Ask the Grumpies: Should I get a PhD in Accounting?

TH asks:

I’m 31 and in my junior year of college, majoring in accounting. I started back to school part-time ten years after dropping out in my first semester to move across the country for Loooooove… a couple years into school I wound up divorcing and am finishing up on my own with a great deal of emotional support from far-flung friends and family.

I was raised to be a good Christian wife and make lots of babies. I’m not doing any of that now except maybe the “good” part, and when I realized that my current program of schooling would end in a master’s degree, I was astonished. I was homeschooled all the way through high school, and while my parents assured me that I was smart enough to be anything I wanted, I wasn’t steered towards higher education in any way, although they’re both college grads and my dad is an MD.

Last year, a professor in one of my classes asked me if I’d considered a PhD in accountancy. I didn’t even know there was such a thing then, and certainly hadn’t considered it for myself. Circumstances being different then, I decided I wasn’t interested at the time but might consider it at a future date.

Circumstances have changed, and I got an e-mail from the same professor this weekend (he’s now teaching overseas, his gain and my loss) asking if I’d thought more about it. I hadn’t, but now I am.

You’re in academia. I don’t know anything about what that’s like. Do you have any thoughts or advice for me? I can do the coursework. I’m smart, and I can work hard. I’m carrying a full-time courseload, working about 30 hours a week as a self-employed editor of court transcripts, and my GPA just dipped from a 4.0 last semester. I ran some numbers today (average CPA salary, average accounting professor salary for new entrants) and financially it would put me ahead to get the PhD and work as a professor. There’s high demand right now.

Things I don’t know: If I’m going to hate being a professor. If there’s so much bureaucratic bullshit I’m going to want to drink myself to sleep every night. If I can learn to be a good teacher. If I can learn to talk for hours without losing my voice or coughing to death. If I can come up with subjects to research. If I can survive a PhD thesis defense. If adding five more years of school is going to destroy my chance to meet someone awesome who wants to have a family with me, and get that started.

I realized today that some of my reasons for brushing this off earlier are bogus – like being afraid that being visibly very schooled/”smart” will scare guys off because it intimidates them (my ex got more insecure the more I learned, which he didn’t need to be insecure about that). So that’s challenged me to reconsider.

Accounting professors are going to have a different experience than many of our humanities readers. You are absolutely right that the demand for accounting PhDs outstrips the supply. You would also most likely be looking at a 6 figure salary or close to one straight out of school. But I’m sure you’ve looked at the numbers and have a more accurate picture than I do. (Disclaimer: I haven’t looked at the numbers in a few years, and I don’t remember them exactly, just that they were up there with Pharmacy PhDs.) You’ve also noted that the accounting PhD takes less time than most humanities or science PhDs (on average, 5 years). Another nice thing to note is that it is not uncommon for people to start accounting phds later than their early 20s, which you tend to see in some other disciplines. You would not be out of place (not that that should bother you if you were!).

The number one thing you need to know about going into academia is whether or not you will enjoy doing research. I have to confess that I don’t have any idea what kind of research it is that accounting professors do. This year or next, see if you can do a research assistantship with an accounting professor, or even better, a guided research project of your own. If it turns out you don’t like doing research, you can still teach accounting with a masters degree, and adjuncting accounting classes pays more than adjuncting humanities classes does.

When you look at accounting programs, an important thing to ask is what the pass rate is– how many people get kicked out of the program or drop out. Some of the accounting PhD programs are pretty brutal and arbitrary in that respect.  Check to make sure they want you to succeed.  Talk to current students.

>If I’m going to hate being a professor.

Probably not. Especially if you can manage your time well, not stress out too much about tenure (and with a PhD in accounting, you should be able to find a job if you leave), and not stress out too much about teaching evals.  The only way to find this out might be to try grad school and try to get a handle on it; you could also try doing as many informational interviews as you can with professors and try to get their honest opinions about what it entails.  The good news is, they should all have office hours you can drop in to.

>If there’s so much bureaucratic bullshit I’m going to want to drink myself to sleep every night.

One nice and not so nice thing about accounting: Most likely you’re going to be in the business school. On the one hand, you’ll have fewer crazy colleagues than you might in some other fields. On the other hand, you’ll have colleagues who are business professors. How much do you like economists, marketing profs, etc.? You will also most likely have to wear suits, or at least business casual. Business schools generally have more resources than the rest of campus, you’ll be less resource-constrained, the rest of the campus will resent that slightly.  (And if not in the business school, then a subset of the economics department, though from what I understand accounting profs in econ dept are kind of second class citizens compared to accounting profs in business schools, but this may be because accounting profs in econ dept tend to be at SLAC and often do not have PhDs.) You’ll probably have the same bureaucratic BS more or less than you would have working at a mid-size to large company, depending on the kind of university you end up at. So non-trivial, but not more than you’d have in any big business.

