Deep Impact

SSA’s doctoral students are producing rigorous, original research—just like graduates have been doing for nearly 100 years.

By Ed Finkel

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


When should social workers protect clients from themselves, despite the usual orientation toward encouraging self-determination? How should social service agencies allocate limited funds—first come first served, or by a random lottery? Under what circumstances should social workers disclose confidential information without client consent?

Man teaching


SSA's doctoral program is considered the first and oldest social work Ph.D. program in the country. This article explores how the program supports students to produce rigorous, original research in a wide array of topics. Graduates of the doctoral program are leaders at social work schools, in social welfare systems and programs in countries around the world, and at federal and state social welfare programs. Current students are working on studies as varied as the experience of seniors who are exploring transgender issues, how adults who were in the foster care system are experiencing the notion of family permanence, how mental health workers make clinical decisions regarding children and youth, and cross-cultural relationships among African-American and Latino teens in high school.


The field of social work had no practical method of identifying or discussing such ethical and philosophical questions before Frederic Reamer, Ph.D. ’78, began exploring them as an SSA doctoral student in the mid-1970s. In addition to his doctoral coursework at SSA, he spent considerable time north of Midway Plaisance at the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy, examining how the writings of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Aristotle could integrate into social work.

“I was grappling with these very complicated moral issues that I wanted to know more about,” says Reamer, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College for the past three decades. “There was no template for this, though. It’s not unusual for an SSA student to take coursework in other disciplines, but philosophy isn’t usually one of them!”

In addition to expertise in the criminal justice system, Reamer, who received SSA’s Abbott Award as a distinguished alumni in 2005, has become a leading scholar around the study and codification of professional ethics in social work. He has written several books on the topic and chaired the national taskforce that wrote the current Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, for which he was recognized with NASW’s Presidential Award in 1997 and NASW’s International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award in 2012.

Reamer’s story is one among many from SSA’s doctoral program, which, with its launch in 1920, is considered the first and oldest social work Ph.D. program in the country. Leaders in the field holding an SSA Ph.D. include deans of social work schools, scholars who produce landmark research and teach future generations of social workers, advisers to the creation of social welfare systems in countries around the world, and architects of federal and state programs. For all, the School provided support and intense instruction to produce original, rigorous research.

Sydney Hans, SSA’s Samuel Deutsch Professor and director of the Ph.D. program, says that, like for Reamer, today’s doctoral students have the opportunity to reach wide in their studies, both in the topics they select and the research methodology they use. “Our students, many of them, are pursuing highly original ideas that come from their own practice experience. It’s a hallmark of the School,” Hans says. “We have traditions and a rich history, but the kinds of things students are studying are really looking toward the next generation of research.”

For example, Vanessa Fabbre’s research on transgender issues and aging brings together two worlds that typically are separate. Like Reamer 35 years ago, she has found very little in the literature on her topic. “I’m looking at the meaning of time left to live in people’s lives, and how existential questions of time have unique meaning for LGBT people in terms of living an authentic life,” she says. “Part of my broad purpose is to explore cultural myths about older adults, that they don’t change.”

Fabbre’s dissertation critiques notions of “successful aging” in America and Western Europe for having overly heteronormative assumptions. For her research, she conducted more than 20 interviews with people ages 50 to 82 who have made or are considering a gender transition, as well as 170 hours of participant observation. “The people I interviewed have often struggled for decades to come to terms with society’s expectations,” she says.

Although her subject didn’t match the expertise of any one faculty member, Fabbre says she found a connection on larger questions of identity with her advisor, Associate Professor Gina Samuels, who has studied issues around trans-racial adoptions. “It’s been really wonderful,” Fabbre says. “I’m not studying a major trend. I’m studying people whose experiences have not been theorized yet. That’s why I came to the Ph.D. program at SSA. No one here does exactly what I wanted to do. I have to be the expert on my topic. But I find that the faculty push me really hard, theoretically and methodologically.”

