Road map to applying for a doctorate in accounting

Finding the right school is only half the battle.
By Sarah Garven, CPA, Ph.D., and Bailee Pennington

Road map to applying for a doctorate in accounting
Photo by Roschetzky/iStock

Pursuing a doctorate in accounting can be an exciting and highly rewarding journey. However, especially if you're more accustomed to applying for jobs than to graduate programs, the application process can seem bewildering. It may be more time-consuming and require more preparation than anticipated.

This article can serve as your road map, making you aware of the possible roadblocks, speed bumps, and even the burnout you may encounter along the way (see the sidebar "Tips for Preventing Burnout" below). We outline the process of choosing schools to apply to, getting all your materials ready for application, and planning your time so you can meet the application deadlines. This guide is intended to help you navigate the highly competitive application process and position yourself as a prime candidate for consideration.

ROUTE PLANNING: CHOOSING THE TYPE OF DEGREE TO PURSUE

After you've made the decision to pursue a doctorate in accounting, the next choice you must make is which type of doctorate you want: a Ph.D. in accounting or a doctorate in business administration (DBA) with a concentration in accounting. Traditional accounting Ph.D. programs require full-time residency and consist of face-to-face instruction in a campus classroom. In these programs, tuition is usually waived, and students receive a stipend in exchange for working as a research or teaching assistant.

Nontraditional DBA programs may be conducted completely online or can be "hybrid" programs, where most instruction takes place online, but students are also required to be on campus multiple times throughout the program. One advantage of nontraditional programs is they allow you to pursue a degree while continuing to work, although some students may have difficulty balancing the demands of the program with the demands of their job (see the sidebar "Doctoral Programs for Practitioners" below). A drawback is that the cost of such programs can be quite high ($40,000 to $120,000) compared with the cost of traditional accounting Ph.D. programs. Also, note that having a DBA can affect the types of schools that will hire you as a faculty member, as many larger, research-focused schools prefer or even require candidates to hold a Ph.D. This may not be a problem if you plan to teach at a smaller or teaching-focused school.

CHOOSING SCHOOLS TO APPLY TO

After you determine which type of degree you want to pursue, you will then need to decide which schools to apply to. It is important to keep in mind that most schools accept only a handful of applicants each year. To increase your chances of acceptance into a program, you should apply to at least six to eight schools.

Consider some of the following factors when making this decision:

Accreditation

A school's accreditation status could affect your viability as a candidate for a faculty position. In the United States there are two main types of accreditation: regional and specialized. Regional accreditation applies to the school as a whole, whereas specialized accreditation applies to specific programs within the school. Accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is widely considered the highest standard of accreditation for business schools, and many schools require faculty applicants to possess a Ph.D. or doctorate degree from an AACSB-accredited institution (see the box, "Helpful Resources").

Your future career plans

Consider also where you would like to work after graduation. If you are looking for a position at a research-intensive school, choose a graduate program with a strong reputation for research. Also, note that graduates of a school's accounting Ph.D. program typically do not find their first positions at the school from which they received their Ph.D. Thus, if you know that you would like to work at XYZ University immediately after you finish your Ph.D., you should probably not apply to that school's Ph.D. program.

Your research interests

Explore the type of work your prospective schools' faculties engage in, both the research areas they tend to specialize in (e.g., audit, tax, financial accounting, governmental/not-for-profit accounting, management accounting, accounting history, etc.) and the research methods (behavioral or archival) they tend to use. This is an important step even if you're not yet sure what type of research you want to engage in, because later in your career you will be expected to develop research interests.

If you find that no one at the school does research you are interested in, or that most of the faculty is engaged in research in areas or methods that don't appeal to you, then that school will probably not be a good fit.

Additional factors

Other factors to consider include location, culture, and reputation. Depending on your situation, a school's location may be a major factor in choosing whether to apply to it. To determine whether a school would be a good cultural fit, consider reaching out to the program's coordinator, current students, or recent graduates. You can usually find their names and contact information on the program's website.

A program's research reputation can be an important factor in your application decision. To get a sense of the school's general and research reputation, speak with the program's coordinator and examine the program's website for listings of faculty publications, job placements of recent graduates, and mentions of its ranking in Public Accounting Report's Annual Professors Survey. (In this survey, which requires paid access, accounting faculty rank the best accounting doctoral programs in the country.) Additionally, you may want to view Brigham Young University's yearly accounting research rankings.

ROADBLOCKS: APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS AND LOGISTICS

Your application journey may come to a quick end if you encounter certain roadblocks that prevent you from applying to or being accepted into a program. Read prospective schools' admission requirements carefully, and be especially mindful of the following:

Required classes, degrees, and/or work experience

Some schools either require or strongly recommend having certain prerequisite classes (e.g., calculus, linear algebra, and microeconomic theory), a master's degree in business or accounting, or one or more years of work experience.

