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Thesis Coordinator: Jean LaTerz, Ed.D., L.I.C.S.W.

A unique aspect of Smith's social work program is the completion of a thesis or research project. This project has proven to be an important vehicle for integration of learning from the program as a whole and for consolidation of an identity as a social work professional, often serving as a foundation of expertise after students graduate.

The research project, or thesis, required of all students is an independent research or scholarly project which aims to develop knowledge for clinical social work practice and to provide a guided experience in conducting research. The teaching method employed is individual advisement. Each student is free to develop a project in any area of interest relevant to clinical social work.

The thesis is Smith College SSW's specialization level course in research. It is intended to build upon the more general research content taught during the two summer courses (380/381 or 382/383 or 384/385) which are taken during the second summer. The thesis is intended to elaborate, strengthen and challenge each student's research skills, as well as build content expertise in an area of social work knowledge selected by the student. Faculty does not expect a perfect project or one that is of publishable quality. Our goal is that students build upon their existing research knowledge and become both better consumers and producers of research to guide their future careers.

Dissemination of project results after its completion and before graduation is also required. Required project undertaken during the second placement year with separate advising. Sixteen quarter-hours.


See specific deadlines under Major Deadlines in the Thesis Guidelines


  • Thesis proposal is due. This is a working contract between the student and the advisor detailing the topic and the selected research design and method.


  • The Human Subjects Review (HSR) planning form (available on Moodle) is due. This indicates whether you will need an HSR review. This form must be sent to the administrative assistant for the HSR committee (also known as the Institutional Review Board).


  • By the first Friday in December, a student should have completed and submitted one substantive chapter to the research advisor.
  • Empirical projects: This chapter is usually the literature review. However, some advisors prefer to have students complete the introduction or the methodology chapters (empirical).
  • Theoretical projects: The chapter for the theoretical thesis is usually the phenomenon. However, some advisors may want the student to complete the introduction or the conceptualization/methodology chapter.


  • By the fourth Friday in January, the student is expected to have a complete draft of two substantive chapters of the thesis.
  • Empirical projects: The student should have completed two substantive chapters (usually the literature review and methodology). In addition, the student should have completed and turned in all materials for the Human Subjects Review Board (HSRB), also known as an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The student cannot begin any data collection until the HSRB approves the thesis project, so finalizing a proposal and completing the application in a timely manner is very important. Since the HSR approval process may take as long as six weeks after submission to the HSR Committee, we recommend that students begin writing the HSR application as soon as possible so that HSR approval will occur on or before late January/early February.
  • Theoretical projects: The student should have completed two substantive chapters (usually the phenomenon chapter and the first theory chapter). However, research advisors may require the introduction or the methodology chapter in addition to the phenomenon chapter.


  • Empirical projects: The student is expected to have completed the data collection process. For students working on quantitative projects, the database should be in a Microsoft Excel file. This file and a codebook should be sent via email to Marjorie Postal, research analyst, on or before April 10. For students working on qualitative projects, all interviews should be transcribed and the narrative data should be organized so that the data analysis process can begin.
  • Theoretical projects: The student is expected to have completed a substantive draft of the third chapter (usually the second theory chapter). However, some research advisors may require the introduction of the methodology chapter in addition to the phenomenon chapter.

Early May

  • Empirical projects: Students are to have completed and submitted their findings chapter to the research advisor.
  • Theoretical projects: Students are to have completed and submitted their Methodology chapter to the research advisor.

Late May

  • In addition to the approved substantive chapters, a substantive draft of the remaining chapters must be submitted on or before the mid-May deadline. Advisors of students who have not met the mid-May deadline may recommend that they enter post-residency status. No summer advising will be offered to post-residency students.
  • Work in the thesis during the first summer term should focus on fine-tuning the chapters, minor editorial revisions and formatting.

Late June

  • The final submission for a complete thesis is 12 noon on the fourth Friday of June in the third summer.(For more information on the submission process, see Thesis Submission
  • This deadline is non-negotiable. At this time the thesis must be completed in full and appropriately formatted, with copies prepared. Details on the entire process are available in the Thesis Guidelines, which are distributed to students annually during the second summer and are also available on Moodle under the "SSW997 Masters Thesis Project" heading.

No, advanced standing for BSW students follow a 19-, rather than a 27-month program. The timeline for their thesis project is different. Advanced standing for BSW students follow the same timeline as the 27-month students until the May 14 deadline. At that time, advanced standing for BSW graduates must have completed the data collection phase of the thesis project. Research advising then resumes the following September. The thesis project and the dissemination requirement must be completed, approved and submitted by Friday, December 4.

Is there any flexibility regarding this timeline?

Smith College School for Social Work has taken great care to create a thesis timeline that is manageable. While under unique circumstances there may be some negotiation between students and their advisors, both parties must remember that the deadlines are there for a reason. Not only do they function as an early warning system should a student need additional help, each deadline serves a specific objective in a sequence of events which must take place in order to complete the thesis project.


The following are recommended as materials prior to the thesis process:

  • Steinberg, D. (2004). The social work student's research handbook. Haworth: NY.
  • Jacobsen Writing Center (2003). Writing papers: A handbook for students at Smith College. Smith College: Northampton, MA.

Are there additional materials to help me through the thesis project once I begin?

Materials are provided in the research classes, in the Thesis Guidelines, in the Human Subject Review Board's User's Guide, in Marjorie Postal's Coding and Statistical Manual, and in Jim Drisko's Using SPSS manual. All these materials are distributed annually during the second summer research course. In addition, a wide range of timelines, chapter by chapter outlines, and guides and research "refreshers" are available in Moodle. Your thesis advisor may have materials for you as well. Of course, it is always a good idea to check out what has interested previous SSW students.

