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What Is a Ph.D. in Accounting?
A Ph.D. in accounting is a terminal degree in the field that requires candidates to complete coursework and original research. By pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting, students qualify for additional positions and can gain the highest level of expertise in the field. Because a Ph.D. requires a strong research component, students obtain intricate, in-depth knowledge and develop an extensive understanding of their focus area.
Most schools require prospective accounting Ph.D. applicants to take the GMAT or the GRE. While many programs recommend prerequisite courses in accounting, microeconomics, and advanced mathematics, students can often complete these credits after admission.
Graduates with a Ph.D. in accounting qualify for the highest echelon of jobs within the industry. A few potential choices include public policy researcher, financial manager, and college professor. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that demand for financial managers will increase 16% between 2018 and 2028 -- a positive outlook for those considering a doctoral degree in accounting.
On this page, readers can find detailed information about careers available to those with an accounting Ph.D., plus information about degree concentration options, online programs, and relevant professional organizations.
Why Get a Ph.D. in Accounting?
With a Ph.D. in accounting, graduates qualify for the greatest variety of positions within the field, with opportunities for faster advancement and increased salary potential.
While each state maintains different requirements, all accountants must complete continuing education credits to maintain certified public accountant (CPA) licensure. Other important accounting certifications, such as certified internal auditor (CIA) and certified management accountant (CMA) carry similar requirements. By taking doctoral courses, accountants can maintain these crucial credentials while taking their education to the highest level.
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Ph.D. in Accounting Careers
With a Ph.D. in accounting, graduates qualify for an exciting range of potentially lucrative job opportunities in the field. According to BLS data, college professors earned a median annual salary of $79,540 in 2019, while consultants earned a median of $85,260. Financial managers made a median salary of $129,890 in the same year.
With experience, salaries and advancement opportunities can grow by leaps and bounds. Many chief executive officers (CEOs) hold CPA credentials. In 2019, CEOs made a median annual wage of $184,460.
College and University Professors
College and university professors instruct accounting students and conduct research in their own specialty areas. Tasks include developing curriculums, advising students, grading student work, guiding department policies, and publishing academic papers.
Demand: The BLS reports that nationwide demand for college and university professors is on the rise, projected to grow 11% between 2018 and 2028 -- faster than the national average for all occupations. Applicants for these positions typically must hold a Ph.D. to qualify.
Trends: The need for skilled instructors increases along with societal demand for college education. As more students look to postsecondary schools, hoping to qualify for a wider range of opportunities, demand for full- and part-time professors also grows. Variables in job availability include state funding for institutions and particular disciplines. The BLS projects that demand for business teachers specifically will increase by 15% between 2018 and 2028.
Salary: According to the BLS, college and university professors across all disciplines earned a 2019 median wage of $79,540.
Consultants, Analysts, and Advisors
Often employed by large firms, consultants, analysts, and advisors, or management analysts, help their client organizations improve their profit margins. By assessing financial data, speaking with employees, and observing overall practices, they develop recommendations for cost-cutting measures, restructuring, and improved procedures.
Demand: According to the BLS, demand for management analysts will grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028, outpacing the national average for all occupations. By securing a certified management consultant (CMC) credential, prospective candidates can present a competitive resume in a promising job market.
Trends: With marketplaces booming across industries, competition grows fiercer between corporations. By hiring consultants, analysts, and advisors to improve business performance, organizations optimize their odds of success.
Salary: Management analysts earned a median annual wage of $85,260 in 2019, according to the BLS.
Public Policy Researchers
Counted among government accountants, public policy researchers perform similar tasks to management analysts. Employed at local, state, and federal levels, they monitor financial workings to identify issues and suggest improvements. On the federal level, public policy researchers often work for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Demand: The BLS reports that demand for management analysts will grow by 14% between 2018 and 2028. While this number applies to management analysts across industries, the BLS counts the federal executive branch among the top employers of management analysts -- making the outlook a positive one in the public sector as well.
Trends: Often seeking to minimize spending in the interest of best serving taxpayers, government agencies need public policy researchers to help them make the best use of their budgets.
Salary: According to the BLS, management analysts earned a median 2019 salary of $85,260.