SSA’s doctoral program started as an outgrowth of its mission to not only train social workers, but also to build the intellectual and scholarly infrastructure for the profession. “Early faculty were political scientists, economists, even lawyers,” Hans says. “The first people in the country who were scholars in social welfare and social work came from our school.”

The first generation of SSA’s doctoral program graduates had an outsized impact on the academic field of social work. One-third went on to become deans or directors of social work schools or related types of programs, including the founding deans at many of the major schools of social work across the U.S.

That tradition continues. Lynn Videka, A.M. ’76, Ph.D. ’81, took her SSA Ph.D. to State University of New York-Albany, where she rose to become the SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, dean of the School of Social Work and campus vice president for research. For the past four years, she has served as dean of the New York University’s Silver School of Social Work.

“Thirty-five years later, it still is one of the best choices in my life,” Videka says of coming to SSA. “It has laid a perfect foundation for the exciting and interesting career I have had. The cutting-edge education in the doctoral program—in research and especially intervention research—coupled with the interdisciplinary study opportunity at the broader university, have positioned me to have very many strengths and opportunities in my career.”

Professor Mark Courtney, who teaches a course at SSA in the history of social work, says the School began as a “knowledge generation institution,” and that early leaders saw a Ph.D. program as part and parcel of that concept. “SSA has had people over the years who were intellectual leaders in thinking about what the social work profession ought to be about,” he says, “thought leaders in how social workers should do things differently from other ‘helping professions.’”

SSA has historically engaged students in debates about how best to define the true nature of social work, Courtney says. “Some schools, rather than engage directly with that in their doctoral programs, take that as a given,” he says. “Our students are immersed right off the bat in the historical debates in the profession, going back to the days of Mary Richmond and Jane Addams.”

Over the decades, another hallmark of SSA’s program has been to encourage connections with other areas of social science through interdisciplinary collaborations. “What is distinctive about our doctoral program is that we expect our Ph.D. students to become not only top researchers, but social scientists,” Hans says. “Our students are aware of and deeply immersed in the scholarly literature in basic social and behavioral sciences—sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, psychology. Their work, although applied to important topics in social work and social welfare, is synergistic with those fields.”

Videka, for example, took quantitative courses in the Department of Behavioral Sciences with professors like Mort Lieberman, who was conducting an NIH-funded research project on the role of self-help peer groups in aiding the grieving process. When she wrote her dissertation, Videka contributed a component to that study. “My interests were more in micro-level social work,” she says. “It was the perfect blend of interdisciplinary perspective, bringing the social work issues and social work conceptualizations. [The project] also fortified the second theme in my research interests, on the effectiveness of social integration.”

The ease with which students can engage with scholars in other schools and disciplines at the University of Chicago remains an enticement to doctoral students. Alfred Pérez, a doctoral student who is studying issues around the idea of permanence in the child welfare system— when a youth in foster care is adopted, placed in a subsidized guardianship or returns to his or her biological family—has taken classes at the University of Chicago Law School and the Harris School of Public Policy, for instance, while working with mentor Associate Professor Julia Henly at SSA.

Although the literature has said much over the years about youth in foster care who don’t achieve permanence, very little is known about those who are adopted because then “it becomes a private matter,” Pérez says. In talking with Henly, “I came up with the idea of flipping the script and asking what happened to kids who achieved permanence,” he says. “Whenever I talk to child welfare professionals about what I’m doing, they say, ‘That makes so much sense. Why hasn’t anyone done it that way before?’” His courses at other schools have provided “different entry points into a topic I know well,” Pérez adds.

Pérez has interviewed 31 former foster youth in Illinois ages 21 to 32 who achieved permanence on average about a decade ago to explore how their experience aligns with policy assumptions. About one-third were formally adopted, one-third placed in subsidized guardianship and one-third placed with relatives. He has found that while “permanence” endures, in a general sense, it’s not typically with the legal families the child welfare system creates but rather biological families, peers and mentors.

