Applying to a Ph.D. Program

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So you have decided you want to get a Ph.D....Now what? The next steps in the process are 1) to decide which programs you should apply for, 2) fill out your applications, 3) hopefully visit several schools, and then 4) make your final decision. On this page, we provide an overview of the process and specific suggestions for being successful in choosing and being accepted into an accounting Ph.D. program.


Selecting the Right Program

Question to consider when applying to programs

Here is a list of some questions that you might want to think about when applying to programs:

  • How many faculty are working with students? Do students regularly coauthor articles with faculty?
  • How many faculty members are doing research in areas related to my own interests?
  • What opportunities are there to work with a variety of faculty and to be exposed to different research methodologies?
  • Am I sufficiently qualified to enter this program?
  • Many Ph.D. students change their vision of research and many change their intended concentration area after joining the program and being exposed to a variety of research styles. Does my program of choice offer flexibility needed to do so?
  • Is there financial support for students to attend academic conferences to present their own research?
  • What opportunities are there for students to participate in colloquia, both as an attendee and as a presenter?
  • What are the TA, RA, and teaching requirements of the program?
  • What is the department's placement record? What types of jobs do graduates take and where?
  • Finally, how well do graduates of the program perform in the long term (contributing to the field through publication, practice of management and earning tenure)?

The most important criterion for success in an accounting Ph.D. program is to find a program that "fits" you. In deciding which programs do or do not fit, it helps to know what you want. Specifically, what type of career do you want when you graduate with your Ph.D.? Are you hoping to spend most of your time teaching or researching (or some combination of both)? How many hours do you want to work a week? How much money do you want to make? What subject of accounting (e.g., AIS, auditing, financial, managerial, tax, etc.) do you hope to teach and hope to research? While the answers to these questions are not required to apply for a Ph.D. program, it does help in selecting a program where you will "fit" well.

As a very general "rule-of-thumb," academic prestige is usually based on research productivity, that is, the more successful an individual or school is at publishing research in respected journals, the more "revered" the individual/institution. Connected to research productivity is pay. Generally speaking, the more research intensive the university, the higher the pay. Finally, professors often change schools over the course of their career. In general, it is easier to move from a research-intensive school to a more teaching-intensive school. Going in the opposite direction is more difficult because it is hard to sustain high levels of productivity as a researcher if you have a heavier teaching load and research-intensive universities will want to see evidence of research productivity/potential before hiring you.

As you think through the research/teaching balance, do not make the mistake of assuming one is a better or worse option. Both options have costs and benefits and whether the costs and benefits are better/worse depends on your individual goals. Thus, knowing what your goals are is important for deciding where to apply. If you have a strong desire to focus more on teaching/research, you will be more successful going to a Ph.D. program that emphasizes the area of your interest. At the same time, do not rule out the possibility of changing your mind as you study in a Ph.D. program. Most academics decide to become a professor because they were originally attracted to teaching. Many, however, find that researching is as rewarding (or even more rewarding for some) than teaching. Further, research can often complement your teaching such that you become more effective in the classroom. Keep an open mind as you learn more about the life as a professor and allow yourself to give full consideration to all aspects of the life as a professor.

Once you have decided what you want to do with your career, then the following suggestions will help you decide where to go.

  • Gather as much information about different schools as you can. A good starting point is visiting each school's official web page as well as the different university pages on this website.
  • Talk to people who have either been at a school or are currently at the school of interest. Please be respectful of the time of the people you are contacting. Ph.D. students and faculty are busy so asking them questions that are already answered on the school's web page is wasting their time. Also, don't send out the same email to multiple people at the same school. Students and faculty talk and it looks bad for you to send out a form e-mail requesting information.
  • Determine what type of research you are interested in conducting. Certain schools do not support some research topical areas and/or methodologies (see these accounting rankings to see what research particular schools do and do not support). Make sure the schools you are considering do what you want to do. Do not expect to go to a school and convince professors to change the area of research they are focusing on to work on projects that interest you. You can expect them to continue working on what they find interesting and letting you work with them if they think you will be helpful to them.

After you have gathered information about schools that interest you, you will need to apply to these schools. Hopefully, you will get to visit several schools and find which one fits. An important warning: while you may be tempted to go to the school other people consider "best," it is far more important that you feel comfortable and like where you will work. Numerous Ph.D. students have dropped out because they didn't fit with the school. Making sure you fit with the school is far more important than making sure you are at the school others consider the "best." On the other hand, it is important to get information from a wide variety of sources. If a program has developed a reputation, there is probably a reason.

