatically roll to the next page you must force the rest of the citation to that page with a page break. All line spacing needs to be consistent throughout the dissertation

Social Work Abstracts

Students are encouraged to prepare an abstract of their dissertation for Social Work Abstracts. You may obtain the necessary forms from the PhD Program Director.

School Requirements for Depositing a Dissertation

Follow the Graduate College guidelines thoroughly when formatting. Your dissertation must be complete (meaning that it should include your table of contents, etc.) before it will be checked. Turn in your dissertation to the Admissions and Records Supervisor at least 7 days prior to the Graduate College semester deadline to be reviewed.  You need not have all of your revisions from your final committee completed to have the format checked.

Three Article Dissertation Option

PhD students also have the option of completing a three-article dissertation in lieu of the traditional dissertation. Guidelines for completing a three-article dissertation are provided below:

  1. The dissertation should be comprised of a minimum of three articles. The articles should form a cohesive body of work that supports a theme or themes that are expressed clearly in the introduction of the dissertation (Chapter 1). The need for three articles (as opposed to just two) should be clear and approved by the dissertation committee, and not merely represent minor tweaks of a work that would be more appropriately reported in just one or two articles.
  2. A maximum of one article published or accepted for publication prior to the proposal defense may be included. This article must represent work undertaken while the student is enrolled in the PhD program and be approved by the committee at the time of the student’s proposal defense. This article must be connected to the theme or themes of the dissertation. If a previously published article is approved by the committee, the student will be responsible for securing necessary permissions from the copyright holder and other authors.
  3. It is expected that the three articles submitted for the defense are of publishable quality. Articles may have been published before the defense. However; if so, the student must obtain copyright permission from the publishing journal to include the article in his/her dissertation. Doing so is required by U.S law. When asking for permission to include the article in the dissertation, students should notify the journal editor that the dissertation will be made available on-line.
  4. At least two of the articles should be based on data that are analyzed by the student. If the third article is conceptual in nature, or based on a synthesis of the literature, it must be connected to the theme or themes of the dissertation without overlapping heavily with the contents of either article. Whether the extent of any overlap is excessive will be determined by the student’s dissertation committee.
  5. A certain amount of overlap is acceptable. For example, portions of the literature review may need to be cited in the various articles because it delineates the entire historical background of the study’s focal topic. Redundancy can be carefully reduced by citing one’s own work. However, self-plagiarism – reusing one’s own previously written work or data in a ‘new’ written product without letting the reader know that this material has appeared elsewhere – is prohibited.
  6. Journals to which articles are being submitted prior to a successful dissertation defense must be approved by the dissertation committee. Serving as an “editorial board” for the student, the committee will help select journals that will challenge the student and offer a reasonable chance of publication success.
  7. Students must be first author on all articles. As first authors, students are responsible for development and articulation of a concept or idea for research, development of a proposal to pursue this idea, development of a research design, conducting research and analysis, writing major portions of a manuscript, designing an intervention or assessment (if relevant), and interpreting results. No other students can be co-authors on any of the articles. The student may identify dissertation committee members who have made a significant contribution as co-authors on specific articles. Co-authors must be identified at the student’s proposal defense. The article and the role of the co-authors must be presented and approved by all members of the dissertation committee. Any changes in co-authorship must be approved by the student’s committee.
  8. If an article is rejected by a journal during the dissertation process, the student may submit to another journal approved by the dissertation committee. In the case of a revise and resubmit during the dissertation process, any changes to the article must be approved by the dissertation committee. Co-authorship will not be changed for a revise and resubmit.
  9. If an article is rejected by a journal after the successful completion and defense of the dissertation, co-authorship decisions that were made during the dissertation process will no longer be in effect. Submission to a new journal will be at the sole discretion of the PhD graduate. Also after the successful dissertation defense, any new submission or re- submission, including changes in the authorship or article content, will be at the discretion of the PhD graduate.
  10. If the journal reviewers suggest modifications to any of the 3 submitted manuscripts prior to the dissertation defense, your plan for addressing those suggestions should be shared with your dissertation committee members and approved by all of them before you enact the changes. Changes can be made to any of the 3 manuscripts provided that the dissertation committee members are aware of and agree to the changes being made and their rationale. Students may opt to defer changes requested by a journal to which they have submitted an article until their dissertation has been successfully defended.
  11. The dissertation must adhere to an outline approved by the dissertation committee. The outline must include the function of each presented section. Alterations to the outline must be submitted to and approved by the dissertation committee.
  12. Copyright issues frequently arise with previously published material. The students need to obtain permission to duplicate copyrighted material (and, possible, multiple author releases). Students should check with the Graduate College to make sure they are in compliance with University dissertation guidelines and copyright regulations (http://www.grad.illinois.edu/thesis/faq).
  13. Students must submit their manuscripts at least 2-3 weeks prior to the defense for a preliminary review.
  14. Students should decide as early as possible, in concert with their dissertation chair, whether to pursue the 3-disseration format. However, they may switch from one format to the other at any time provided that their dissertation committee approves the switch.

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