The role of a financial manager -- sometimes called a management accountant -- is to take a bird's-eye view of their organization's financial workings. Financial managers help establish budget-related protocols, handle investments, and supervise employees. They also sift through financial data to provide crucial reports to higher executives, who use the information to establish goals and procedures.
Demand: The BLS projects that demand for financial managers will increase by 16% between 2018 and 2028, much faster than the national average for all occupations.
Trends: Financial managers with experience handling investment, cash management, and risk management will see the most growth in job possibilities over the next decade, according to the BLS. With strong experience -- like that provided by a Ph.D. -- and relevant certifications, candidates can bolster their resumes to qualify for a wide range of jobs.
Salary: The BLS reports that financial managers earned a median annual salary of $129,890 in 2019.
How To Get a Ph.D. in Accounting
Prospective accounting Ph.D. students should expect to submit GMAT or GRE scores as a condition of the application process. Some programs prefer the GMAT, whereas others will accept either.
Some programs prefer applicants to enter with a background in accounting courses, including subjects like quantitative methods and microeconomics. However, most programs will allow students to complete these prerequisites once admitted to the program.
While not always required, a master's degree in accounting can improve a prospective student's chances of acceptance to the program of their choice. Some programs require applicants to demonstrate an academic background in accounting or a related field, which a master's degree can evidence.
Because a Ph.D. requires significant research, prospective students should demonstrate superior writing skills. While programs generally consider GPA as a part of an overall picture, many recommend a strong academic background. Schools may also consider work experience and extracurriculars when reviewing applications.
The Accounting Ph.D. Program Experience
Ph.D. programs include a wide range of learning experiences distributed through a combination of classes and research practice. Coursework provides the high-level knowledge needed to conduct a dissertation research project. Each student's educational background and previous experience in the field factor into development of an individual degree plan that meets both the program's requirements and the student's interests.
Completing a Ph.D. demands between 70 to 120 credits. Some of these credits are part of a program's research requirement, while others may come from for-credit internships, teaching assistantships, and other practical learning experiences.
After completing coursework, students take one or more oral and/or written comprehensive exams. Upon passing these assessments, students move into "candidacy," during which their dissertation becomes the primary focus. Online doctoral programs often have a residency component, requiring students and faculty members to meet in person for advising, seminars, and other organized events.
The time required to complete an accounting Ph.D. depends on how many courses students take each term and how long it takes to complete their dissertation. Overall, prospective applicants should plan for 4-7 years of study if enrolled full time.
Those considering a Ph.D. in accounting can choose from a variety of concentrations related to their interests and career goals. Whether planning to work with individual clients or head up a large organization, prospective students can find appropriate specializations to secure advanced expertise in the field. The list below offers details on a few concentrations available to accounting Ph.D. students.
- Public Accounting: A public accounting concentration focuses on the preparation of tax materials for individuals, corporations, and nonprofits. This concentration may also prepare students to work in the public sector for local, state, and federal government.
- Audit Accounting: An audit accounting concentration prepares students to perform in-depth evaluations of financial documents, whether for individuals or corporations or as a part of a government agency.
- Forensic Accounting: With a concentration in forensic accounting, students learn to sift through data to find evidence of financial fraud. The concentration emphasizes law, methods, and computer skills.
- Managerial Accounting: Focused on preparing students for leadership positions, a concentration in managerial accounting emphasizes strategy, decision-making, and financial reporting.
- Accounting Information Systems: Emphasizing behind-the-scenes development, a concentration in accounting information systems focuses on theories of accounting systems and in-depth study of accounting tools.
Ph.D. students complete classes in accounting, business, economics, statistics, and research methods to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to conduct original research. A typical Ph.D. in accounting curriculum includes courses in the following categories:
Accounting and Business
- Advanced financial reporting
- Forensic accounting
- Measurement data analysis in marketing
- Advanced decision models
- Theory and practice in business management
Economics and Statistics
- Economics in global environments
- Introduction to linear statistical models
- Game theory and applications
- Behavioral research in accounting
- Financial accounting research
- Advanced qualitative research
- Quantitative research techniques
- Capital markets research in accounting
Students pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting must complete a doctoral dissertation before graduation. Representing the deepest level of innovative research, a dissertation culminates studies and contributes new information to the field.
