Growing More (and Better) Accounting Ph.D.s: What Some Universities Are Doing

BY PAUL BONNER
March 1, 2009

Faculty in charge of accounting Ph.D. programs at American colleges and universities say they recognize that CPAs starting out on an academic career track encounter challenges that can best be met by creative approaches. Most often, these approaches emphasize a personal touch through mentoring and advising. Nearly always, these leaders are looking for new sources of stipends and other student financial support. But most of all, they say, this long-term issue requires steadfast vision and patience to let the best ideas sprout and yield a crop that might not be harvested on the same campus or even in the same decade.

Many say that enhancing the quality of future faculty members is equally or more important than filling the accounting faculty pipeline, and their measures are designed to attract the best candidates, whom they often find already on their campuses. Michigan State University has even given its in-house quest a name: the Promising Scholars Program.

“Each fall, our faculty identify approximately 20 to 30 M.S. and MBA students who have the characteristics that make for successful scholars—academic success, a strong work ethic and intellectual curiosity,” says Marilyn Johnson, co-director of the accounting Ph.D. program at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “We invite these students to a half-day program that includes breakfast with several of our faculty, a presentation about academic careers and doctoral programs and a workshop by a distinguished accounting scholar.”

Universities also market their programs and recruit candidates through such places as alumni publications and those of state CPA societies, as well as chapter meetings of Beta Alpha Psi, the national honorary organization for students and professionals in financial and business information.

But even getting the best candidates in the door won’t be enough if the programs can’t make the proposition financially attractive to candidates who might be postponing a paycheck for the four or five years most programs require. Donors to general business colleges often tend to favor undergraduate and master’s programs with their dollars. Hence, campuses participating in the Accounting Doctoral Scholars Program (ADS) say its $30,000 annual stipend is their best tool to increase enrollment.

“We look for people who are already CPAs, so all of our students have already passed a major plateau in career development,” says Dale Flesher, associate dean of the accounting school at the University of Mississippi. The problem, Flesher says, is that without ADS, “our doctoral compensation is minimal compared to what a student can earn in public accounting.” Most universities try to sweeten the deal with other benefits, such as tuition waivers and health insurance coverage. At the University of Oklahoma, students get a spending allowance for research costs or traveling to conferences. And many programs are recognizing that the usual quid pro quo for such aid—teaching undergraduate courses—can also lead to early burnout if teaching while learning grows too onerous. Accordingly, they try to keep their doctoral graduate assistants from taking on too heavy a teaching load.

“Our administration has done a fantastic job of recognizing that Ph.D. students are students and not cheap labor,” says Gary Taylor, who directs the University of Alabama’s accounting Ph.D. program.

One of the more innovative measures has been to change the doctoral curriculum itself. Most notably, schools are trying to help their students make the transition to career by emphasizing the most salient research-related duty they will face as new faculty: getting their research into print. To that end, Alabama has replaced its comprehensive exam with a second-year paper, and in place of the traditional dissertation, it now encourages students to prepare three working papers for publication, Taylor says. At the intake end, universities recognize that students may need a little brushing up in some academic areas, especially if they’ve been out of school for a while. An informal program at Michigan State offers summer refresher courses in math and statistics, Johnson says.

Bentley University assigns a “primary supervisor” to accounting Ph.D. students during their application process who stays with them throughout their time at the Waltham, Mass., campus. “We feel very strongly that having a mentor from the start makes a considerable difference in a student’s success,” says Cynthia Clark Williams, assistant professor of management and associate director of doctoral programs.

“Over the years, I’ve found that personal contact works best,” says Christine Botosan at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. More than 10 years after Botosan began speaking to an undergraduate student about an academic career, that student received her Ph.D. last year from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s not an unusual span, she added. “Often, it is a matter of planting the seed and being patient enough for the tree to grow and bear fruit.”

 

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