The Application Process

What Are Committees Looking For? In a doctoral program, the faculty is trying to decide if you have the brilliance and dedication necessary to become an important researcher in your specialized field. Both the department and the individual faculty members want to avoid students who need a lot of guidance or who have difficult personalities. Therefore, the committee favors students who appear well adjusted and whose research goals are well focused. Advisers regularly say that their favorite type of student in one who comes in knowing just what thesis topic he wants to work on. As one professor said, "You need a student who's quick to learn, self-motivated, technically good, and a real self-starter--and most students are not." [From Getting What You Came For (Peters 1997)] is a place where students can post when they heard back from schools. As such, you can see when different schools traditionally get back to their students and how. Find the results for accounting here. Feel free to post your results there so that future students can benefit.

Most schools consider several different factors when deciding which candidate to admit into their program, including GMAT/GPA, Letters of recommendation, and your statement of purpose. The factors considered important vary depending on the institution. However, in general, schools use GMAT and GPA to perform an "initial screen" of the many applicants. Those who surpass the thresholds set by the school move into the "second round" and their applications are more carefully considered. Thus, GMAT and GPA alone will not get you into a program, but the absence of strong scores in these areas may keep you out of a program.

As a quick note, if at all possible get your applications in before the school deadline. Some programs will start admitting students and fill their entire class before the application deadlines. If you can have your applications submitted before Thanksgiving or at least before January, it will help your application chances.


Your GMAT score is an important component of your application. While a high GMAT score will not guarantee that you are accepted into a given program, a low score can eliminate you from consideration. For most research-intensive universities, a 700 is often considered the "magic number," although the actual benchmark will vary between schools. Schools often state what the minimum or average GMAT score is for their students. Some schools will focus mostly on the score from the quantitative section, while others will also put significant weight on the verbal section. This is because the program will likely require good quantitative skills, but writing skill may determine how likely you are to publish your papers.

As a word of advice, don't despair if you don't do well on the GMAT on the first time. The format of the exam and the types of questions may be unlike anything you've ever done before. Study very hard before you take it the first time, because it will save you time and money if you don't have to retake it. However, if you have a bad day, realize that many people have done poorly on their first attempt, before retaking it and doing significantly better. Many people have gotten below a 600 on their first attempt, and over a 700 the second time around.

Your GPA is often considered jointly with your GMAT score in evaluating whether your application should be considered more carefully. Schools may also consider your major and minor GPA, or grades in specific classes they think are important. You may be able to improve your chances of getting into a top research school if you have done well in courses in economics, statistics, and math.

Letters of Recommendation

You will generally want to obtain letters of recommendations from academics. Typically, if you have gotten to know a particular professor well (e.g., you have served as their TA or RA), you will want to obtain a letter from them. Also, you might consider what they are known for. If a professor has won many teaching awards but is not research active, they may be an excellent source for a letter if you are applying to teaching schools, but maybe not as strong if applying for research schools. Much of this type of information can be found on each professor's vita.

Most professors will be happy to provide you with a good letter of recommendation. Note however, that this can be a significant time commitment for them, if they are planning to write you a strong letter. You should be very courteous and respectful in asking for a letter. If they decline, it may be because they don't believe they can write you a strong letter or because they do not have time. You should be respectful of their decision. Remember to ask well ahead of the deadline and give them plenty of time to write the letter. It's usually ok to give a kind reminder a week or two before the deadline if they haven't yet written the letter.

Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose is an essay that summarizes who you are and who you want to be as a professional. When writing the essay, you may want to consider the following suggestions:

  • Consider the audience you are writing for. If you are planning to go to a research school, emphasize your research abilities and interests in your essay. If you are planning to go to a teaching school, emphasize teaching in your essay.
  • The essay is evaluated both on content and presentation. Make sure your writing is clear, easy to understand, and grammatically correct. Professors will infer a great deal about your future ability based on your writing.
  • The essay is a chance to present new and interesting information about yourself. You do not need to repeat your GMAT, GPA, or other things contained in other areas of the application.
  • Dr. Robert Bloomfield, from Cornell University, has written a post containing some helpful tips for writing a Statement of Purpose.


How to act during Fly Outs


  • Be cordial in all respects.
  • Call schools and let them know before you visit if you have accepted another offer. Schools will view it as a slap in the face if you have formally accepted with another school and still fly out. If you are highly interested in another school but have not formally accepted, you still may consider flying out to another school if you have already arranged a campus visit.
  • Research on the school. Read about the professors and their work and have intelligent questions to ask them. Read about the area. This is one of the most important job interviews of your career.
  • Send a thank you note/letter/email after visit is over. Make sure the email is not a form email. You should send individual responses if you send a response to each person you met.
  • Remember the schools where you don't go are likely to consider hiring you. Leave a good impression and it will increase your chance of getting a job once you graduate.


