Why I didn't get a Ph.D.

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Jonathan Liljegren's Story

I guess you could say I had everything going for me to get into a great doctoral program in accounting. I had started working on research with Ted Christensen and Erv Black before I left on my mission gathering data for their Pro-Forma Earnings analysis papers. After the junior core I began working as a research assistant to Steve Glover and worked on a few papers. I had entered the PhD Prep track with every intention of pursuing a doctorate at a university that specialized in behavioral audit, but somewhere things changed. That somewhere was on Highway 101 in San Jose, California.

I had gone to San Jose to work for Ernst & Young during the summer. It was all part of my "Big Plan" to work in audit for a few years before going back to get my PhD (remember that I was an RA for Steve Glover). The only problem was after two weeks of auditing Hewlett Packard I realized on my commute home from Palo Alto on Highway 101 that auditing was not for me. I admit that my dislike for audit doesn't necessarily mean that I couldn't pursue a doctorate in accounting. However, I came to realize that the tools I had been given in this life would be put to greatest use in consulting. More importantly, I believe I would be a more enjoyable person after coming home from a consulting job versus coming home from an audit engagement. It is the old adage "Choose a profession that you love and you will never work a day in your life."

In a way I should have seen it coming. My goal when I graduated from high school was to get my accounting degree from BYU and work as a consultant for Arthur Andersen in the Bay Area. Well, the dream of working for Arthur Andersen is never going to come true. But I did learn a lesson from my experience. As we are accepted to one of the best accounting programs in the universe we can lose sight of where we really want to go. Let me be clear that I really thought I wanted to be a professor, but the reason I was interested in becoming a professor was because I love to teach and I could do freelance consulting on the side. So in a way, my potential side job has now become my career.

There is still a possibility that I will return to a PhD Program someday but it would probably be a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA).

My Advice

  • Auditing, consulting, or investment banking may be better options for you if you find yourself more interested in how the research could be implemented than actually doing the research.
  • Consider just getting an economics minor in conjunction with your undergraduate accounting degree if you're not sure about a PhD (course comparison). You can socialize with all of the Prep Track students in your economics classes and see if what they are talking about still interests you.
  • You don't have to love accounting research or fully understand it at this point, but if the very thought of running regressions and digging through statistics the rest of your life makes your stomach churn then follow your gut and don't get a doctorate.

Brad Gibb's Story

My decision to not pursue a PhD was not based on a realization that I dislike what is involved in earning a PhD or the future career that it would allow me to have but instead it was based on the fact that I learned that I have other goals, desires, and passions that I enjoy more than a PhD. I originally entered the accounting program at BYU with no intent of ever being an accountant or getting a CPA. I entered because accounting, as I was told, is the language of business and I wanted to speak that language. I planned on eventually owning and operating a small business of some kind so some firsthand knowledge or the basics of business seemed like it would be useful to me. Additionally, the program was one of the best in the universe.

As I went through the Jr. Core, I was slowly lulled into believing, as one may easily be convinced, that all those with an accounting degree is destined to work for a Big 4 accounting firm. This was a short lived courtship and as soon as the opportunity of a PhD was presented, I was in. I knew I loved teaching, I knew I have the intellectual ability, and (maybe the most important) I didn't hate school. All of these made me think I would be a good candidate. The bonus to all this was the more I was exposed to research the more I enjoyed it.

Only one doubt remained. I knew I had an appetite for what I called the adrenaline of the business world. I knew I would miss the excitement of working on my own company and enchantment of what is the entrepreneurship spirit. The changing point in my decision began the summer before my last year. I quit my job keeping books for a company and along with my brother and two partners, began investing in real estate. Our small group's holding quickly grew and I began to feel the adrenaline that I was missing in the PhD world. From the investing in real estate, I began to see numerous other opportunities and began to see where I would be most happy. I began again to look outside accounting and realized there are many jobs that would build on the base of accounting I had acquired other skill sets that will eventually prove valuable to me.

Unfortunately, I made the decision to not get a PhD a bit late. It wasn't until the end of the fall semester, while others were preparing to take the GMAT, that I decided not to apply for a PhD. While there are still opportunities for work, most companies recruit for their most desirable jobs during the fall semesters.

At this point, the possibility of my coming back to do a PhD is not likely.

My Advice

  • Before you start your senior year you need to decide whether or not you will pursue a doctorate degree immediately after graduation. If you wait until winter semester to decide that you don't want to pursue a doctorate program and instead would like to work you will have missed the key recruiting opportunities available in fall semester.
  • Remember that your only choices are not between a PhD and the Big 4. Its not even between a PhD and public accounting. You are graduating from one of the premier business programs with many added skills that few other business students possess. There are many jobs in consulting, banking, finance, industry, and more that will build your skills, provide very well for your family, and will still allow you to have a life when you come home from work.
  • Any career worth having (PhD included) will require an upfront sacrifice. Any career requires that you put in your time before you get the perks associated with that particular career. Putting in your time at a Big 4 will require 50 to 60 to 70 hrs weeks, and so will the 4 to 5 years that it takes to earn a PhD. Putting in your time at a company to work up the ladder, or at a bank to become a VP or even to start your own company will require a significant sacrifice. It need not consume you, but even a PhD will be 4 to 5 years of long weeks followed by years working hard to earn tenure. I agree with Jonathan. Do what you love and you won't work a day in your life. But don't choose a career because of the work/life balance alone. Don't kid yourself that the PhD road will be easier than others. The thing that makes it easier is that those who make it through love it, not because it requires less of you.

External Links

  • Grad School Rulz - This blog makes some interesting points about continuing in a PhD program. Many students wonder if a PhD program is right for them and this blog discusses some of the signs that a PhD program may not be right for you. Specifically, this blog addresses in the relevant decision making process while someone has been in a PhD program for some time of whether to remain in a PhD program or to discontinue doctoral studies.

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