Life as a Doctoral Student

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It's easy to see why everyone wants to be a professor, they live an exhilarating life full of adventure, fame, and fortune. Far fewer understand the journey it takes to reach the hallowed career of academician--the journey through a Ph.D. program. This page is intended to provide an overview of life as a doctoral student. While each doctoral program is different, this page provides an overview of doctoral studies in general and is intended to help you know whether a Ph.D. program is right for you. Learn what you can from here, read about life as a professor, and talk to faculty and doctoral students at lots of different universities to help you make an informed decision.


What do you do as a doctoral student?

Nitty-Gritty Details

Hours spent studying/working

The amount of work that a doctoral student puts into the program varies by student and by program. However, most students who are still in coursework spend 50-60 hours a week (again this varies depending on how hard the student wants to work). After a student finishes their coursework and their comprehensive exams, the student then can work however many/few hours they desire; however, the fewer hours the student works the longer it will take to graduate. During the coursework phase of the dissertation, the student does get Christmas break, spring break, and summer break. These times are great opportunities to relax from the stress of coursework, take vacations, and be with family. However, a break is not like High School breaks. The student usually still has assignments and/or projects to work on during these breaks.

How long do you do it?

To earn an accounting doctoral degree, it takes most students four to five years of dedicated work (i.e., students normally work full time on a Ph.D. and do not have a full or part time side job). The amount of time to get the degree varies based on how hard a student is willing to work, the traditions and beliefs of the university granting the degree, and the rigor of the Ph.D. program. The four or five years usually consists of two to three years of coursework and then whatever time is necessary to write the dissertation (usually one or two years).


Usually accounting doctoral students receive a full tuition and fees waiver while working towards completing their degree. They often also receive a stipend in exchange for teaching or being a researching assistant. The stipend can range from $12,000 to $30,000+ depending on the school. The requirements for teaching and being a research assistant also vary widely depending on the school. In general, schools with a greater research reputation pay a higher stipend and require less teaching than schools with a lesser research reputation.

There are three significant phases to an accounting doctoral program (1) coursework, (2) comprehensive exams, and (3) the dissertation. Also, during each of these phases you are expected, at most schools, to work as a research assistant or teaching assistant (or teach your own class). In this section we discuss each of these five topics individually.

Coursework Phase of the Ph.D. Program

During this phase of the accounting program you are a traditional student. That is, you go to class, have tests, and all the other things you probably did as an undergraduate or masters student. There are a few differences from your undergrad. First, the classes are a usually a lot harder. Second, you tend to not take as many different classes at the same time. Third, there are fewer students in each class.

The courses you take are commonly separated into major courses, minor courses, and then other "tools" courses. The major courses focus on your discipline, with a particular focus on the research your discipline conducts. For example, in accounting you do not take any more classes where you learn the rules of how to be an accountant (i.e., in-depth study of tax law, audit practice, financial transactions, etc.). Instead, your class is focused on understanding how you research accounting issues. Often times the classes take the form of seminars. A typical seminar class will entail reading several academic research papers and then having one class member present on those papers. The presentation takes the form of an active discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, how the paper could be extended, the theory the paper builds off, etc. The professor usually takes a somewhat back-seat approach to seminars and allows the students to do much of the discussion. Professors then chime in discussing points the students missed or to emphasize particularly important concepts. Most programs have students take several different accounting research seminars. The seminars are grouped based on research topical areas or methodologies.

The minor courses in a Ph.D. are taken with Ph.D. students in other areas. In accounting, students often minor in economics, finance, information systems, psychology, or statistics. The minor courses are usually major courses for students in those other fields. In most of these classes, the focus is once again on understanding the research that these disciplines conduct. Minor courses can take the form of seminars or a more traditional lecturing format.

Finally, the "tools" courses are courses that are intended to build specific competencies so that individuals can conduct research. These types of courses often center around gaining knowledge of statistical methods or experimental design. They may also focus on the basics of the scientific method and philosophy of science. Depending on what type of research you want to conduct, these courses can vary significantly.

The coursework takes two years for most Ph.D. programs. In some instances, this is extended to three years--especially if incoming students have a lack of background knowledge or have been away from school for an extended period of time. Your work is very structured during the coursework phase of the program and will be very similar to your undergrad or masters experience.

Comprehensive Exam Phase of the Ph.D. Program

After you finish coursework, Ph.D. students are required to pass a comprehensive exam. This exam may be a written exam, oral exam, or both. Most accounting Ph.D. programs require a written comprehensive exam. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to test whether students have a strong grasp of the current and past research findings in their discipline and whether students are capable of understanding the methods used to conduct research. Studying for the exam also helps students identify important gaps in the research stream or interesting questions. These often times turn into a students dissertation topic. Most students will spend several weeks and even months preparing to take their exams. The exams usually last an entire day or are spread over two or more days.

The exact format of the comprehensive exam can differ significantly from university to university. The most common form of a comprehensive exam are essay questions and a review of a paper. If asked to review a paper, the student will be given a "finished" academic paper (usually a working paper) and asked to write a reviewer report. This is similar to the task of reviewing academic papers for peer reviewed journals, as professors are sometimes expected to do. The student will have a set period of time to read the paper and write a review explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the paper.

