The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Transforming Doctoral Education

SSA Celebrates 100 Years of its Doctoral Program

A pandemic. Racism and racial strife. Anti-immigration policy. The right to vote. These sound like topics from today's news, but they were also the news of the day 100 years ago. The century between 1920 and 2020 has been bookended by a combination of worldwide pandemic and societal upheaval. It was during this first moment in 1920 that two fearless women did something radical and unique by taking steps towards creating lasting, positive change in society. They helped to revolutionize the nascent profession of social work by transforming a school that they helped build into a research juggernaut.

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge were innovative thinkers whose vision for a graduate school, one of the first schools of social work in the United States, was unique. The focus of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) would advance the profession through a combination of practical theory, social science theory, and research.

Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott going over some paperwork

This was a bold vision. Abbott and Breckinridge were committed to first-rate research, believing that it should be the basis of an education in social work and social welfare. Such a grounding would grant authority to social work scholarship and professionalize the field. Moreover, they believed social change would occur only when research guided practice and policy-making.

SSA has since become the premier training ground for social welfare scholars. It has, in particular, transformed doctoral education through its curriculum, research instruction, and its vibrant learning community. PhD students examine major social issues of the day through an interdisciplinary, social science lens and the most rigorous research methods. SSA faculty both model and teach that a commitment to evidence-based research and community-engaged scholarship is what makes a difference. In so doing, SSA's graduates have made a century of direct and enduring impact in and outside of the Academy.

"The influence of our program is far-reaching," says SSA Professor Julia Henly, Chair of the Doctoral Program. "Over five hundred alumni have graduated from SSA's Doctoral Program. They have become deans, professors, research scientists, and top-level administrators in government, nonprofits, and other organizations. Our graduates are the thought leaders of the field."

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People gathered in the Chicago CommonsSSA had its beginnings in 1908 when Graham Taylor, a minister and founder of the Chicago Commons Settlement House, opened the doors of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. Its purpose: to address the growing need to train "efficient helpers" for settlement houses and other social service agencies that were desperately trying to meet the outsized needs of the fast-growing city of Chicago. Economist Edith Abbott, recruited from her teaching position at Wellesley College, became the assistant director, and political scientist Sophonisba Breckinridge, who was teaching at UChicago's Department of Household Administration, assumed leadership of the expanding research department. Both were well-known for their research at Jane Addams's Hull House.

Abbott, PhD '05 (Political Economy), and Breckinridge, PhD '01, JD, '04, (PoliSci, Law) developed and deepened the existing curriculum but were concerned about the lack of professionalization of the field. Aligning the school in a degree-conferring university, they believed, would elevate the stature of social workers and beget the respect they deserved. Abbott said, "A good professional school of social welfare not only needs a close connection with a good university but the modern university also needs such a school."

Breckinridge, who eventually become Dean of the Chicago School, was the key strategist in leading its consolidation with the University of Chicago. On October 1, 1920, the new University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration became the first school of social work affiliated with a major research university. This partnership was a key element of the vision held by Abbott and Breckinridge. It authorized the School, which had been training social workers as the independent Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, to offer Master's and Doctoral degrees. Abbott was especially enthusiastic about the merger, saying: "only in a university – and only in a great university – could a school of social work get the educational facilities that advanced professional students must have if they were to become the efficient public servants of democracy."

Together, Abbott and Breckinridge shaped SSA's curriculum and were years ahead of their time in understanding that students needed more than casework skills to be effective future administrators and leaders. The School championed an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum that was unheard of at the time. Students were expected to understand legal concepts, the social implications of medical problems, and the fields of public social service, social research, and social administration. Adapting what she had learned as the first woman graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Breckinridge incorporated the case method to courses – another first in the School's groundbreaking curriculum.

Portrait of Dean Edith AbbottIn 1924, Edith Abbott was named SSA's first dean, becoming the first female dean of any graduate school in the United States. She continued making innovative changes at SSA, integrating the University's resources, strategically building a faculty, and, along with Breckinridge, launching the journal, Social Service Review. She conferred SSA's first doctoral degree to another woman, Helen Rankin Jeter, also in 1924.