This line of research has taken Pérez in a somewhat unexpected direction. “I didn’t come to SSA to study permanence; I came to SSA to study youth who age out of foster care,” he says. But Henly and other faculty have created an intellectual hothouse for him. “It’s like an incubator; they’re the best thinkers in the world. It doesn’t matter if they’re an expert in your topic,” he says. “They will ask you a question that will give you different insights and a different way of thinking.”

When Yvonne Smith worked as a dormitory counselor in a residential treatment center, she thought about how the day-to-day knowledge of her co-workers was connected to ideas that were coming from the academy. Smith, who defended her dissertation this fall and has a faculty position lined up as an assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Social Work, undertook a 13-month ethnographic study at a residential treatment center to examine how mental health workers make clinical decisions regarding children and youth.

Like Smith, many of those who enroll in the SSA doctoral program have years of experience and desire to address questions or find solutions for dilemmas they have encountered in professional practice. “Many of our students come with ideas of their own that require them to launch out and pursue their own topics, that they really care passionately about, even if it’s not something one of our faculty is studying,” Hans notes. “We expect our students to have ideas, even as young scholars. Our role as faculty is to support them in investigating those ideas.”

Smith’s research reflects an anthropological orientation toward social work, which she shares with mentor, Associate Professor E. Summerson Carr, who is trained as both an anthropologist and a social worker. “It was an interesting apprenticeship process, to learn how to write in this way, how to analyze this data,” Smith says. “Spending more than a year doing an ethnographic study is not the most expedient way to get your Ph.D., but it was really, really what I wanted to do. I received a great deal of support and guidance in pursuing an unusual, interdisciplinary project.”

Smith found that workers are always learning on the job and that part of what makes front-line workers good is what they called natural, unlearned “common sense.” “In academic writing, ‘common sense’ is a very devalued concept, the enemy that we’re working against,” she says. “But it became clear to me that what [the workers] meant by common sense was really the local knowledge they accumulated on the job—site-specific knowledge. For me, that may be the finding I’m most excited about in my dissertation research.”

Smith also found that informal group collaborations in settings like the break room often can be valuable in working through hypotheses about a child’s behavior, which is “a very different process than we normally think about. It’s collaborative between multiple workers, not just between client and worker.”

Entering SSA’s doctoral program, Robert Eschmann knew he wanted to write about inter-group contact among adolescents. The issue of cross-cultural relationships among youth is nothing new to the social work literature, although in the past it’s almost always measured the effects on prejudices among white youth. Eschmann’s research is focused on integrated African-American and Latino high schools in Chicago populated by students whose grammar schools were mostly monolithic.

“I want to see how school structures shape that group dynamic: Is there something schools can do to facilitate positive relations, or are there school structures that engender conflict?” says Eschmann, who will begin his doctoral research in earnest this year. “What I’m trying to do is understand the social meaning of race in schools, without ‘white’ being the reference group. In a school district that’s more than 80 percent black and Latino, our theory hasn’t caught up to the changing demographics in cities.”

Eschmann plans to combine quantitative analysis of Chicago Public Schools data with qualitative insights from interviews in three to five schools, heavily focused on students but also including some staff. He says the mentorship of Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Charles Payne and Associate Professor Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., has helped him flesh out both his focus and his approach.

“They’ve been helpful, both in terms of thinking about method and identifying what theories I need to engage with, as well as in helping me network with resources outside the university and making partnerships with schools,” Eschmann says. “Both Waldo and Charles have met with me repeatedly to talk about these ideas, and the direction I’m going. From my original plan to what I have now, I’ve seen incredible growth.”

That kind of support is familiar to Reamer, who says that in retrospect, he appreciates the support of then associate academic dean John Schuerman and other mentors even more today than during his graduate school days. “The University of Chicago, and by extension SSA, is all about the life of the mind. It was, in my travels, one of the most intellectually oriented institutions I have encountered,” he says. “It gave me a very long intellectual leash to pursue ideas that seemed intriguing, that I felt strongly about. They had enough confidence in me to say, ‘Pursue it. See where it goes.’”