Pursuing a Ph.D. in Accounting: Walking in With Your Eyes Open

Here's how the doctoral track looks through the eyes of one student.

After teaching mathematics for a number of years, I was contemplating a change in careers. After researching possible career choices, I took an accounting night class at a local university. I enjoyed the logic and structure of the class and quickly decided this was my niche. Next, I set my sights on a master’s of accountancy degree (MAcc). The plan was simple: finish my MAcc in one year, take the CPA exam immediately and find an accounting position, which I knew would likely be readily available.


But something unexpected happened. Three of my professors, seemingly simultaneously and independently, suggested that I change course and pursue a Ph.D. in accounting. They explained the great need at the university level for accounting professors, and they believed my GMAT scores, classroom ability and other skills would be attractive. After talking to my professors privately and asking some initial questions, I researched universities and programs. I learned much about how accounting Ph.D. programs are alike and much more about their differences. I decided on the University of Kentucky.


UK was one of the few programs that was willing to entertain the possibility of a student earning a degree in four years. Many other program directors told me at least five years would be necessary, some more. My interview at UK also revealed a collegial atmosphere between students and professors. Students were treated as equals in many respects. I don’t believe this is common at many other universities, based upon my conversations with professors and Ph.D. students. UK faculty have a wide variety of research interests and are all tenured (save one). The resulting stability in staff and variety of research meant that I would not be pigeonholed into a specific research area, nor would it be likely that my dissertation chair would leave in the middle of my program (see “Faculty Stability” below).



Studies show that, like me, students choose a particular Ph.D. program for a variety of reasons, many of which are not directly tied to the prestige of the university. According to Supply and Demand for Accounting Ph.D.s (American Accounting Association, 2005), the top six reasons students enter Ph.D. programs are, in order, personal growth and development, intellectual challenge, teaching, work/family balance, academic research and earnings potential. In my opinion, the first three reasons can be lumped together in the category of “I really like school.” Students who enjoyed their undergraduate and master’s-level courses want to learn (personal growth and development). They enjoy hard work (intellectual challenge—many accounting courses are notoriously difficult). These students like the idea of someday teaching at the college level. They like the environment and find the idea of working there attractive.


Potential earnings as a factor may seem confusing, since salaries in many segments of the accounting profession are higher than those in accounting education. However, salaries for accounting professors have grown rapidly over the past few years. In fact, the American Accounting Association’s 2008 report, Accounting Faculty in U.S. Colleges and Universities, indicates the average salary in 2004 (the most recent year included) for professors under the age of 45 ($101,000) was higher than the average salary of accounting professors over that age ($81,000), suggesting that salaries have been on the rise. In 1993, the average salary for professors under age 45 was just over $61,000 (all figures adjusted to current dollars).


The demand for accounting professors (and the expected increase in demand cited earlier) makes the market attractive, not only because of the increase in salaries but also because of the increase in job openings (see “A Profession’s Response to a Looming Shortage: Closing the Gap in the Supply of Accounting Faculty,” JofA, March 09). The Accounting Faculty report cited above estimated 140 new Ph.D.s are being produced each year, while about 500 professors retire. More available jobs means candidates have more control over location factors (region of the country, size of the city, climate, etc.). Assuming the candidate can meet the research requirements and obtain tenure, the stability of employment can make for an attractive combination of a nice place to work and live. These factors, combined with time and autonomy factors, make the accounting Ph.D. an attractive option.


Of course, there is a cost to getting a Ph.D. Students entering a program are sacrificing their earnings potential for the next four or five years. The amount and complexity of the work can cause significant stress. Almost all Ph.D. students I have spoken to have mentioned at some point their stress in surviving the program, fear of failure or frustrations. On the bright side, most Ph.D. programs do not charge students tuition. In fact, most students received stipends or fellowships to give them a (very) modest income.


One key response students gave as to why they wanted to enter an accounting Ph.D. program was also my primary reason: work/life balance. Working as an accounting professor offers flexibility in hours and independence, both in the classroom and in research choices. Although new accounting professors will spend a great deal of time working on research projects, developing and teaching classes and learning the university system (committee work, politics, etc.), the flexibility in when those hours are spent allows an accounting professor a great deal of latitude in determining a schedule for a given day.



I suspect, however, that the remaining survey response, academic research, may not in reality match survey respondents’ ideas. As I studied course catalogs and questioned professors, I quickly discovered a feature the programs shared that I hadn’t expected. A Ph.D. in accounting differs from a B.S. or MAcc degree in subject matter. The Ph.D. coursework does not address accounting fundamentals (financial statements, debits/credits, GAAP, etc.). Rather, the curriculum generally focuses on research about accounting, usually from either or both of two perspectives commonly known as archival and behavioral. The reason is that when research institutions (universities that have accounting Ph.D. programs) look to hire new faculty, they are overwhelmingly interested in candidates’ research—publications, working papers (papers that are in rough draft form and that the student is hoping to publish soon), or dissertation work, depending on the candidate’s experience level.



