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To succeed in the PhD application process, you should give yourself ample time to prepare. As we will detail in the following section, there are numerous parts of the application. Some parts can be done relatively quickly – such as finding and uploading a transcript – and other parts require serious time commitment – such as doing research with faculty members.
In the below section, we outline an ideal timeline for an applicant. Of course, we recognize that most people will not follow this timeline exactly, and many will be able to complete some steps in this timeline more quickly. Rather, this timeline should serve as a benchmark as you go along your PhD application journey. For reference, most programs have application deadlines that range from early December to early January.
Some quick notes on the timeline. We include a section that involves “Assist faculty member with research.” Though this is not 100% necessary, our experience indicates that research experience gives your application a strong edge in the selection process. The reason for this is three-fold: 1) prior research experience shows that you know what you are getting into and demonstrates your commitment to academia, 2) research experience signals some degree of preparation which may make you more successful in the PhD program, and 3) if you work on research specifically in a business school this can give you an “in” to the research community you are hoping to join. Notably in our survey, we found that 44 of our 46 surveyed admitted students had some form of research experience before applying. We will discuss this step in more detail in the section on the “the RA path to the PhD.”
We do not include your graduate or undergraduate studies as part of the timeline, though they remain important in the application. Broadly, the expectation is that you perform well during both of those periods. Of the admitted students we surveyed, the average GPA was roughly a 3.85 with a standard deviation of .12. However, we saw GPAs in the survey range from 3.5 to 4.0. In general, the common wisdom is that a strong GPA is necessary but not sufficient for a successful application.
We recommend that applicants get ahead of the schedule for applying. One faculty member at HBS, who completed their PhD at Stanford in 3 years, advised that you should be done with almost all parts of the application by August or September (which is even more aggressive than our timeline above). Front-loading your application efforts provides more ample time for revision and can reduce the stress during the final few weeks of submission.
Choosing Where to Apply
One of the most important steps before beginning the application is to identify the PhD programs to which you want to apply. In general, applicants should first select their broader field of interest (e.g., accounting, finance, business economics, strategy, etc.). Next, they should begin to identify some questions or topics they find interesting (e.g., social networks, status hierarchy, VC flow of capital, etc.). Finally, after selecting their intended field and topics of study, they should identify the top programs (and specific faculty within those programs) that match their own particular research interests.
Choosing your field and topics of interest
Business academia is split into numerous fields and subfields within which you must identify your particular interests. In general, business school research draws from a set of disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology, and to a slightly lesser extent other fields such as history, statistics, and political science. Over time, business school researchers have developed their own fields such as organizational behavior, accounting, finance, and strategy. The best way to gain an understanding of these fields is to look at the types of academic articles that these researchers are publishing. It is important to have a general sense of the field of your interest and the types of questions that it does (and does not) cover.
From there, it is important to ask yourself questions about the topics that interest you. Megan, for example, knew she was interested in emotions and prosocial behavior because she had enjoyed assisting with research in those areas, and this led her to consider programs in management and organizational behavior (micro). Stephen, on the other hand, was interested in physical space, social networks, and worker mobility. This led him to look at programs that covered these topics, which were management or organizational behavior (macro). If you are having difficulty honing your own interest, a good way to explore is by reading the major journals in the field (e.g., Academy of Management Journal for management, Strategic Management Journal for strategy, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology or Journal of Applied Psychology for social psychology and micro organizational behavior). While preparing your application you should have a general idea of your research interests and specific topics you can discuss in your application materials; that said, no one will force you to continue doing research on the topics you mentioned in your application. So, this is meant to be directional but not binding.
Choosing the programs to apply to
After identifying your topics of interest comes the difficult task of choosing which programs to apply to. In general, there is a limited amount that you can learn online about a program, and because the characteristics of a program can change dramatically as different faculty members join and leave it is important to seek out up to date sources of information. We suggest four main ways to learn about your specific programs of interest.
Method 1) Online search for programs & faculty members
Even with its limitations, an online search is often the best way to get an initial feel for a program and to identify which programs are out there. When reading through program websites, there are three important factors to note: the faculty and their research interests, the careers (academic or otherwise) that their students go on to lead, and the location of the school. When casting your net for potential programs, keep in mind that MBA program prestige rankings do not correlate perfectly with the quality of business school PhD programs. There are many schools outside of the Ivy League or top MBA rankings that have excellent business school faculty and publish research in leading journals.
