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What does it take to get into a PhD program?

Dr. Emelee is a former Big 4 employee in the process of obtaining his own PhD. In this article, first published on Going Concern earlier this fall, he explains what it takes to get onto a PhD program.

There are around 90 accounting PhD granting universities in the U.S. Some admit every other year, and some have annual admissions of only two or three people. Of course, some programs admit many more. Schools get many more applications than they have spots for so this does two things: 1) makes it hard to get in and 2) makes the job pay well when you get out.

The basics

I’ve heard of a few schools that prefer people with professional accounting experience, but from the inside it looks to me like a shiny GMAT will beat out someone with a few years of public almost every time. If you are a public accounting person, I think it’s a good idea to try and get one recommendation letter from a senior manager or a partner. The other two recommendation letters should definitely be from professors, and make these profs with the highest number of quality publications and not necessarily the ones you liked the best. Name recognition can go a long way here.

Applicants normally have to apply to both the graduate school AND the accounting program. Often, the application deadlines for these two groups are different, so make sure you check on that. Also, I found that half of the schools I applied to lost something I sent to them. Their efficiency wasn’t that great to be honest so make sure you follow up with them if you don’t hear back. I had to call to check my application had been received and after the school initially saying it had been lost, they then found it once I made them look for it.

Cs don't get PhDs and overachieve

The admissions committee usually sorts people based on GMAT score and undergraduate GPA. Some schools require master’s coursework but most don’t. Even schools that require a master’s degree will weigh the undergrad GPA more heavily since there is more variation in undergrad GPA’s compared to master’s GPA’s. I got the sense when talking to admissions people that they think B’s are handed out in grad school but had to actually be earned at the undergraduate level.

If you’re reading this and you’re still an undergraduate, take some extra math classes. A lot of schools say that having enough calculus to understand integration and differentiation is a prerequisite for admission to the program. Some schools additionally require both linear algebra and multivariate calculus.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to take an MBA statistics course before you apply to a program. This will give you a small taste of what you’re getting into and will also show some initiative. This is no substitute for a shiny GMAT score, but it can help if you’re on the margin.

Remember it’s about research

Get a sense of what type of research you want to do (analytical vs. experimental/behavioral vs. archival, etc.) before you apply to a school. Read some academic research to see if anything speaks to you. Some schools are almost exclusively one area or the other and you don’t want to get into a PhD program that trains you to do research in an area you don’t like.

Connected to the above, read a few papers from each professor at schools you will apply to. See if you would want to study the same types of things as anyone there. If not, then working on your dissertation for two or three years will be extremely painful even if you get accepted.

I didn’t do this when I applied, but I know someone that actually mentioned specific professors he wanted to work with in his statement of purpose (this is the letter you write with your admissions packet). I can see it being a good thing because it at least shows that you know what people at the school work on and it’s not a blanket letter. But it might not be so great when none of those professors work on the admissions committee, unless they are particularly generous souls.  Maybe department admins would even tell you who is on the committee if you call, but I’m not sure if they would give that info out or even know.

Good luck! 

For more information and advice on PHD programs, read Dr. Emelee’s other articles on Going Concern.