Doctoral degree in accounting: life of an accounting professor

This article provides a description of an accounting professor's career and professional life. We discuss tenure and how to go about getting it, pros and cons of an accounting professor career, and compensation of accounting academics.

1. Life as an accounting professor

Let’s assume you’ve become a professor after graduation from a doctoral accounting program. Most accounting doctoral students start their career as a tenure-track assistant professor. The tenure “clock” at most institutions is six years, which translates into five years of work that is submitted for a review at the beginning of the sixth year.

During the 6-year term, new professors need to submit their progress for the review by the department, business school, and provost every two years. That is, after one year at the academic institution, accounting faculty submit their progress as of the beginning of the second year. The first 2-year review is usually not rigorous because the faculty didn’t have enough time (just one year post graduation) to extend their resume. However, it is still important to show some evidence of continuous work on research projects and future research work.

The next review takes place during the fourth year, where faculty show their cumulative work for the past three years. While many faculty members have contract extensions for two more years, some may have to look for a job at some other academic institution (e.g., you might be given a contract extension for one year to give you time to find another job, as academic hiring is seasonal and may take about one year to transition between higher education institutions). If the fourth year’s review is “successful”, the tenure-track assistant professor goes up for the promotion review in year 6.

The sixth year review is the most critical: the assistant professor is either offered tenure or has to look for a job elsewhere. To receive the tenure, one needs to demonstrate research potential (i.e., quality and/or number of published research papers; faculty recommendations: often by academics working at a different institution or academics who are deemed experts in a given field), teaching excellence, and service. In highly ranked programs, research potential receives more weight in the evaluation process. In less research-oriented programs, both research and teaching are important. Service to the university and profession (e.g., committees, reviews, presentations) is usually not as important as research and teaching.

The lifestyle of an academic is usually shaped by the expectations to receive tenure. In highly ranked programs where research potential is very important, accounting academics spend most of their time doing research to be granted a tenured position. Once tenure is achieved, these faculty are still expected to continue doing research, though the pressure is lower because there is no ticking “tenure clock.” In such institutions, during the tenure-track time, teaching expectations are usually not high because faculty are expected to produce high quality research. Many assistant professors may teach only one semester per year and only one course with a few sections (e.g., 3-0 load; 0-3 load). Teaching skills usually do not have to be stellar during that time, though teaching excellence is still valued. The service load is usually light (e.g., a few committees with small time commitment, a reviewer in a few journals or conferences).

In accounting programs that do not rank highly in terms of research output, research potential is still valued above teaching and service, but it usually receives less weight in comparison to highly ranked academic institutions.  In such institutions, tenure-track assistant professors usually teach relatively more courses (e.g., 3-3 load; 4-3 load; 4-4 load). A 3-3 load means faculty teach three courses in the fall and 3 courses in the spring. A course is usually a section of the course. Thus, with a load “3” faculty maybe teaching one subject with three sections or three courses with one section each or some other combination of courses and sections.

Regardless of the institutional ranking, most accounting assistant professors will spend most of their time pursuing academic research. The most critical time is a few years post-graduation (from the doctoral program). Usually it requires 2-4 years to publish an accounting academic article. Even in lower ranked academic journals, it takes about one year to publish an article. Thus, to have a sufficient research pipeline by the end of the fifth year, assistant professors need to have many completed working papers ready for a peer review by the end of year 3 on the job. Due to the slow peer review and publishing process coupled with a short tenure clock, most accounting academics do not receive tenure at their first job and have to move to another institution. Many receive tenure at their second job, but some need to move to more institutions until they finally receive tenure and settle.

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