Doctoral degree in accounting: getting admitted in a PhD program

You are thinking to pursue a doctoral (PhD) degree in accounting and wondering about the typical lifestyle of a doctoral student, tenure-track professor, and finally tenured professor. In this article, we will discuss the process of getting admitted to a doctoral accounting program.

1. Getting admitted into a doctoral program in accounting

There are hundreds of PhD programs in accounting around the world. Many of these programs are offered in the United States. Here, we will discuss U.S. experiences, but some of these experiences will be relevant outside of the U.S. as there are some common trends in academia.

When selecting a PhD program in accounting, you need to consider your personal situation and individual skills: time available to devote to research and teaching, your quantitative abilities, communication skills, team work skills, etc.  While doctoral studies in general require commitment of your time and energy, top accounting programs will require relatively larger sacrifice of your personal time (e.g., you are more likely to find yourself working on weekends).

While the pre-requisites for PhD programs are similar, top accounting programs are more competitive and thus require the candidates to demonstrate high academic potential. The application rates vary from year to year, but in general top accounting programs usually receive more than 100 applications while programs with lower rankings may receive only a dozen applications. Accounting programs often use GPA, GMAT score, work experience, and recommendations to select applicants for an on-campus interview.

To have a higher chance for the on-campus interview, applicants can target a GMAT score of 700+ for top programs and 650+ for lower ranked programs. Likewise, GPA scores should be in a higher range (3.5- 4.0). Good recommendations from professors is a plus. Additionally, some programs highly rank relevant work experience: the type of preference varies by programs, but many programs in general value capital markets experience (e.g., trader, banker), extensive accounting experience (e.g., senior audit manager, tax partner), corporate law experience, etc. Some programs concentrate in analytical research (i.e., mathematical modeling) and thus value any background that demonstrates strong quantitative skills (e.g., PhD in physics, master of science in mathematics or statistics). Some programs value strong technical skills (e.g., MS in information systems). Last but not least, many programs value diversity (e.g., gender diversity, race diversity).

In general, programs invite about 5-10 applicants for the on-campus interview and only extend the offer to 2-5 candidates. Some accounting doctoral programs are larger (i.e., admit 3-5 doctoral students per year), but most admit 2-3 doctoral students per year. Some years doctoral programs may not admit any candidates.

For doctoral programs, each doctoral student requires a considerable investment of funds by the university (e.g., $150,000 +) and faculty time. Thus, doctoral programs seek candidates who are serious about completing a PhD program (i.e., will not drop out after 2-3 years) and have stamina or grit to pursue the goals despite of setbacks and challenges. As a candidate, you can try to highlight your personal strengths and grit in the application essay. However, you should still ask yourself whether you are serious about the doctoral studies so that you do not waste program funds and time by starting one and never completing.

If you are determined to get into a PhD program, you may want to apply to more than a few programs. Some students apply to dozens of programs while others apply only to a few. Applying to lots of programs will not guarantee the admittance; you need to critically evaluate your application file to see whether your credentials are sufficient to pass the minimal thresholds. For example, if you received 620 on the GMAT, it is highly unlikely that your application file will receive much attention among top accounting doctoral programs and likely will be ranked lower relative to other application files. As such, you may want to apply to a few “dream schools”, a few schools for which your background matches criteria, and a few “safe bet” schools.

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