Doctoral degree in accounting: life of an accounting doctoral student

After successful admission to a doctoral accounting program, what do students do? In this article, we cover the questions of doctoral degree program duration, year by year description of what accounting students need to do and accomplish, and financial implications of being an accounting doctoral student.

1. Life as an accounting doctoral student

You have worked hard on your applications and was admitted to a doctoral program in accounting, even maybe to a few. You made your choice based on the program characteristics, faculty, location, etc. Now you are a doctoral student in accounting. What to expect next?

The experience of doctoral students will vary across individuals as everyone perceives the same circumstances and events differently. Also, different programs will provide different experiences across time periods.

Most accounting doctoral programs require 4-6 years to complete. Most students are expected to complete their doctoral studies in 5 years: 4 years is often not sufficient to build a strong resume and 6 years is often not feasible as not all accounting doctoral programs have enough funding to financially support students for 6 years. Thus, here we will discuss the traditional 5-year doctoral experience.

Year 1: doctoral students take classes in the fall and spring semesters. Common classes include PhD level accounting, economics, and statistics or math courses.  In doctoral accounting seminars students often read, discuss, and present academic accounting research papers. During the year, many students are required to work 20 hours per week, if they have a graduate fellowship. In the first year, doctoral students usually work as a research assistant (RA) to a faculty member (e.g., help with data collection, literature reviews). At the end of Year 1 (i.e., summer semesters between Year 1 and Year 2), students are usually required to a complete a research project under faculty supervision. Most students replicate an academic paper and add a few extensions. The paper is usually presented to the accounting department (i.e., research workshop) in the fall of Year 2. The presentation requires not only to discuss the paper but also answer questions from the department’s faculty and fellow doctoral students.

Year 2: in the second year, doctoral students take more classes and work part time if they have a graduate fellowship (e.g., work 20 hours per week as a teaching assistant). Doctoral students may work as a teaching assistant (TA) in an introduction level accounting course, if offered, or in a graduate level accounting course (e.g., MBA course) when the undergraduate level accounting courses are not offered. At the end of the second year (during summer between Year 2 and Year 3), doctoral students are usually expected to complete the second research project under faculty supervision and pass comprehensive exams. The second summer research project is usually an original research idea. The comprehensive exams are based on the accounting research seminars taken in Year 1 and Year 2. These exams are difficult and require a substantial amount of preparation. The comprehensive exams have an element of subjectivity, as such they can be used by programs to let go doctoral students who either do not have academic potential or those who do not fit into academic environment. Overall, the summer between Year 2 and Year 3 is one of the difficult periods in the life of an accounting doctoral student (i.e., an original research paper and comprehensive exams).

Year 3: doctoral students who passed the comprehensive exams continue taking additional courses to support their degree concentration and often work as a research assistant. In the fall of Year 3 doctoral students present their original research paper completed in the summer between Year 2 and Year 3. Again, the presentation involves a discussion followed by Q&A (question and answer) session. During the third year, many doctoral students try to come up with a research question for their dissertation and actively work with faculty to build up their research resume (i.e., working papers).

Year 4: in a traditional 5-year program, doctoral students start working on their dissertation during the fourth year. While the dissertation does not have be written in the fourth year, it is important to have more than just an idea for the dissertation. During the same time, some students teach a class on their own (if available) or continue to work as a TA. Doctoral students continue to build their research pipeline in Year 4.

Year 5: doctoral students in accounting usually start applying for academia jobs at the beginning of Year 5 (fall semester; October - December). During that time, students have their dissertation as a working paper. In January - March, candidates are invited for on-campus interviews for the academic positions. Most doctoral students know their job placement by April. Year 5 is usually a very demanding year for doctoral students as they try to find a job and complete their dissertation. Writing a dissertation is often not only difficult but also challenging as many doctoral students find themselves in their own little bubble. Usually by the end of Year 5 (spring - summer semesters), most doctoral students defend their dissertation and graduate; some students who cannot complete their dissertation on time may graduate in Year 6 (i.e., either stay one more year in the doctoral program or start as an Assistant Professor with a condition to complete their PhD by the end of the first year on the new job). Note, most accounting programs do not hire their doctoral students as Assistant Professors, with a few exceptions. However, some doctoral students return to their alma mater as Associate or Full Professors after working as a faculty member at some other academic institutions post-graduation.

In terms of finances, most accounting doctoral programs offer graduate assistantship or fellowship. If you receive such a fellowship, you will usually be expected to work part time (20 hours per week) as a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA). The fellowship amount varies by program, but it is usually sufficient to support one individual or a small family of two (e.g., $25,000-$30,000 per year). Some programs offer free health insurance to their doctoral students (and you would have to pay additional fees if you wanted to insure your family). The fellowship might be sufficient for some, but many may need to tap into their savings. If you receive a fellowship, its requirements usually do not allow you to work elsewhere to supplement your income. You would need to get a permission from the program to work somewhere else for extra pay (e.g., consulting, CPA work). If you work during the program (while on the fellowship) and do not disclose to your doctoral program, it could serve as a basis for your dismissal from the doctoral program. Finally, many doctoral programs offer tuition waivers (up to a number of credits per semester); you would still be responsible for various academic fees.

In terms of research and teaching, most doctoral students will specialize in a specific area, which is usually determined at the time of admission. Traditionally accounting academics specialize in the following areas:

  • Financial accounting
  • Management accounting
  • Audit
  • Tax

Some doctoral programs offer concentration in all four areas while others specialize only in one area (i.e., usually financial accounting).

There are some programs that offer a doctoral degree in accounting information systems (AIS), but those programs are often separate from accounting, even when AIS and accounting areas are combined in one department. That is, AIS programs often have a separate admission process.

Academia in general is often structured as an “apprentice shop.” It is not uncommon to hear someone talk about their mentor or advisor, or who were the mentees of a given academic. Given the apprentice environment, doctoral students need to have not only academic rigor but good interpersonal skills. An ability to build relationships with other academics is often a predictor of one’s academic and research success. For most doctoral students, their academic research career starts not post-graduation but during the doctoral program as many need to have a sufficient research pipeline five years post-graduation. Many academics continue to work with their advisors after graduation from the PhD program.

Once again, information above is relevant for the United States only. Universities in other countries may offer other support and incentives to their accounting doctoral students and may have different requirements for their accounting academics.

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