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What Future Accounting Professors Need to Know About ‘Publish or Perish’

This is the final post in the PhD series from Dr. Emelee, who is a Big 4 refugee in the process of obtaining his PhD. You can find his previous posts here. Happy trails, Doc!

Once you finish the PhD and become an Assistant Professor at a university, it’s time to start working toward tenure. Schools vary, but profs have around six or seven years before they go up for tenure. Sometimes a third-year review is done and you could be retained or fired based upon how that goes. What happens if you get denied tenure? You get fired. Simple as that. They give you a year to find another job and you’re on your way out of there and probably to a “worse” university (one with less pay and a higher teaching load).

The tenure decision is usually based on three metrics: research, teaching, and service. Service includes things like serving on business school or university-wide committees or advising BAP.  Most schools try to shield untenured profs from doing tons of this, but some is still required. The teaching part is often based on student evaluations, and the research part is based on publication record.

It is possible to go to a “teaching school” where the publication requirements for tenure are low. At schools like this, the prof will likely teach three courses each semester and make right around $100,000 a year. As you move to a “balanced school”, the teaching load is often two courses each semester and salaries start around $120,000. “Research schools” will kick off around $160,000 at the low end and profs may teach only two or three courses a year. The salary figures listed do not include summer funding for research which can be around 2/9 of the regular 9 month contract. As you move up this spectrum the publication requirements for tenure get much harder.

Schools have lists, whether formal or informal, about what types of journals actually count toward tenure. There also may be a little bit of substitution between quality of publications vs. quantity of publications, but this is subject to some constraints.

First, profs need a research idea. An unoriginal idea, or an idea about a topic no one cares about, means you are about to waste a couple of years of your life working on something that won’t help you get tenure. Here a few examples of papers that were published in solid academic journals.

Are time-series econometric models better at forecasting earnings than analysts?

Are accounting-based earnings correlated with stock prices?

Were lots of non-audit services fees in the pre-SOX era associated with lower audit quality?

Does the stock market reward firms for releasing earnings that are higher than what analysts expected? Or is it simply meeting the earnings expectation that’s important?

Do the Big 4 firms actually conduct higher-quality audits?

Once you have your idea, you have to figure out what level of journal you wish to target. Quality academic journals are peer-reviewed in a process that is supposed to be blind. Profs submit papers to the editor and the editor assigns two anonymous reviewers to edit the manuscript without knowing who the authors are. The reviewers make their comments on what should be changed in the paper (methodology, motivation, sample size, robustness checks, etc.) and then recommend to the editor that the paper be accepted, revised and resubmitted, or rejected. The editor will also read the paper, provide her own comments, and make the final decision about whether the piece gets published or not. A revise and resubmit is about the only realistic expectation for a first submission and papers will typically go through around three revisions, but even more are possible.

Journal quality is based on what kinds of things have been published there in the past, more importantly who has published there in the past, and who the editors and reviewers are. There are three journals every school, regardless of rank, will count as A hits. At the highest-rated research schools, you either publish in these or you won’t get tenure, but as you move down to a balanced school, publishing articles in any AAA section journal may be sufficient.

Think about the odds here. There are three journals everyone considers to be “A” hits. So damn near everyone is submitting articles there. Lots of competition at the top level. The lead time between starting to work on a paper and publication is, at a minimum, around two years and is probably closer to three or four plus. The revise and resubmits take time, and then addressing the comments and sending the draft back also takes quite a bit of time. All of this adds up and eats into that six or seven year tenure clock.