Jeter's dissertation "The Chicago Juvenile Court" is one early example showing the impact of SSA's PhD graduates in shaping public policy and social welfare programs. It examined the organization, methods, and operation of the Court as well as its administrative problems and failure to properly understand and collect data about children and their home conditions. These problems also included the failure of the Court to protect minors from harm inflicted by adults, or, often in cases of older children, from receiving punishment in the same manner as adults. Many of the children she referenced from cases were recent immigrants and children of color. Most came from families living in poverty who could not provide them with adequate living conditions.

Jeter's analysis underscored the power of external circumstances, such as poverty and institutional neglect, to shape the course of juvenile justice involvement. As Jeter wrote, "It is the problem of the juvenile court to break the vicious circle of poor inheritance, lack of training, and social neglect that often characterize the experience of the parents and to lift the dependent children out of circumstances that cause suffering and deprivation or that may lead to delinquency." Today, scholars give much greater weight in their analyses to the critical role of racism in determining a youth's course of involvement in the juvenile justice system, and whether they are processed through the "protective" juvenile court or rather treated as criminals in the adult system.

Portrait of Grace AbbottBreckinridge, who was the first female graduate of the University's doctoral program in Political Science, mentored Jeter and edited her dissertation. Grace Abbott, MPh '09 (PoliSci), sister to Edith and another founding mother of SSA, who was then Chief of the U.S. Department of Labor's Children's Bureau, submitted Jeter's dissertation as a report to Secretary of Labor James J. Davis.

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Over the next 40 years, Abbott and Breckinridge further developed and defined both the master's and doctoral degree curricula, and led the way among social work schools in doctoral pedagogy. The first cohorts of doctoral students were required to complete a dissertation and pass comprehensive written and oral examinations on an array of topics, including Social Treatment, Social Research, Public Welfare Administration, and the History of Philanthropy and Social Welfare. Over the years, the program added new topics for examination, various language competencies, specialization requirements (casework; group work; social policy organization; social administration) and new areas of study (teacher-training).

Tuition for both Master's and PhD students in 1920 was $150 per year, the equivalent of almost $2,000 today. Books, housing, labs, and other fees were additional, including a $15 graduation fee for doctoral graduates for their diploma and hood. Today, doctoral students receive yearly stipends, tuition waivers, and other benefits to support their full immersion in their studies.

Students today conduct research on public policies, human service organizations, social programs, and social work practice with individuals and families affecting diverse populations in the U.S. and globally, including immigrants and refugees; racial/ethnic and sexual minorities; low-income workers; parents, children, and adolescents; and individuals with health,  mental health challenges, and special needs. They study far-ranging topics such as child welfare, urban education, homelessness, health care, policing, the prevention of youth violence, urban politics, low-paid employment, immigration, child and family policy, and substance use and abuse. A critical focus of PhD student research is the documentation and mitigation of racial, ethnic, and gender inequities in policies, programs, and service delivery and the strengths and resilience of marginalized populations and their pivotal contributions to social change.

Incoming 2019 Cohort

Current students are required to take a minimum of fifteen courses: one on the history of the social work and social welfare profession, five on statistics and research methods offered at SSA and across the University, and nine additional substantive courses, at least three of which are in other departments or professional schools at the University of Chicago.

Students are expected to complete a pre-dissertation research project and pass a qualifying examination that assesses their understanding of the historical foundations of social work as well as their understanding of core literatures in two of eight conceptual domains informing their area of scholarship. Finally, students are required to successfully complete and defend a dissertation. Some of the dissertations from the School's most recent graduates included studies of the experiences of young transgender women and their involvement with the criminal justice system, the influence of racialization experiences on the development of Asian American youth, and the experiences of low-income mothers with doula home visiting services.

Though the requirements for a doctoral degree have changed over time, one requirement that was written into the earliest editions of the SSA Announcements remains constant: The degree is given "as the recognition and mark of high attainments and ability in the candidate's chosen province." And though many of the topics of study are seemingly intractable problems with histories and similarities to the past, today's doctoral students and alumni are both honoring those scholars before them while pushing the field into the future in a determined effort to create a more just and inclusive society.

--Julie Jung