>If I can learn to be a good teacher.
Yes. Another note: Business students are really obnoxious and entitled and whiny. However, I hear that accounting students are the least obnoxious group within business.  And other students are obnoxious and entitled and whiny too, so it’s not like you can escape that.  (But business students are especially bad.)

>If I can learn to talk for hours without losing my voice or coughing to death.
You won’t need to. Case studies!  But if you *need* to talk for some time, there are techniques you can learn.  (Relaxing your throat muscles!  Drinking lots of water!  Learning to project from the diaphragm!)

>If I can come up with subjects to research.
This is really important. Talk to professors about this starting now. Tell them you’re interested in research and ask for opportunities. Think about the big questions and the little questions in Accounting. Read papers. It may take a few years to figure out the answer to this question.

As much as you can, try to get research experience — sign up now for next semester.  Work for a professor.  Read articles and see if they get you excited.  For most PhDs, you simply must love research in order to make it through.  Try to find this out.

>If I can survive a PhD thesis defense.

>If adding five more years of school is going to destroy my chance to meet someone awesome who wants to have a family with me, and get that started.
Lean in. Also go someplace with a good engineering school. Engineers are sexy.  If the person you meet isn’t down with you having an advanced degree, you don’t want them anyway.  Plenty of my friends had babies in grad school, or got married, or got divorced, bought a house, got a puppy.  You can make your life work.  [If you get a puppy though, make sure you have an equal partner in house-training.]

>I realized today that some of my reasons for brushing this off earlier are bogus – like being afraid that being visibly very schooled/”smart” will scare guys off because it intimidates them (my ex got more insecure the more I learned, which he didn’t need to be insecure about that). So that’s challenged me to reconsider.

Like I said, engineers! They love smart women. Any guy worth having does (at least any guy worth having if you’re a smart woman!).  We repeat:  if a man doesn’t want to be with a woman who has a higher degree than him, DTMFA!

And that brings us to the last point. Even with an accounting degree, you get very little choice about where you move to after you’re done. We’re living in places we wouldn’t choose if it weren’t for the job. There’s a limited number of professor jobs in any discipline each year and you have to have a certain amount of flexibility. If you absolutely have to live in a specific city, it’s unlikely you’ll get a TT job there. It’s possible, but not likely. If you are location dependent, see what kind of jobs you can get with a PhD in accounting in industry and/or government (depending on the location).

Good luck with this decision!

Readers, anything we forgot?


41 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Should I get a PhD in Accounting?”

  1. Kellen Says:

    TH – I was very interested in doing an accounting PhD and discussed this a lot with my professors. My audit professor sent me a bunch of academic articles to read that are specifically sort of “summary” articles about research that has been done in accounting, and areas where more research needs to be done. It’s a really good introduction to reading academic articles, AND gives you a good idea of the type of research topics that accounting professors spend their time on.

    I have several other resources that my professors pointed me to – let me know if you’re interested.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    Run in the opposite direction if someone is intimidated by your brains AS FAST AS YOU CAN. Anyone like that will only try to bring you down to their level or lower to make themselves feel better. Ugh. I’ve had a few of those boyfriends and they were horrible and gave me all kinds of self esteem issues because they were constantly trying to take you down a notch and point out all your flaws.

    One question..would anyone in industry not hire you because of your Phd (because of over-qualification?) I would think if the answer is no, then the PhD only gives you more options. And for the record, I have many friends who have found love in their post-doc lives. I think as long as you keep living during this experience and not put your life on hold, then I think it’s a viable option. I don’t have a post graduate degree but had a lot of friends in Academia in the pHd and post doc world. so this is my second hand opinion of it all.

  3. Linda Says:

    I don’t have any advice about academia, but I just wanted to add some cheerleading here. Go for it! I work for one of the big accounting and consulting firms and there are all sorts of monetary support from these places for people to pursue advanced degrees in accountancy. These programs support people who are employed by the firm, as well as outside the firm. And PhD accountants are extremely well compensated in the private sector, too. So, if you think may want to explore private sector, too, explore what the big accounting firms are offering, too.

  4. hush Says:

    Yes, LEAN IN! But is this *your* dream? Is an accounting PhD the dream you would chase if you were not afraid of anything?