After completing the exam, your professors will grade your exam and let you know whether you passed or not. If you did not pass, you are often allowed to take the exam one more time (if you fail the second time, you are usually dismissed from the program, although this does not occur frequently at most programs). If you pass the exam, you enter the dissertation phase of the program. Some universities also grant you a masters degree upon successful completion of the comprehensive exam.

Studying for and taking the comprehensive exams is a stressful part of the Ph.D. program. Becoming an expert on the research in your field is a laborious process. The time is also completely unstructured such that procrastination is possible and can really hurt your chances of passing if you do not take your study time seriously. Although difficult, the feeling of passing your exams is euphoric. Also, you gain significant confidence in your abilities as a scholar when you pass the exams and know that you are an expert on research in your field.

Dissertation Phase of the Ph.D. Program

The third and final portion of the Ph.D. program is the time spent preparing your dissertation. The process of writing a dissertation has several parts.

After finishing your comprehensive exams, and often times before then, you identify a faculty member to serve as your dissertation committee chair. This is usually someone who shares an interest or similar research skill set. This person serves as your mentor through the dissertation process and is incredibly important in helping you develop your academic career.

After selecting a chair, the first part of developing a dissertation is coming up with a research question. This part of the dissertation starts now, that is, you can develop an interesting question to answer at any time and use that for your dissertation. Ideally as you study for your comprehensive exams or work in other classes you create a list of interesting research questions. You then decide, with help and guidance from your chair, to use one of these questions for your dissertation. Click here for more about determining a dissertation topic.

After developing an idea, you have to refine the idea to the point that you are ready to pass your dissertation proposal defense. The time required for this depends on how diligently you work on the project and on your university's norms. Some schools required a virtually finished paper at this point, others require a much less refined idea. As you get ready for the proposal defense, you will spend a significant amount of time working with your chair. The proposal defense is a formal meeting where your dissertation committee (several faculty members including your chair) quiz you about your research idea. They are testing to see whether your proposal has merit and if upon completion the work is sufficient to earn a Ph.D. After your presentation and a question and answer period, the committee will vote. A successful vote establishes a contract between you and the university such that if you complete your end of the deal, they will award you your degree. An unsuccessful vote means you will have to continue to refine your idea or select a new idea and go through the process again.

After passing the dissertation proposal defense, you conduct the rest of your research and produce a final copy of your dissertation. You then present this final copy at your dissertation final defense. Again, a committee of faculty examines what you did and questions you about your work. After they finish questioning you, they vote. If they vote in the affirmative, you are awarded a Ph.D. If they vote in the negative, you will be required to rework your dissertation and repeat process.

The time to complete a dissertation varies widely. A dissertation may be completed in a single year or as many as 9 years. The average time to completion is usually 2-3 years.

Working as a Teaching Assistant or Teaching your Own Class

Doctoral students often earn their stipend (a stipend is the money a Ph.D. program pays you while you attend) by teaching or helping to teach classes at the university. The amount of teaching that you are required to perform is usually a function of the research ranking and funding of the school. Private schools and schools that conduct more research will generally have a lower teaching expectation. You should be aware of the teaching requirements that are expected when you apply to programs. The greater the teaching requirement, the less time you will have available for research.

Often doctoral students teach introductory financial or managerial courses. Occasionally students will teach higher level classes, but even then they are usually still undergraduate courses. It would be very rare for a doctoral student to teach graduate courses.

Working as a Research Assistant

As the name implies, working as a research assistant means that you assist a professor in conducting research. At the beginning of the semester you are either assigned or selected (or some combination of both depending on the program) to work with a professor. The professor will then ask you to help in conducting research. What you do usually depends on (1) what you are capable of doing and (2) the professor's needs. Thus your experience as a research assistant can vary widely.

Examples of different types of activities you may be asked to perform include hand collecting data (e.g., searching press releases for pro forma information for hundreds/thousands of companies), finding previous research that is related to a topic, writing up a summary of previous research on a topic, designing an experiment, conducting statistical tests, writing up final results for a study, or supervising other students in these tasks. As your skill level for research increases, you are usually assigned more important roles in the research process. Depending on who you work with and what you do, you may even be considered to be a coauthor on a project. This should not be expected in most instances, but it is possible.

Why not get a Ph.D.?

While we have mentioned many of the positive aspects of earning a Ph.D., there are several costs to this decision that are important to weigh. These can be viewed as red flags that might cause you to second guess going into academics.

In relation to the benefit of flexibility, we mention the curse of flexibility. There is little oversight of the day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month progress you are making in a doctoral program and as a professor. Once coursework is finished, there are few deadlines and it is unlikely that someone is looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. If you are not self-motivated and able to work in an unstructured environment, you will struggle in a Ph.D. program and as a professor.

If you do decide to start a Ph.D. program, be prepared to give it some time. The first semester or two will likely be very challenging and will not be representative of what you should expect during the rest of your time as a doctoral student or throughout your career as a professor. Students who drop out of a program after one semester have not given the school, or themselves, a fair chance for successful completion of the program. Getting a Ph.D. is very rewarding, but it does require effort. If you do decide to enter a Ph.D. program, be committed to finishing at least one or two years before considering whether you should continue.

For an additional perspective, read two former Ph.D. Prep students' stories about their decisions to not pursue a Ph.D.

More Information

These are the basics of life as a doctoral student. For more information, see the following pages:

Main PageLife as a Doctoral Student
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