Preparing for a Doctoral Program

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Now that you have decided to get a Ph.D., applied, and been accepted to a school that "fits" you, how can you best prepare for the work ahead? This page gives suggestions on what you can do to prepare to hit the ground running on day one. The suggestions on this page apply to both students who are directly attempting to enter a Ph.D. program and to practitioners who are returning to school after spending time practicing accounting.


Preparing for Coursework

Accounting doctoral students, unlike undergraduates or masters students, spend very little time studying "accounting." That is, you are unlikely to take classes where you discuss debits/credits, how to perform particular accounting treatments, etc. Instead, you will spend a large portion of your time taking classes in other areas like economics and statistics. Your classmates in these courses are doctoral students in other business school disciplines, including majors in those areas. Thus, the class is geared toward a very high understanding and starts off very quickly. To the extent you can build your economics and statistics background before you start a doctoral program it will help you to not be so lost when you start your program. If you take an economics or statistics class, make sure it is a mathematically intense course as this is how your doctoral program classes will be. In addition, refreshing your calculus and linear algebra skills will be a great aid (and may even be more valuable than taking a statistics or economics course). What classes/learning would be most beneficial to you as a new Ph.D. student depends on your skills and interests. However, we rank order these competencies and skills for new Ph.D. students:
  • Mathematical skills in calculus and linear algebra.
  • Statistic skills, especially understanding regression methodologies.
  • Understanding economic theory including microeconomics and econometrics.
  • Understanding finance, psychology, or other specialty area theory.

In addition to preparing for your "tools" courses, you can start to prepare for your accounting seminars. Accounting seminars are courses in which you read and discuss accounting research papers. These courses are meant to teach you about research and how to conduct research. To prepare for these courses, it would be valuable to spend time reading accounting research. Your goal in reading research should not be to gain a broad or even deep understanding. Instead, reading papers is valuable to teach you how papers are structured, what they do and don't do, and the language used and not used. Gaining as much practice and experience reading and trying to understand accounting research will be highly beneficial. This paper by Jason Porter and Teresa Gordon can be helpful in teaching someone new to academics how to read and understand academic research. To find examples of "good" accounting research, see the What is accounting research? page.

Preparing to Conduct Research

The purpose of a Ph.D. is to teach students how to conduct research. Unlike most of your previous research experiences, academic research is conducted to produce new knowledge, not merely summarize, restate, or repackage existing knowledge. The process of creating new knowledge depends on generating interesting questions to answer, properly applying a research methodology (e.g., a statistical analysis, conducting an experiment, solving a mathematical model, etc.), and then correctly analyzing and interpreting the results. Coursework during your Ph.D. program focuses heavily on the second and third point, the first point--generating interesting questions--is something that is less formally taught. Learning what are interesting research questions is part innate ability and part learning from experience what is considered an interesting question. You can prepare to conduct research in your Ph.D. program by looking for interesting research questions. You can develop interesting questions by talking with practitioners, reading about areas of accounting you find interesting, posing questions to informed and intelligent individuals, and having a general inquisitive nature. At this point, keep a file of all your research ideas without filtering on potential merit. Later, once you gain a greater understanding of academic research, go back and analyze these different questions to see if they still have merit.

To prepare to conduct research, it will be valuable for you to follow the recommendations of preparing for coursework. In addition to those suggestions, you may consider the following:

  • Try to attend a university workshop. Most research universities have visiting faculty or internal faculty present research on which they are working. Other academics ask questions and make suggestions at these workshops for improving the paper. Attending these workshops can provide valuable experience in what research is about (and allow for important networking opportunities). Contact your local university to ask about attending these workshops.
  • Read a research paper and after you finish, write down questions that the paper brought to mind. You may also try and brainstorm a different way of answering the same question.
  • Try writing a simple research paper, or pick an area of accounting that interests you and just write a short literature review of what research has been done in the area. Seeing what others have done may better enable you to see gaps in the research or other interesting questions to address that are related to prior work.

Preparing to Teach

While not imperative, it is useful to have classroom experience before you enter a Ph.D. program. The benefits are two fold, (1) you discover if this is something you want to do for the rest of your career, and (2) it helps prepare you to be a more effective teacher in your Ph.D. program and thereafter. If teaching your own course is not available, you may consider being a teaching assistant for a professor. If you chose this later route, make sure you let the professor know that you are interested in learning how to be a better teacher. The professor may let you lead a class discussion, an entire class period, develop some teaching materials, or have a positive learning experience in some other way if you express interest in helping.

An important note for non-native English speakers: Often times Ph.D. programs are hesitant to admit non-native English speakers over worries about their ability to communicate in the classroom and in their research. Gaining a strong foundation in writing, reading, and speaking English is imperative for your success. If your English skills need work, spend time improving your language skills as much as possible before you enter a Ph.D. program.