    It seems like your male professor has earned your respect and certainly has some pull in your life – even from overseas. From where I sit, I can’t help but connect this dynamic to what you wrote about your childhood: “while my parents assured me that I was smart enough to be anything I wanted, I wasn’t steered towards higher education in any way, although they’re both college grads and my dad is an MD.”

    There’s a part of you yearning to “be steered”?

    One more thing. You don’t need to get married or be partnered or keep trying to maximize your chances of meeting an awesome mate in order to have babies. You just need sperm.

    • TH Says:

      If I weren’t afraid of *anything* I would go live some granola lifestyle in the back woods of the Pacific Northwest and putter around and make things. But I’m really, really tired of not having enough money, and I don’t want my kids to have to work their way through college (which is a world away from wanting to give my kids a free ride). So…money. ;-) I picked accounting because it makes decent money, I don’t hate it, and I should have time and energy left for a family. So far it really suits me.

      I know I just need sperm for the babies…but I’ve helped raise five stepkids. I know I need someone to trade off with.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If something pays highly enough you don’t need it to be a calling. It’s ok to be an accounting professor because you enjoy it reasonably well and the pay is good. To be a humanities prof, often you need more passion… because the pay is not that great on average (even compared to similarly skilled positions– my mom makes less than the high school teachers she teaches in her MA classes).

      • hush Says:

        Glad it suits you so far. There’s nothing wrong with going for the money – I should know, I’m rich! But you may find, after a time, that you may have aimed too low in terms of income growth potential. Even $150k/year gets old pretty quick when you don’t love your work, even if the hours are good. BTW, “What would I do if I were not afraid?” is the line of inquiry Sheryl Sandberg recommends folks in your shoes engage in: know yourself. You’ll do fine.

        Also, there’s nothing at all wrong with kids working to pay for college. I worked my way through college and graduated summa cum laude from a top school. That college work experience helped land me my first big job because the people doing the hiring were sick of overprivileged kids with parents who had bankrolled their every move, who had no work ethic, couldn’t handle feedback, and couldn’t show up on time.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        There’s nothing keeping a tenured accounting professor from taking on consulting projects!

  5. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    Strongly agree with the recommendation for smart women to date and marry engineers!

  6. SP Says:

    I have to chime in with enthusiasm for the engineer comment. :) Granted, i’m the enigneer in industry and my husband is in academia, but most of the men I work with are really great guys who are interested in smart women. Anyone who is intimidated by a PhD doesn’t get it and isn’t worth your time.

    As others have mentioned, a PHD only opens doors. You can always go into industry or academia. The only reason to NOT do this would be because you aren’t interested in reasearch or you do not want to put in the time/effort in school and you want to get started in industry straight away. It doesn’t sound like you are in a huge hurry there.

    I also think it is somewhat easier to meet new people in an academic setting than out in industry. Not speaking from experience here, but being surrounded by academically minded smart people for a little longer can’t hurt!

    good luck!

  7. AS Says:

    I’m a first year accounting PhD student. I would agree with the above advice – start reading papers now to see if you find them interesting, and if it’s possible, start doing research with a professor. If you do decide to pursue the PhD, I’d recommend taking the following courses before starting (perhaps at a community college or online for free – you just need to get the knowledge):

    1) Calculus
    2) Linear algebra
    3) Probability/statistics
    4) Real analysis

    I entered with just single variable calculus and took an intro probability class, and I wish had done more ahead of time. The first year econ sequence is a bit overwhelming, and the above classes will help you in the long run for accounting. So far I am enjoying the program. I constantly feel like I don’t understand anything, but other than that it is fun. Also, be aware that your research will likely have little to no impact on the world outside of Accounting Academia. You don’t want to get discouraged late in the PhD or at your first job that the research overall is relatively meaningless to the wider world.

    • TH Says:

      Thanks! This is super helpful advice. I know I’m much more interested in things that actually help real people, so I’ll want to keep this in mind.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        With that in mind, you may want to see if there are areas of accounting research that are more applied. You may be able to do the kind of research you want to do as an accounting prof if there’s overlap with another field (say administration). This gets into some politics though– for tenure you may need certain articles in certain journals. At interdisciplinary schools (like business schools) you may have more leeway in what and where you publish. However, your pay may depend on you being an accountant or it may be lower if you publish in non-accounting journals, depending on if they categorize you by your phd or by your research. (For example, economic historians make less than average for economists but more than average for historians.)

  8. GoodEnoughWoman Says:

    Yes to engineers! As an English major, I always wanted the literary types. But no relationship worked until the engineer. My engineer is of the aero type, and he later became a math prof, but he’s still an engineer at heart. And he loves that I’m smart and have advanced education. And I will never have to tutor the children in math.