The GMAT

Most Ph.D. programs require applicants to provide their Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores. If you have previously taken the GMAT, make sure your score is recent. If you took the test more than five years ago, you will need to retake it.

Studying for the GMAT is important to optimize your chances of being accepted into a program. While minimum score requirements can be in the low to mid-600s, several schools note on their websites that the average scores of students accepted into the program are 700 or above.

Deadlines

Be aware of application deadlines. Priority deadlines for most Ph.D. programs are in December or January prior to the fall semester of entrance.

Whether a school is accepting doctoral students in a given year

You may find that some schools are not accepting applications to their doctoral program for the upcoming school year because they lack the resources to support doctoral students.

SPEED BUMPS: ALLOW AMPLE TIME TO COMPLETE YOUR APPLICATION

Beware of speed bumps that can slow your application journey. It's advisable to start planning the application process a year in advance. Most schools require the following application materials, all of which can take weeks or even months to compile or obtain:

Recommendation letters

Most schools require two or three letters of reference, and many specify that some or all must be academic references. Depending on how long you have been out of contact with your references, it may take a bit of research and time to find their current contact information and to hear back from them.

Transcripts

Schools will require transcripts from undergraduate and graduate schools you previously attended. Note that transcript processing and delivery time can vary depending on the mode of delivery, holds on your account, and the length of time since graduation.

GMAT scores

You can take the GMAT only once every 16 calendar days, five times within a 12-month period, and eight times total in your lifetime. Plan accordingly so you can submit or update your GMAT score before your application is due.

Résumé

If it has been a while since you last updated your résumé, you may need some time to research items such as official job duties, dates of service, and reference contact information.

Essays

Most schools require applicants to provide a written personal statement and may request additional essays as well. The personal statement is a very important piece of the application process in which you attempt to "sell" yourself to the school; therefore, it is a good idea to put a lot of time and thought into your responses and to hire an editor to read over your responses and provide feedback. Typographical errors, poor grammar, or a lack of enthusiasm are likely to leave a bad impression on the application reviewers.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

The application process is a critical phase in your journey to a doctorate, and it presents many challenges. We hope the tips provided in this article will help keep you on course and prevent you from encountering unwelcome surprises while navigating the application process. Proper planning, preparation, and knowledge can help you achieve your dream of receiving a doctorate in accounting.


Tips for preventing burnout

The process of applying to a Ph.D. program can sometimes feel overwhelming. Here are some ways to alleviate the stress:

Talk to accounting professors about their Ph.D. experience

Most professors would be happy to speak with you about their doctoral journey, including the application process. You are likely to find that they, too, encountered some speed bumps and roadblocks along the way, and they may be able to give you advice.

Stay organized

If you are applying to several schools, it can be difficult to keep up with each program's requirements. A good way to manage this is to keep an Excel spreadsheet or a checklist of each school's requirements and due dates. That way you can check off what you have completed as you go and not worry about forgetting any components.

Get help

This help can come in the form of GMAT study courses, having a friend or editor review your essays and résumé, or speaking with your target schools' Ph.D. program coordinators for advice (e.g., they may advise you to submit your materials by a certain date to be among the first considered, or to consider retaking the GMAT to increase your chances of acceptance).

Be aware of alternative teaching routes

You don't always need a doctorate to teach at the college level. Many schools require only a master's degree to teach as a part-time (adjunct) lecturer or as a full-time nontenure-track instructor.

Seasoned accounting professionals interested in transitioning from practice to the classroom may consider the AACSB Bridge Program. The Bridge Program is an intense weeklong program held annually at a participating university. Participants gain knowledge on topics such as managing the classroom, creating an engaging learning environment, and planning and delivering courses.


Doctoral programs for practitioners

A CPA with at least three years of professional accounting experience who would like to teach tax or audit at the university level should consider applying to the Accounting Doctoral Scholars (ADS) Program (adsphd.org). The ADS Program provides financial support for those pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting who have recent public accounting experience and plan to teach and do research in tax or audit at an AACSB-accredited university after graduation. Those selected for funding receive a total of $40,000 in supplemental payments upon reaching various milestones while pursuing a doctorate in accounting.

Practitioners can also consider participating in the AACSB Bridge Program, an initiative that helps practitioners transition to the classroom and learn teaching and classroom management skills. Visit aacsb.edu/events/bridgeprogram for more information.


About the authors

Sarah Garven, CPA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Bailee Pennington is a senior at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., majoring in accounting and finance.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.


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