PAs who dream of moving from an office building to an ivory tower will find the timing is ideal for those who work in public practice, industry or government to switch to an academic career. Enrollment is up, and the 150-hour requirement and attrition from retiring faculty have raised demand for new accounting faculty to levels not seen since the early 1990s. National surveys by the International Association for Management Education (still known as the AACSB—the acronym of the organization’s former name) and by other researchers show an increase in the number of unfilled accounting professorships nationwide.
Heavy demand for teachers is not the only reason the timing is right. Newly proposed AACSB accreditation standards have assigned greater value to practical accounting experience in teaching programs. In addition, accounting faculty maintain a portfolio of relevant day-to-day experience to support their role in providing timely, in-depth instruction. Accounting programs wishing to gain or continue accreditation will be recruiting faculty who have practiced in the field. However, AACSB accreditation standards still require accounting faculty to be academically qualified—that is, to hold a doctoral degree.
CPAs thinking about making a change need to understand the special challenges of academic life as well as what it takes to earn a PhD, which is considered essential to a successful academic career. The authors’ survey of PhD programs can help curious CPAs find out which PhD program is right for them.
SPECIAL CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
An academic career provides meaningful benefits not readily available in other accounting fields. Among these are interaction with interested young scholars, flexible schedules and many opportunities for independent pursuits, particularly with regard to research. In addition, the most recent AACSB survey of salaries paid to new faculty with a doctorate in accounting indicates that educators need not take a vow of poverty: Starting nine-month salaries are about $70,000 to $75,000. Summer teaching or research projects may add another 10% to 20% on top of that.
The rewards and challenges of a teaching career include research and service, which are also key to a successful academic career. A typical schedule might consist of 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. This can vary: Major research institutions, such as large state universities offering doctoral programs, may expect more research than a small college offering undergraduate programs exclusively. Faculty teaching loads typically range from four to eight classes per academic year, depending on the particular school.
Requirements and expectations differ based on the level of the students being taught: Graduate classes usually call for more preparation than undergraduate classes do. Because of the subject matter and the pace of change, a graduate course may actually require new preparation each time it’s taught. But preparation for undergraduate classes usually decreases after the class has been taught once. Schools take these differences into account when balancing an individual instructor’s teaching load.
Research. Academic research spans a large spectrum of methods, techniques and topics. Academics need to present their ideas in publishable articles, such as those found in The Accounting Review; Accounting Horizons; Auditing: A Journal of Practice & Theory; and Journal of Management Accounting Research. Each college and university requires its teachers to publish a certain number of articles every year in professional journals in order to stay on a promotion and tenure track.
Service. Activities for the community, profession and university may fulfill the service obligation of an academic career. Faculty can expect to participate in chamber of commerce activities; activities involving the AICPA, state CPA society or IMA; or university or student organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi.
THE PhD: HOW AND WHERE
A decision to pursue a career in academia should be synonymous with a decision to pursue a doctorate, and perhaps the toughest challenge is getting the doctoral degree. Many colleges offer adjunct, part-time and instructor positions to individuals with master’s degrees, but these will not usually result in permanent long-term positions. Some universities occasionally may make special arrangements with highly experienced practitioners and offer them non-tenure-track positions such as “executive in residence,” but these situations are exceptional.
Most doctoral programs take from three and a half to six years to complete—a major chunk of time. If you are unwilling or unable to commit to studies on a full-time basis, you reduce the likelihood of successfully completing the doctoral program.
And time is money. For an employed professional, giving up a well-paying job to pursue doctoral study is a significant financial sacrifice. Most doctoral students are on an assistantship, earning between $8,600 to $23,500 per year and working from 10 to 20 hours per week. The tasks teaching assistants perform range from teaching principles of accounting classes to providing research assistance to faculty members. Most schools also provide tuition assistance, though personal expenses such as housing, food and books are usually the responsibility of the student. Student loans as well as grants and scholarships are also available to supplement the assistantship.
Then there’s the intellectual capital—in this case, what you need to know going in. Each of the approximately 81 doctoral programs in accounting in the United States has a somewhat different set of entrance requirements. But all candidates should know something about calculus, statistics, and economics (particularly microeconomics), and perhaps linear algebra (matrix math), probability, mathematical economics and finance. Refresher courses may be in order before entering a PhD program.
FACTS AND FIGURES
CPAs interested in doing what it takes to get a PhD may find help in information the authors obtained from their survey of doctoral programs. Of the 81 accounting doctoral programs receiving the questionnaire, 24 responded (about 30%). The questions addressed features such as admission standards, availability of financial aid, program design and a description of the school’s opinion of an ideal doctoral student.
Exhibit 1, above, provides some descriptive statistics of the doctoral programs that responded. Generally, doctoral programs are small (averaging 10 students, 5 in course work and 5 all but dissertation—ABD). It is also important to note that doctoral programs vary significantly in duration as well as in course, residency and comprehensive-exam requirements.
The average program is four and a half years, with a maximum of seven years allowed to complete the program. Expect to spend, on average, one and a half years completing the dissertation. Course work requirements vary in content and quantity. Students typically take four accounting research seminars, four statistics/quantitative courses and three or four courses in a minor field, usually either economics, finance, management, marketing, psychology or mathematics. Many programs require students to remain enrolled full-time at the university until all work toward the degree is completed, though some programs have time-based residency requirements. The average residency requirement is two years. All programs will give a comprehensive exam in accounting, but the form and length vary among universities. In addition, some programs require comprehensive exams in minors and in statistics. Finally, most programs require an oral comprehensive exam as a final step in the course work phase of the program prior to becoming ABD.