Students typically begin full dissertation work after completing a program's course requirements and other milestones. Often lasting one year, the dissertation process includes time spent collecting and analyzing data, then writing a paper to draw conclusions based on that data. Most programs require students to defend their findings before a faculty committee.
Should I Get My Accounting Ph.D. Online?
When researching potential accounting Ph.D. programs, prospective students should consider the option of completing their degree online. Because it does not usually carry in-person requirements -- for example, student teaching -- the degree is particularly suited to distance learning.
Online students benefit from increased flexibility, both in the manner of course delivery and the structure of the program. Some schools charge in-state or otherwise reduced tuition for all online students, regardless of residency. Applicants should ask questions about program structure and choose a program that works best for them. For example, asynchronous courses allow students to access course materials at any time, while synchronous courses require real-time meetings (typically via webcam).
Challenges of online learning can include difficulties with time management and trouble connecting with faculty and peers due to distance. Online Ph.D. programs require rigorous study, just like in-person degrees, and students should dedicate the same number of hours to their studies as they would to on-campus classes.
Schools and programs offering doctorate-level education have likely gone through the rigorous accreditation process; however, do not assume that all programs are accredited. This type of evaluation involves an independent, external review of school and program components, such as curriculum development, faculty qualifications, student support services, financial resources, academic services and resources, and student achievement. The goal is to establish whether or not the academic experience meets strict quality control standards.
Current accreditation is important for doctoral students who are interested in:
- Receiving Financial Aid: Graduate students are eligible to receive federal financial aid, but only if they attend institutions that are accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
- Employment in Academic or Corporate Settings: Employers hiring accounting graduates typically seek applicants who have graduated from accredited programs.
Find out if the schools you are interested in attending have received regional or national accreditation. Additional accreditation from agencies specializing in accounting and business subjects is also desirable. Graduate-level accounting programs usually earn accreditation through one or more of the following organizations:
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs
- International Accreditation Council for Business Education
Selecting the Best College for an Accounting Doctorate
Prospective students in search of the right accounting Ph.D. program should consider a variety of factors as they research their options, such as accreditation, cost, delivery method, and school statistics.
For the most part, the evaluation of these factors lies with the individual student. Accreditation, however, represents a crucial element of the college search process. Regional accreditation applies to the school as a whole and ensures that the institution meets certain minimum standards. Students may also wish to consider programmatic accreditation from organizations like AACSB.
Program size may indicate the amount of personal attention students receive. The number of learners in a program and the student-teacher ratio can help prospective applicants suss out the potential for a student-focused program. Cost and location go hand in hand, as out-of-state students may pay higher tuition rates than those who live near the school.
Students should also consider whether they wish to pursue their degree in person or online.
Ph.D. in Accounting FAQs
Do you need a Ph.D. to be an accounting professor?
While some postsecondary schools may hire instructors with a master's degree, most prefer full-time, tenure-track professors to hold a Ph.D.
How does a Ph.D. in accounting compare to a CPA?
A Ph.D. in accounting provides education beyond that required of a certified public accountant, or CPA. Still, many positions require accounting professionals to hold CPA credentials regardless of educational background.
Can I apply to Ph.D. in accounting programs without a GMAT score?
Most programs require GMAT scores as a part of the application process, though many accept GRE scores as an alternative.
How hard is a Ph.D. in accounting?
Like any other doctoral degree, an accounting Ph.D. program requires rigorous study, strong writing skills, and dedication to in-depth research.
How much does a Ph.D. in accounting cost?
Tuition rates vary widely, depending on the school. Cost factors can include in-state versus out-of-state tuition, private versus public institutions, and on-campus versus distance education.
How can I pay for my accounting doctorate?
Accounting Ph.D. students can take advantage of numerous opportunities for financial aid. Scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans all represent potential funding sources.
What can you do with a Ph.D. in accounting?
With a Ph.D. in accounting, graduates qualify to work as college professors, financial managers, consultants, and a wide variety of other positions within the field.
How much can you make with a Ph.D. in accounting?
Salary potential depends largely on an individual's career goals. College professors make a median annual wage of $79,540, while financial managers earn a median of $129,890 per year.
Accountants can benefit from membership in professional organizations like the ones listed below. Through career resources, online services, mentorship programs, and annual conferences, these organizations provide a wealth of opportunities for accounting professionals.
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