Thesis Topics

An acceptable thesis must have clear relevance to clinical social work knowledge and/or practice. Your research advisor will help you make this determination based upon your written argument detailing how your particular topic may be relevant to clinical social work (practiced during your research course). Bear in mind that relevance to clinical social work may include knowledge that guides practice, theories that inform practice, and policy analysis that affects practice. Many students find that a topic specifically related to some aspect of clinical social work allows them to integrate the field experience with their thesis research. Learning for the thesis may be directly applicable to field practice and future practice endeavors.

Can I apply the work I do for the research course to my thesis topic?

Certainly. We encourage students to find a broad topic area of interest during their first year placement. This topic can be refined and focused during the second summer research course, and may serve as the topic for the course assignments (a two-part mini-proposal). However, some students find they lose interest in their original topic during the second summer, or they find new opportunities at the beginning of their second year placement, and opt to change their original topic to one based on research projects or access to particular populations served by their agency placement or their geographic location.

What if I have trouble deciding on a topic during my second summer?

In general, 50 percent of students will change their thesis topic from what they originally started with during the second summer. The coursework for the research class is simply a way to practice and develop skills around consuming and producing research. When you contact your thesis advisor, s/he will work with you to think of a feasible topic area that covers your interests. Again, the two-part mini-proposal completed for the second summer is a method to practice and develop research skills—if you change your topic, you'll still have the skills to write a new final proposal.

When I think of research, I think of statistics. However, I don't know how to do statistics. Will someone help me with this?

During the second summer one part of the research course is dedicated to learning basic, descriptive statistics. Smith College SSW also has a research analyst who will help you throughout your thesis process. Some students may choose to do a thesis that does not require statistics at all. You will learn more about this during your second summer research course.


In addition to your research advisor, thesis coordinator Jean LaTerz is available for consultation and resources during the thesis process. LaTerz monitors and coordinates all aspects of the thesis process during both winter and summer sessions.

You also have a class research representative who is available throughout the process to help answer any questions you might have. Your representative will introduce themselves in April, just before you begin your second summer.

When are the research advisors available?

Advisors are not contracted to work with students until the beginning of placement. Research advisors are contracted from the start of placement in early September (Tuesday after Labor Day) through the May deadline which is the time period for the two winter sessions. (There is a break in advising from the May deadline until the beginning of classes.) Advisors then resume advising for the summer term beginning on the first day of third summer classes until the thesis deadline on the fourth Friday in June. It should be noted that a few advisors may choose to begin meeting with students informally before the end of the second summer session; some advisors do live in or near the Northampton area and prefer to have an introductory meeting with their students prior to their leaving campus. With rare exceptions, research advisors continue to work with students through the summer (first day of third summer classes) until the thesis deadline (end of week four during the third summer).

When do I find out who my research advisor will be?

Research advisor assignments are usually made during the fourth week of classes of the second term. This is because your research advisor is assigned based on a variety of factors, including the location of your field placement and the number of students assigned to each advisor. This year, a concerted effort will be made to match the research interests of advisors and students, with particular attention to those using the Web cam for advising. However, bear in mind that your area of interest may change between the second summer and the time you turn in your final proposal. This is the second year that an attempt will be made to match advisors to students on the basis of research interests. As with any large scale matching process, it is impossible to completely meet everyone's satisfaction.

What skills do research advisors have?

Research advisors are hired for their knowledge of research design and methods; their ability to organize a complex project; their ability to help students conceptualize large, complex, varied and changing theoretical content and empirical literature; and their ability to guide the writing of the monograph length project. A thesis advisor may not be an expert in your content area, nor is s/he an editor of your work. Smith College SSW encourages its students to find and utilize additional, outside resources that can help you understand your topic.

Will my research advisor be in my geographic area?

Advising assignments may or may not be in your geographic area dependent upon advisor availability compared with the number of students located in a particular geographic area and the number of students and advisors who mutually agree to use the Web cam for advising.

Can you tell me more about Web cam advising?

The Web cam is a device that either sits on top of your computer or, for new models, is built into your computer. Web cams are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased (for desktop or laptop computers) at any computer store. Smith will assume the cost of the Web cam for each advisor. Students can sign out a Web cam in the reception area before they leave campus in August and then return the Web cam to Smith College SSW the following June.

All long-distance (over a two-hour drive) advising will be done by Web cam only with no in-person site visits. Long-distance advisors and students may opt to communicate via telephone and email, eliminating the Web cam. This communication method has worked well for many long-distance advisor/student pairs.

How do I get in touch with my advisor?

At the end of the second summer, students will receive a letter with their advisor's address, phone number and email. In the early days of placement, students should call or email their advisor and introduce themselves. Advisors are also expected to contact students; however, accurate contact information for the student may not be available to the advisor until mid to late September. The school encourages efforts by both the advisor and the student to make contact as early as possible in September. This shared responsibility is the most effective way to ensure that communication between advisor and advisee occurs as early as possible.

Flexibility is the key when you and your advisor first begin communicating. Remember that differences in styles of communication can always be negotiated and refined, and sometimes it takes a little while for you both to become familiar with each other's preferences.

How often do I meet with my advisor?

There are three scheduled meetings during the year. Two of these will be in-person meetings if the student/advisor pair lives locally and the third will be conducted by telephone. The order that the in-person/telephone meetings take place is determined by the advisor. Additional in-person/telephone contacts may take place depending upon advisor/advisee relationship and student needs. The student and the advisor will communicate most often through mail or email, as drafts of the thesis are mailed out and sent back for revisions. Again, for the long-distance student/advisor pairs, the three meetings can be scheduled using the Web cam or telephone with interim communication done via email.