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What You Need to Know About Getting Into an Accounting PhD Program

This is the latest post from Dr. Emelee, a former Big 4 employee who is in process of obtaining his PhD. Read the rest of his posts here.
Now that you know what getting a PhD in accounting is really all about (hint: not teaching), you're probably wondering what it takes to get in. 
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. 
Some Basics
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. I called to follow up with a few schools, was told I hadn’t sent in something or other, responded with the date I sent the item, was put on hold for five minutes, and the person would come back on and tell me that they just found the thing and my application was now complete. I don’t know if they would have tracked the item down if I hadn’t called and insisted that it was sent. 
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. 
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 That This Is 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 profs 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 I can see it being a bad thing if none of those profs are on the admissions committee. 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. 
Up next: I will give a few tips for navigating the first year in the program.
Good luck!