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Human Development & Family Studies PhD

We encourage scholarship that takes into account the larger social and cultural contexts in which people live and develop, including community, social class, ethnicity, historical change, and public policy.

We believe graduate training is most effective when students are able to pursue research and outreach tailored to their individual interests and aspirations. A chance to work closely with world-class faculty offers opportunities to co-author scholarly articles, present at conferences and professional workshops, collaborate on research and evaluation projects, and engage with community groups and policy makers to impact social change.

The Wisconsin Idea of transferring knowledge into real-world solutions facing today’s individuals, families, and communities is central to our program. Many students work closely with policy and community, both locally and nationally, to gather, disseminate, and apply scientific knowledge.

In addition to world-renowned faculty, students in the program can take advantage of the department’s many affiliated programs and Centers. These include the UW Child Development LabCenter for Financial Security, the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies, the Waisman Center, the Institute for Research on Poverty, and the Morgridge Center for Public Service.

HDFS is also a co-sponsor of the interdisciplinary training program in Prevention Science which offers both a graduate minor and certificate in prevention science. Finally, the department has close ties to the state Extension network which serves as an important link between campus and county-based Extension colleagues, stakeholders, partners, and the residents of Wisconsin.

Coursework & Curriculum

Principles of Graduate Education

Students benefit from the perspectives of multiple disciplines and an understanding of the social, cultural,and historical contexts in which people develop. For this reason, our faculty come from diverse professional and disciplinary backgrounds and possess a wide range of experience and expertise. We also encourage scholarship that takes into account the larger social and cultural contexts in which people live, such as historical change, community, social class, ethnicity, and public policy.

The application of knowledge to real-world issues is central to our program and consistent with the Wisconsin Idea of outreach and service. Hence, faculty and students direct their work toward finding solutions to the current challenges facing individuals, families, and communities. Many work closely with policy and community leaders – in Wisconsin and nationally – to gather, disseminate and apply scientific knowledge.

Graduate training is most effective when students work closely with faculty to pursue programs of research and outreach that are tailored to their individual interests and aspirations. For example, students co-author scholarly articles with professors, give conference presentations and professional workshops, collaborate on research and evaluation projects, and work with community groups and policy makers to affect social change.

PhD Curriculum

The PhD curriculum is designed to provide advanced training in HDFS. Whether our graduates end up in academic or applied settings, we prepare them for work that includes independent research, outreach, and teaching. Students who are admitted to the PhD program are expected to have completed a research-based master’s thesis prior to admission or to complete the requirements for our MS degree as part of their PhD curriculum. Student who apply to our PhD program with a master’s degree that does not include an empirical thesis will need to complete a pre-doctoral research project prior to taking the doctoral preliminary exam. PhD students must take a proseminar in HDFS and three courses in human development and family theory. Students choose additional HDFS graduate courses to fill out their major area of concentration.

There is also a methodology core requirement of one course in advanced statistics and one course in advanced research methods. These advanced methodology courses are beyond those required for the MS. In addition, all students must complete 10 credits in a minor concentration area. Full-time students can expect at least three years of work toward the PhD after the requirements for the MS are met. Students take their preliminary exam after completing their required course work (usually at the end of their second year). This exam requires students to use their knowledge and skills regarding theory, research methodology, and the student’s substantive areas of interest. Upon completion of the preliminary exam, the student must prepare a dissertation proposal. All students are required to complete a dissertation and defend it in a final oral examination. Within the PhD program, students may choose to focus on preparation for an applied career by tailoring their program to emphasize such areas as applied research, prevention science, family policy, program development and evaluation, community development, or public policy.

Methodological Orientation 

Reflecting the multidisciplinary orientation of the program, faculty and students employ a wide array of methods in their work. Faculty possess expertise in areas as diverse as longitudinal modeling, community-based research, qualitative research, program evaluation, observational methods, survey methodology, and action research. The program explicitly values both qualitative and quantitative methods and encourages students to become proficient in both.


The program offers courses on development throughout the lifespan and across ecological settings. These courses focus on a range of topics, including risk and resiliency throughout the life span, positive human development, adult development and relationships, and aging and the family. Courses that address the applications of research to practice are also part of the curriculum. Recent offerings include courses in prevention science and bridging the gap between research and practice. Consult the Graduate Catalog for course descriptions.

Student Stories

Meet “Those Media Moms”: Human Ecology alumni Drs. Roxanne Etta and Elizabeth Horgan make their national debut on Good Morning America

“Good Morning America finding our website and social media platforms and reaching out to us, barely four months into our business — it was an incredible proof of concept."

Persevering through sisterhood: Meet PhD student Prudence Yokonia

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Prudence's journey to joining the School of Human Ecology as a Human Development & Family Studies PhD student has been up and down, and even cosmically aligned at times.

Program Contact

Graduate Program Staff

4199 Nancy Nicholas Hall



Graduate Program Committee Chair

Sigan Hartley, PhD

100 Women Distinguished Chair in Human Ecology | Professor of Human Development & Family Studies