  • Undertake your application or campus visits lightly. How you act during the campus visit will not only affect your Ph.D. placement but also your potential future job placement. The academic accounting community is very small, memories very long, and bridges are easily burned.
  • Act arrogant. More so than any other personality trait, arrogance has cost many excellent candidates the opportunity to attend the program of their choice. There are plenty of other candidates who are as qualified (or more qualified) than you are to enter a Ph.D. program. Make sure you come across as humble, willing to work hard, and a nice person.
  • Schedule visits if you "know" you won't go to that school. If you might go to the school, then go, but if you know there is no way you will go to the school, don't waste their time and money.

As part of the interview process, doctoral programs often bring students in for a campus visit. Only those students that the program is seriously considering for admittance are brought in for a visit. Some universities will first do phone interviews with the candidates they are interested in before they fly applicants in for a visit. It is important to remember that just because you are being flown out does not mean you will be given an offer by the university. In general, the purpose of the fly-out is to evaluate the candidate on softer skills (e.g., interpersonal skills, likability, etc.) rather than quantitative skills (e.g., GMAT, GPA, etc.) and to serve as a chance for the institution to recruit the individual and sell the program.

The typical campus visit usually includes meal times, one-on-one time with professors, and attending a workshop/class. During your stay, one or more professors will take you out for dinner and/or breakfast. This is an informal meeting. You should be prepared to talk about why you want to enter a Ph.D. program, what are your research interests (if you have any), what are your future goals, why you are interested in that school, and most importantly be able to ask relevant questions about the school and/or individual professor. You should not be asking questions about the school that you can find out for yourself (i.e., make sure you read the school's doctoral program web page and the individual professor's web pages as well).

Your one-on-one meetings with professors usually last 30 minutes. These meetings can range from the professors conducting a mini job interview, to a friendly open dialog. You need to make sure you have enough things to talk about to fill up an entire 30 minutes. One of the best things you can talk about is the professor's own research. Reviewing a faculty member's vita before an interview is a good way to get an idea of the type of research they do. Alternatively, you could ask the professor to describe one of their more recent projects. It is not a bad idea to bring a notepad to take notes. On the notepad, you might consider jotting a list of the questions you want answered during your visit. You can ask the same question to multiple professors as each professor will likely have a slightly different take on the question.

Often times, you will attend a doctoral seminar or a workshop presentation. If you can read the papers for the workshop or seminar before you get there that would be fantastic as it would improve the chance of you understanding what is happening. You are not required to make any comments, and you shouldn't just to show off your speaking ability. If you have good questions/comments to make, you can do that, but make sure you aren't speaking to try and show how smart you are. These workshops give you a good idea of what the tone of the school is like.

On a practical note, the school will usually cover airfare, transportation, and meals. The school may give you a budget and allow you to make plans (they usually reimburse you after you provide receipts) or they may book everything for you. If you are unsure, ask whoever is recruiting you how the school handles the finances of the fly out.

Again, remember that during the campus visit you are being recruited and evaluated. You need to make sure you do your best to sell them on yourself and also take some time to evaluate the school to see if you would fit if given an offer. Be forthcoming about yourself and your interests. You don't want to end up at a school whose faculty are uninterested in or hostile to your research interests or that has a culture that doesn't suit you. See the sidebar for specific dos and don'ts during your fly-out.

The Decision - Which Program to Attend

You have done all the research, you have visited schools, and you have talked with lots of people, now you are ready to make the decision of where to go to school. How in the world do you make this critical decision?

Steve Kachelmeier's (University of Texas - Austin) story is one of the best illustrations of making the decision the right way. He created a table with the most important criteria that he should consider across the top and each program listed down the side. He carefully mapped how each school fit his criteria, taking care to list the positives and negatives. After he was finished with this exercise, he folded it in half, thought for a minute about which program he would like best, and then throwing his carefully constructed chart away chose to go to the University of Florida. At the end of the day, he went to the program he liked and where he thought he would fit well.

There is no magic formula for deciding where to go. A few pointers will help as you make the decision. First, although this may sound like a broken record, go to the school where you fit best. Fit is far more important than any other criteria. Second, it is hard to make a bad decision. If you are willing to do your best, most programs will help you learn and be successful. Third, if you have a spouse or significant other, include them in the decision. Having support from your spouse during the program is extremely helpful in being successful. Listen to their needs and desires as you make the decision. Finally, quit stressing and celebrate you have been admitted into a Ph.D. program! You are well on your way to a great career.

A word of advice on what to do once you have made your decision. It is important that you notify schools as soon as possible of your choice, especially if you have offers from other schools. These other schools will likely want to invite someone else to their program and while you are deciding, they often hold offers to other candidates. As soon as you have eliminated a school from consideration, kindly and courteously let that school know so they can move on (e.g., you have 3 offers and have decided you will not go to University X. Let University X know as soon as possible even if you are still deciding between University Y and Z). In a similar vein, try and make the decision of where you are going as soon as possible rather than drag the decision out. Schools appreciate being told earlier rather than later so they can recruit other candidates.

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