Propensity to take accounting doctorates (PhD) in Europe: is it a matter of quantity or quality?

Posted by ANNALISA PRENCIPE - Feb 24, 2018

I find the debate on the propensity by European students to take accounting doctorates very stimulating. It’s interesting to see how accounting academics can take such distant positions on an issue (the need for high level education) that should make everybody agree.

As a dean of an undergraduate school and former director of an MSc program, I have often found myself in the position to answer questions like ‘is a higher level degree really needed nowadays?’, or ‘wouldn’t it be better to go directly to work and learn from real-world experience?’. The well-known cases of success of people with no university degree (from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, and several more) raise many of such questions.

My position on this issue is straightforward: I strongly believe in the value of education, and this applies also to doctorate studies. Like in all fields, doctorates in accounting are signals (Spence, 1973) which help academic institutions select the best talents. I don’t mean that someone without a doctoral certification cannot succeed in an academic job, but such signal certainly helps in a selection process characterized by high information asymmetry. Also, some research capabilities are difficult to be acquired without a proper training, and such training (with few exceptions) is hard to be found in the accounting profession.

Therefore, doctoral studies in accounting should be encouraged if we want to help academic institutions recruit the best talents. There is definitely a ‘quantity’ issue here, as highlighted by Willem Buijink in his posts. The question is how we can increase the propensity to take accounting doctorates. I like the idea suggested by Willem to expose BSc and MSc students to some accounting theory and method courses. During my term as director of an MSc program I realized that most master students have no clue about accounting research, they think that accounting is just about double entry and accounting standards. They see accounting professors as mere practitioners. I am quite sure that this situation is common to many master programs in Europe. It would be useful to collect data on the programs in which master students are exposed to some accounting research and see if this translates into a higher propensity to take an accounting doctorate.

However, introducing research-oriented courses within master programs is not easy to implement. And not only because we don’t want to make these programs too challenging or because potential recruiters prefer practice-oriented courses. As a dean, I can witness how hard it is sometimes to change the structure of academic programs, given the endless number of formal constraints dictated by the national education authorities. We need to find other ways to ‘promote’ the accounting academic profession among master-in-accounting students (within our accounting courses or with special initiatives). At the very minimum we should introduce the academic profession as a possible career path to our master students, trying to explain what is accounting research about and how rewarding it can be in the long-term, also compared to other accounting professions. We might be able to attract a larger number of them to an accounting doctorate program. This goal would be achieved much more easily if also the accounting profession (accounting and auditing firms) started showing interests in people with a doctorate degree. But this is possible only if they clearly see added value in our phd programs for the profession.

And this takes me to the ‘quality’ issue, which was also raised in previous posts. Are our doctoral programs developing the right skills? Are they providing the best training to future accounting researchers? Would a real-world experience during our phd programs help? These and many other questions arise….

I see this as an even bigger issue, which deserves more attention. It takes us to the wide on-going debate on the relevance and the impact of accounting research.  

I intend to address similar questions and stimulate some discussion on this issue within the Editors’ Panel during the next EAA Annual Congress ….so, stay tuned and see you in Milan!


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