    One caveat: he is not a big reader and does not love all of my books that take up room in the house. But since his motorcycles take up the garage, I think it’s kind of even.

  9. chacha1 Says:

    That is one of the most intelligent and self-aware questions I’ve ever seen on the Internet.

    My purely personal reaction: the Grumpies’ advice is 100% spot-on. In college, my econ professor suggested I should switch my major to economics from history. HE WAS RIGHT.

    If a professor is saying “you should consider this” it is because s/he sees something in you that s/he considers a) of value to the profession and b) that s/he’d like to work with. These are not trivial observations.

    There is (or should be) plenty of time between junior year and completing the master’s to roll around in the possibilities of a Ph.D. And there is almost no downside. Even if you decide after a few years that you don’t want to be a professor, I can’t see how having an accounting Ph.D. would be anything but a benefit to your future job-seeking.

  10. plantingourpennies Says:

    I started off on the PhD path, largely because I was fully funded and everyone was telling me that’s what I *should* do. But it didn’t take too long to realize that it wasn’t what I actually wanted and it was making me deeply unhappy.
    Go for it if it’s something you know YOU want, or if you’re fully funded and are willing to give it a shot and see if it’s a good fit. But if it’s not a good fit, don’t be afraid to step off and do what makes you happy.
    A good friend from grad school visited us this week and reminded me that I optimized my grad school experience without getting a PhD. In fact, they call it “pulling a [Mrs. PoP]” when someone stays in the program the absolute minimum amount of time to get a fully funded consolation masters. =) As someone whose job largely revolves around optimizations, I take a certain amount of pride that I started down this road by working on optimizing my own happiness.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      This is a good point– in general, do not get a PhD unless you are fully funded.

    • Leah Says:

      Yes, this, exactly! I also started a PhD program (mostly because I was interested in the possibility and also fully-funded). I was miserable, and it took me awhile to realize that and leave. I did finish an MS that has brought me a bit of good( ah, the consolation master’s — Mrs. PoP, a you future me?), and I’m still glad I tried even though it wasn’t for me. It has taken me awhile to recover from the self-esteem issues that arose, so please know that you don’t suck and aren’t a horrible person if you end up not enjoying the PhD.

      The only way to know is to try. I agree with everyone who suggests trying to get involved in research in the field. If I had done more of that, I would have realized that I far prefer teaching to research (though I am awfully glad that people out there do research and that I know how it works now). Best news is that you can still teach or go into industry/other jobs with a consolation master’s degree.

  11. TH Says:

    Thank you all for the perspective and taking the time to share yours!

    I’m not one of those people who has a “calling” to something. Never have been. I picked my career path my third (part-time) year in college by a process of elimination: Majors offered nearby; decent wage for a middle-class kind of lifestyle; something I won’t hate doing; leaves time and energy for a family. I took a lot of time choosing accounting, but my classes and internship bear out that I made a pretty good call for myself. I actually like this stuff!

  12. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Never give anyone a second look once he is intimidated or in any way disparaging of your talents, brain, education or aspirations! I did it and it ruined my life. However, he instantly changed after the wedding. I am talking abuse on leaving the church and during the honeymoon. There were no warnings! You are older and wiser through experience. At 66, I fear my chance for the PhD I planned when I was sixteen is out of my reach now. At this point, I will not even continue a conversation with a man who puts down my education in any way. “Oh, you are so smart, I suppose you know all about (whatever).” Hell YES, I am very smart, too smart to listen to putdowns for another minute!

    I was reared to be a good, christian woman, get an education, never get divorced. Okay, I am good and managed to get the MA. Get the PhD and lean in, but don’t hide your talent to make someone else feel superior. Get a PhD.

  13. Cleftaz Says:

    I am a male that by accident :o) started reading these posts.
    I totally agree with the wise words from Practical Parsimony. Get a PhD!

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  15. Michael Says:

    I am an accounting professor. Yes you should get a Ph.D. in accounting. The quality of life is well worth the pain of working 5 five years on the actual degree and the early years afterwards trying to get tenure. Most people that start a Ph.D. program are not sure if they will like academic research, but that’s o.k. Not everyone will take a job at a high research institution. There is a need for high quality teachers at smaller universities. If you happen to like research however, the average starting salary for a rookie accounting Ph.D. at a public doctoral granting university is almost $200,000 for 9 months, plus summer support for research. At smaller, non-research oriented universities, it is at least $110,000. These salaries have increased almost every year for a decade or more. The shortage continues as more senior faculty retire.