Admission standards. The purpose of the admission process is to select candidates who can successfully complete the academic requirements of the doctoral program and ultimately qualify to become faculty members. A committee evaluating each candidate makes its decision based on undergraduate and graduate grade point averages (GPAs), GMAT score, letters of recommendation and statement of purpose. Other factors, such as the quality of undergraduate and graduate institutions and practical experience, also play a role in the decision. However, committees generally place greater weight on the factors that best reflect a candidate’s ability to deal with the academic challenges of graduate school. In this context, practical experience weighs in as a desirable and valuable trait, but work experience does not lower academic requirements. In itself, experience is not an indication of future success in an academic setting and generally does not substitute for poor performance in one of the academic measures.
Exhibit 2 provides summary information about the admission standards of the programs. Fewer than half indicated that a master’s degree is expected prior to admission. A potential applicant may wish to obtain a master’s degree (MBA or Master of Accounting) if his or her undergraduate GPA is less than impressive. Admissions committees place a great deal of weight on comparable quantitative factors such as GMAT scores and grade point averages. Individuals scoring below the mid-600s may find acceptance to a doctoral program difficult.
Financial aid. Assistantships, tuition waivers, student loans and scholarships can help the graduate student pay some of the costs of getting a PhD. Assistantships are available at all doctoral programs and require doctoral students to perform any number of tasks, from teaching classes to providing research assistance to faculty. As noted, the time requirements usually range from 10 to 20 hours per week, though some programs lower the time requirements for newer doctoral students so they can concentrate on course work.
The availability of assistantships varies by program, but of the responding programs 79% provide all doctoral students with assistantships (see exhibit 3). These assistantships are guaranteed for one to five years (the average guarantee is four years), with most programs providing assistantships for their doctoral students as long as the students make “satisfactory” progress toward their degree. Although the average amount paid by an assistantship is approximately $12,840, survey respondents indicate that the amount paid for assistantships varies greatly among universities (surveyed programs paid $8,600 to $23,500). When evaluating assistantship packages, it is important to note whether the package covers 9 or 12 months—and if the period covered is 9 months, whether additional money is available during the summer recess.
Tuition waivers are another important source of financial aid. Schools provide tuition waivers to students as an additional means of financial support, and historically they have been a part of the typical financial package used to entice individuals into doctoral programs. Most programs provide some form of tuition waiver—either full or partial. Those programs offering partial tuition waivers often are required to do so because of state laws prohibiting full tuition waivers (Texas, for example). Generally the tuition waiver is guaranteed for the same time period as the assistantship.
Because financial aid packages usually don’t cover living expenses and books, student loans provide a source of necessary funds in many cases. Though there are limitations on the amount of student loans, graduate students can obtain as much as $18,500 per academic year. Qualification is based on financial need. The most common loans received are the Federal Stafford loans and the Federal Plus loans, (subsidized and unsubsidized, respectively). Because the requirements and qualifications for student loans change, the best source of the most recent information is a local college or university financial aid office. (Application information and more details may be found at the U.S. Department of Education Web site: www.ed.gov .
Finally, a variety of scholarships and fellowships are available through the AICPA, accounting firm foundations and state CPA societies. (Go to the AICPA Web site, www.aicpa.org,for more information as well as links to all state societies.) These scholarships and fellowships are merit based and extremely competitive. The amounts of the scholarships and fellowships vary, from less than $1,000 to $20,000 per academic year. A number of scholarships are available specifically for minorities. The best source of information regarding available scholarships and fellowships is the Beta Alpha Psi Web site ( www.bap.org ), which gives the application deadlines and amounts of each scholarship and details on whom to contact where for more information.
Choosing a Doctoral Program
The choice of doctoral programs in accounting is more limited than it is for an undergraduate or master’s degree program. Though there are approximately 81 doctoral programs in accounting, most will admit only two to four individuals per year. Prospective candidates should consider a number of factors in applying: placement of graduates, completion rate, residency requirements, faculty research interests, faculty turnover and personality of the other doctoral student(s). Visit the school before making a decision. Meet with faculty as well as with currently enrolled doctoral students. A prospective candidate should determine his or her personal goals and find a program to help attain them. For example, if one’s goal is a tenure-track position at a specific university, find out from which doctoral programs that university most often recruits new faculty.
A number of resources are available to help prospective candidates obtain information about each doctoral program. The Web site that provides the results of the survey used in this article, along with links to every doctoral program in accounting in the United States, is sponsored by the Southeastern Louisiana University accounting department at the following address: www.selu.edu/Academics/Depts/Accounting/DP/dpa.htm (this address is case sensitive). The Hasselback Directory of Accounting Faculty (online at www.rutgers.edu/Accounting ) provides valuable information on faculty teaching and research interests, schools of degree, and faculty turnover. The best way to obtain insight on accounting doctoral programs is to speak directly with those who teach them. A good opportunity to meet faculty is through meetings of local CPA state society chapters, local IMA chapters or Beta Alpha Psi chapters at local universities.
Academia needs qualified candidates to enter doctoral programs. One characteristic of a “qualified candidate” is an informed candidate. Although it is difficult to determine which candidate will excel, the responding doctoral programs did provide a description of an ideal candidate (see exhibit 4). The average age of these candidates was 28 with 3 to 4 years of practical experience. However, many doctoral students enter the program in their 30s, and entry for those over 40 and even 50 is not uncommon. Ideal candidates also had high undergraduate and graduate GPAs with GMAT scores in the mid to high 600s. Although most programs identified accounting as the preferred undergraduate major, undergraduate majors also considered valuable were economics, mathematics and finance. Regardless, motivation and persistence are always paramount for someone aiming for the special rewards of a career in academia.