Preparing your Family

If you are married, entering a Ph.D. program can be a shock to your spouse and children. The shock can be caused by several different factors including: (1) new time demands, (2) different amounts of pressure, (3) a different standard of living, (4) relocating to a new place, and (5) future uncertainty about your career. Recognize that being a doctoral student carries significant pressure for most individuals as they try to learn a tremendous amount of material in a short period of time. Having a supportive spouse and/or family can help alleviate a lot of this stress. Before entering the program, make sure you have discussed what the program will entail in terms of time commitment and work so that you and your spouse are both in agreement to achieving success, however the two of you define success. It's also helpful to understand the benefits of time schedules in a Ph.D. program. During semesters of coursework, a Ph.D. student will be quite busy during the semester but then relatively less busy during breaks. These breaks offer great opportunities for family vacations and other recreational opportunities.

Special Suggestions for Candidates without Prior Work Experience

Should I work in industry before getting a Ph.D.?

Should I try and earn the CPA Certification?

Here is a list of some questions that you might want to think about when applying to programs: In the business world, the CPA designation adds potential for career growth and entitles the CPA to receiving extra trust in serving in advisory roles for clients. For academics, there are different benefits for having the CPA designation. One benefit of earning your CPA is enhanced credibility in the classroom. If you do not attain much professional experience, students may doubt your credentials for teaching a course. Having earned the CPA can help you earn credibility. In addition to credibility, some schools want you to have professional certifications, in particular, schools that are more teaching oriented. Also, receiving the CPA designation is probably more important for those with research and teaching interests in audit and/or tax. An additional benefit is that academics with the CPA certification may be able to better secure consulting opportunities in the profession than academics without the certification. Having a CPA will also give you credibility with practitioners. Additionally, if you ever decide to leave academia, this is a helpful certification for employment.

For academics, there are also several reasons not to take the CPA exam. Early in one's career, time may be better spent on conducting research or improving teaching effectiveness. Keeping up on CPE credits can be a hassle. It will likely be quite expensive, in terms of opportunity costs (e.g., time you could spend working on other tasks). Also, some schools (most likely research intensive schools) may view it as a negative signal of where you are devoting your time; i.e., you are not a serious researcher.


Working in industry prior to entering a Ph.D program, you will gain valuable experience that will lend to your credibility as a teacher. Working will give you a taste of what goes on in the "real" world. This can provide a valuable context for you as you think of research ideas and read research papers in a Ph.D. program. The people you work with will be valuable contacts. These contacts could provide access to subjects or data for research projects. Additionally, many students enjoy hearing "war stories."

Some schools prefer Ph.D. applicants with public accounting work experience. In 2007, the AAA surveyed the Accounting Ph.D. programs in the United States and found that 53% of programs either preferred or required some work experience. Some schools are less willing to hire new Ph.D.s in auditing and tax if you do not have "meaningful" professional experience.

By working, you could potentially take advantage of the Accounting Doctoral Scholars program. This program has been designed to help current practitioners transition from the professional to the academic world. The AICPA provides an annual stipend is provided to selected students who have worked in public accounting for at least three years. The Accounting Doctoral Scholars program has been designed to help at least 120 students entering Ph.D. programs in Tax and Audit by 2012. In addition to the ADS website, the AICPA also provides additional information on the Accounting Doctoral Scholars program.

Despite substantial tuition waivers and annual stipends for teaching and research, working may help you save money for living expenses during the doctoral program.

Working may help you decide if academia or industry is the best route for you. If you love working in industry there may be no reason to go back to school for 4 or 5 more years. Also, working first may give you options to fall back on in case you start a PhD program and find that you do not wish to continue.

Sometimes it can be easier to pass The CPA Exam and become a CPA. Some accounting firms provide a bonus for passing the CPA Exam during your first or second year of practice in addition to reimbursing the testing fees and paying for a review course. However, just because you may go straight into a Ph.D. program doesn't mean you can't get a CPA license. However, it is debatable whether having a CPA license is desirable and/or useful as an accounting professor (see pros and cons on The CPA Exam page).


By working in industry, your mind may become more results and application oriented. While these skills are valued in accounting practice, academic research requires a different skill set. The ability to have an open mind and thinking creatively can be more important than knowing how to get from step A to step B. In addition to building different skills in industry, you may lose your math, statistics, and SAS programming knowledge and skills.

The technical skills and institutional knowledge you acquire may be dated by the time you leave a doctoral program. Accounting and business practices change frequently. Standards and practices may change significantly over a period of 4-5 years. Especially for capital markets related research, it is not clear that a few years of public accounting experience will be helpful in generating research ideas. The skills you develop working in industry may not be very helpful in research.

You might never go back to get a Ph.D. Once you have begun to live off a normal salary, it makes it harder to take a pay cut upon entering a Ph.D. program. In other words, the longer you work, the greater the opportunity cost of returning to school. You are delaying earning a relatively high salary (hopefully) 4 to 5 years in the future for a relatively small salary now. This may not be a positive net present value decision.

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