Choosing a PhD-program in accounting: coursework is not a cost but an investment!

Posted by BART DIERYNCK - May 29, 2017

When I started my PhD in September 2006 at KU Leuven, which is also the school at which I obtained my BSc and MSc in Business Economics, I was happy to see that I only had to follow 5 courses in the first year of my PhD. My reasoning at that point in time was that a lower amount of courses would give me more time for research. None of the courses I had to follow were tailored to accounting or taught by accounting faculty. My average grade for the courses met the benchmark that was required to go to the second year of the PhD-program. Mission accomplished!

In the fourth year of my PhD, I went to the conference of the Management Accounting Section of the AAA and I was also selected to participate in the doctoral consortium. Although I received good comments on the paper I presented, I noticed that I was definitely not on track to realize my ambition to become a good researcher in accounting. I noticed that the US PhD-students were much better trained in economic theory, behavioral theory, econometrics, research design and data management. I worked extremely hard during the first years of my PhD, but after four years it became clear that the hard work did not really pay off and that I was missing an overarching framework on accounting research and practice. Such an overarching framework helps to develop research questions that are better grounded in the current literature, to develop better research designs, and to perform better analyses of the work of other researchers. Needless to say that I travelled back home with a bag full of disappointment. What should I do? Will I ever be able to compose a competitive package for the job market? Would it not be better to move to practice? I decided to go to the US for an extended visit. Luckily, I could go to Emory University for about 6 months and the courses I followed helped me to develop my overarching framework. Up until now, I benefit from what I learned during my visit and I am also sure that it helped me on the job market.

Although I am very happy with my career path until now, it is clear that I made a couple of ‘mistakes’. When I was a PhD-student, it was possible to correct for these mistakes without really suffering from these mistakes on the job market. However, the job market has intensified the last couple of years and schools become much more demanding regarding the qualities of the people they want to hire. All of this implies that it becomes much more difficult to correct for mistakes and that making good choices is crucial.

My advice to current and prospective PhD-students is fourfold. First, for prospective PhD-students, it is very important to look outside your own university to see how the PhD-program at other schools looks like. Scan some accounting journals and consider international rankings to see the position of your school. The UT Dallas ranking is informative but also the ranking developed by Brigham Young University gives a very good quality indication. It is also important to consider your own research interest, if you already have one at the time of searching a PhD-position. The rankings I mentioned are somewhat biased to quantitative research, implying that they are less informative if you are interested in qualitative research.

Second, coursework in the first two years of the PhD-program should not be considered as a cost but as an investment in your career. Honestly, if I see how our students at Tilburg University get a solid training in economic and behavioral theory as well as econometrics and research design, then I am always a little bit jealous that I did not have such a rigorous training myself and that I had to learn a lot of things on my own (which takes much more time). The coursework will help you to master important skills from which you will benefit the rest of your career. Third, it is also important to look at the coursework that focuses on accounting research. The PhD-programs at most schools contain some courses in economics and econometrics but a lot of them lack specific accounting courses. During such courses, you are forced to read the classical papers, which will help you to see the evolution in accounting research and to develop your own overarching framework. A recent and good evolution is that several schools work together in offering accounting PhD-courses. In the Netherlands, for instance, we have the ‘Limperg courses’, which are intensive PhD-courses in different areas in accounting taught by leading researchers in the area. A similar initiative has also been set up in Switzerland a couple of years ago.

A last advice deals with career management. As a PhD-student, you (and not your supervisor) have the important responsibility to manage your own talent and your own career. If you notice that you are lacking some skills or that you are not satisfied with your current PhD-program, make choices. You can, for instance, apply for an extended research visit at another university. My perception is that such research visits become quite standard in the CVs of PhD-students, implying that the signaling value of a research visit has decreased the last couple of years. Of course, an extended research visit still has a lot of value if you go to a good school in which you can follow additional courses and have access to faculty. A more drastic decision is to apply for a PhD-program at another university. As long as you are not halfway your PhD-program, I think it is wise to switch to a better PhD-program. Importantly, you should not necessarily move to the US to find good PhD-programs in accounting. Quite some European schools have developed an excellent PhD-program in accounting. I expect that the number of schools offering a PhD-program with a 2-year coursework phase will increase every year, which will obviously further increase the quality of accounting research in Europe!