A typical accounting program consists of two years of coursework, qualifying or comprehensive exams (both written and oral) and a dissertation. However, some schools may want you to take three years of coursework. The dissertation phase can also take three to four years or more at some schools. The length of time depends on the faculty’s view of the dissertation phase, your individual dissertation committee, your ability to come up with a high-quality topic, and your persistence and dedication to finishing.


Your coursework will be determined by the type of accounting research you plan to do in your career (at least initially). Many entering Ph.D. students may be unsure of what accounting research is, much less of the type of research they eventually want to do.


Typically, students take three accounting research seminars, each focused on expanding the student’s understanding of accounting research and preparing the student to conduct independent research. Two independent projects (first- and second-year papers) precede the student’s dissertation work. Ideally, the student will research an area of accounting with a research question in mind, developing a review of the existing literature and a research hypothesis for the first-year paper. In the second-year paper, the student carries out the proposed study from the first-year paper and reports the results.


Outside the three required seminars, students’ coursework will be determined by their research interests. Here are a few typical courses that doctoral students may take:


  • Introduction to econometrics . A comprehensive survey of the general linear regression, autocorrelation, errors in variables and distributed lag models. 
  • Seminar in financial theory . Primary emphasis is on the theory of financial asset valuation. Topics include utility theory, investor reaction to uncertainty, and cost-of-capital theory.
  • Cognitive psychology . An intensive examination of theoretical and empirical evidence concerning mental processes in the adult human, including memory, language and problem solving.
  • Regression and correlation . Simple linear regression, elementary matrix algebra, multiple regression, analysis of variance, stepwise regression and partial/multiple correlation are among the topics covered.


The archival path is the more popular, judging by the number of articles published in top accounting journals. Archival courses (so-called because the data for these studies have been archived, as in stock prices) are primarily based in economics and finance. A strong background in mathematics is necessary for this path. The behavioral path is based primarily in psychology. Students on this track study how and why people make decisions, as well as other psychology-based topics.


Before formally applying to a school, understand what type of program the school offers. Some schools are primarily archival-based, others are primarily behavioral, and some are a mix of both. Most incoming students base their choice on whether they believe they can succeed in the archival coursework, which is heavy on math theory, advanced calculus, finance and economics.


Many schools state that they offer both types of programs, when in reality they may have eight to 10 professors who do work in one style and only one or two professors who do work in the other. When you speak to people at individual schools, therefore, be sure to ask about specific numbers of professors in different areas, or look it up for yourself.


Another consideration is which academic area of accounting (audit, tax, financial accounting, etc.) interests you. Most of these areas can be studied from an archival or behavioral point of view, but not every school has professors who do research in each of these areas. You may be interested in tax, for instance, and the school to which you are applying may have high-quality tax professors. However, if you are interested in behavioral tax research and all of the tax professors at that school do archival-based tax research, the school may not be a good fit for you.



Another variable is the stability of the faculty. If you are applying to a school with only one tax professor who is active in research and that professor were to leave (either through not getting tenure, taking a position at another university or retirement) before you graduate, it could throw a major wrench into your plans. Therefore, it is wise to consider not only the number of professors in your area, but also how long they have been there, whether they are tenured and, if ascertainable, the chance that they will remain for your entire time there. I originally applied to a different university, but after talking with a few people, I withdrew my application. There were only two active researchers at this school. The word was that one was looking to leave and that if he did, the other would probably leave, too. I did not want to contend with this uncertainty during the next four to five years.



The decision to pursue a doctorate in accounting is a dramatic life change, especially if you have been working in a nonacademic career for a number of years. A return to school can be daunting, especially if you must recall information from your undergraduate and graduate coursework you have long forgotten. However, I am confident the benefits at the end of the journey will more than make up for any discomfort experienced along the way. As a veteran researcher advised me, doctoral school will definitely change you. Some of the changes you will like, and others you may not. As I close in on the midpoint of my program, I can say that so far I have been fortunate to experience the former without the latter. v




 Students enter Ph.D. programs and become accounting professors primarily for the perceived opportunities and rewards of personal growth and development, intellectual challenge, teaching, work/family balance, academic research and earnings potential.


 Studies indicate that demand for new accounting professors is increasing as older ones retire. Salaries have risen, especially among junior faculty members.


 Many Ph.D. candidates also are attracted to the schedule flexibility and relative freedom to pursue research choices that many faculty members enjoy.


 Most Ph.D. programs require four or five years of study, some longer. The curriculum usually includes two or three years of coursework, two independent projects and a dissertation, which can take three to four years or more to complete.


 Academic research in accounting typically goes beyond the accounting fundamentals emphasized in undergraduate and master’s curricula. Most research reflects either an archival or behavioral focus. Archival research is characterized by statistical and technical analysis in finance and economics. Behavioral research investigates the psychology of economic decision making.  

Jason Bergner
is a Ph.D. candidate in the Von Allmen School of Accountancy at the University of Kentucky. His e-mail address is jason.bergner@uky.edu .





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