    While in a Ph.D. program you can expect to be paid $25,000 – $35,000 to live on each year, plus health care for you, but not usually your dependents. All classes, office spaces, computers, travel expenses, etc. are generally paid for as well.

  16. LunaLikes Says:

    I’m in my second year of a PhD in Accounting and very much recommend it. I get to talk to smart people every day, read interesting (to me) articles, and attend stimulating seminars. My job prospects are great and I’m excited about the research I get to do.
    Having said all that, a few things to consider:
    – It is important to choose your school carefully. There are specializations within accounting (behavioural, empirical, tax, audit, etc) and not all schools offer all areas. Also, the faculty are INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT! Have as many conversations with as many as possible and find out the reputations of those you hope to work with. Like all departments, there are good and bad profs everywhere.
    – Many students have worked in accounting firms before coming back to do a PhD. This gives you connections in the industry and ideas for research. It also helps to develop a bank account to offset the lean student years, even if you are fully funded (which is absolutely necessary)
    – It is a lot of work. I read/write at least 50 hours a week. More during crunches. You can have a life outside school, but it won’t be much. Particularly if you want to finish in 4-5 years.
    – AS above is absolutely correct about being prepared for stats/econometrics/linear algebra/etc. Some schools are more intensive in this than others, but they are usually the schools whose graduates command the highest salaries.
    Good luck!!

    • Pamela McKenna Says:

      I am about to graduate as an older student, 43, and I am a triple major in Business, Poli Sci and Mgmt. with a concentration in Accounting as well as a certificate in Non Profit Mgmt. My profs have started to hint to me that maybe I should pursue a PhD in Accounting. I really enjoy the thought of a PhD and I enjoy accounting, as well as research and writing. Another issue that I do have is that I do not enjoy teaching, I am sort of not looking forward to that aspect. How much teaching does a PhD entail?
      I am, of course, afraid that I will not get into a good program and I am nervous about failure, however reading the posts have really helped me out. Thank You all.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Teaching can vary tremendously. Generally from as low as one course per year to as high as 8 classes/year (as a prof–you can get through grad school w/o teaching a single course in many acct programs.)

      • LindaW Says:

        While it is true that you can get through a PhD with a minimal amount of teaching, you may want to consider your career options afterwards. There are various research positions with industry and/or government that, being outside of academia, will require no teaching. If you wish to stay in academia and teach as little as possible, you will have to graduate from a very good program with a high quality dissertation in order to find a placement at a research university with a light teaching load. These positions are more competitive due to the resulting research time allowed. If neither of these options appeal to you, you may want to reconsider why you wish to pursue a PhD in the first place. Either that, or ensure that your course selection and dissertation topic align with your career aspirations.

  17. Dennis Says:

    I am a twice-tenured accounting prof. I agree with most of the above. Some additional thoughts…
    ….I started the PHD program at 29. Several people in the program were older than I was.
    …There aren’t a lot of PHD programs and most are small. Some only accept students every other year. Getting accepted at a specific school is not easy. It often depends on the quality of the other applicants for those 4 slots that year. I was accepted by some great programs and rejected by some less prestigious schools. I chose one in the middle because I decided that a heavy emphasis on research wasn’t my career goal (I love teaching, I like research). Also, the school I chose worked better for me geographically and I didn’t want to spend 4-5 years far from family.
    …Anywhere you apply, tell them you want to do research. Programs get their prestige from where and how much their graduates publish, not how great they are at teaching. I love teaching, but that isn’t what gets me promoted/tenured.
    …You don’t learn accounting in a PHD program. You learn research methods and how to apply them to accounting related issues. Take as many stats classes as you can now. The material will be repeated in the PHD program but already knowing a lot of it will make your life easier.
    …I’ve been at 4 different schools and I don’t see a lot of “consulting projects” being done. You’ll be plenty busy with teaching, research and committee work. Despite how hard some professors tell you they work, just look at the faculty parking lots on Friday afternoons. It’s an awesome job relative to working in a CPA firm.
    …A lot of accounting professors worked in CPA firms when they were young and hated it. If they’d liked it, they wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to be graduate student for 4 – 6 years.
    …Some schools expect their professors to only publish in the top 3 journals. Others just want their professors to publish something on a regular basis to show that they’re active. Most schools are in between.
    …It’s a great job. I’m very very lucky to have found my way into this profession.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Thanks for your insight!

      As a note: the accounting profs at the business school where I got my degree did do outside consulting projects (as did my own social science professors). But it may be a special case.

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