The most important characteristic of a program is its affiliated faculty members. After identifying which faculty members are affiliated with the program, it is then useful to look at the type of research that they are publishing by using Google Scholar or looking at their most recent CV. Even a cursory look at the abstracts of the recent papers written by an academic can give you a sense of some of their research interests. (Though not all! Remember that the publication timeline is long, so a faculty member’s recent publications may no longer reflect their current research interests.) One way to find the most recent work of a faculty member is to look at conference websites – this is the research for which faculty members are seeking feedback from peers, so it is generally newer work. Students should focus on applying to programs with multiple faculty members (2-4) whose research interests overlap with their own, ideally ranging in level from assistant to full professor.
After graduation, what are your possible prospects? For most business fields, the top 10-20 schools all recruit from one another. So, by going to one of these schools, you enter into an elite pool of candidates for an academic job. With that said, some schools consistently perform better than others when it comes to job placements. When conducting your due diligence on programs, look at the past ten years of academic and non-academic placements (which is often at least partially available on the program website). This will give you an idea for the type of school (or company) where you should expect to work post-graduation.
Take note of where potential programs of interest are located. In multiple conversations Stephen had, senior faculty emphasized the importance of location when choosing a school. Though the school itself is important, you are also making a decision about where you will live for the next five to six years. That is a significant part of your life! When choosing a school, it is also important to choose a place where you would actually want to live.
Method 2) Speaking with friends and mentors in the field
Reaching out to your connections in the academic world is a useful way to gain information about the different programs. In general, we recommend reaching out to a broad set of people even if they are not directly in your field of interest. For example, Megan reached out to her friends from her undergraduate psychology program who had gone on to PhD programs or faculty positions in psychology. Early on, these contacts can provide directional advice about programs and can help you connect with others in the field.
Method 3) Reaching out to current graduate students [Pro tip]
One of the most useful cohorts to reach out to is current graduate students. In particular, look for graduate students with similar interests in the same fields that you are targeting. Because graduate students recently went through the application process, they can provide tactical guidance on their own programs and how to approach the application. In particular, ask graduate students about their experience in their program and the faculty members they know in the department. One tip while talking with students is to pay attention to what they do not say about the program or advisors. In general, people speak very positively about their own programs and want to convince you to join. However, if they do not like someone or want to avoid talking about an issue with the program, they may not mention it. For example, at one program (left unnamed for anonymity), Stephen asked a current student about which faculty members he should consider as possible advisors. The student listed 4-5 names, but notably omitted a faculty member who had clear research alignment with Stephen. What Stephen realized through follow up conversations was that this advisor had a notorious reputation for advising students. The student had answered Stephen’s question, but the omission was more telling than the answer itself.
Method 4) Reaching out to faculty members
Finally, reaching out to faculty members of interest can be a useful way to gain information about programs and to introduce yourself to potential advisors. Because faculty members are busy, we would suggest reaching out to those faculty members with whom you share A) a clear research alignment, B) a connected trait (e.g., same undergrad school, same hometown, etc.), or C) a mutual connection. In general, faculty members are often open to talking with serious applicants and discussing their own research. Whenever possible, in-person meetings are more effective and produce a more positive memory than meetings online. While reaching out to faculty members can be helpful in the application process, it is not strictly necessary. For example, Megan did not contact faculty members at her target programs prior to applying.
Ways to distinguish programs
There are numerous ways to distinguish programs. We identify a few axes to consider when deciding where to apply. Oftentimes it will be difficult, if not impossible, to understand these differences between programs without speaking to people in them or in the field.
Disciplinary vs. phenomenon-driven
One core difference between programs is how “disciplinary” or “phenomenon-driven” they are. In this case, disciplinary refers to the original discipline that the field emerged from. Organizational behavior (micro), for example, emerged from social psychology and the two disciplines overlap considerably in terms of research topics and methods. When we call a program more disciplinary, we mean that it has a deeper focus on that discipline (e.g., psychology) and its faculty likely publish more often in discipline oriented journals.
Programs which are less disciplinary are generally more phenomenon-driven. This means that their research is focused on understanding specific events, processes, and trends that are currently relevant in business contexts. For example, studying the impact of mentorship on promotion outcomes would be a more phenomenon-driven approach, whereas examining how power influences approach behaviors would be considered more disciplinary (in this case, psychological). In most fields, more disciplinary programs are considered slightly more prestigious. In practical terms, this means that you can graduate from a more disciplinary program and place in a faculty position at a less disciplinary program, but it is more rare to go the other way.
Degree of specialization in level of analysis
A related but distinct axis on which to compare the training focus of programs is the degree to which they expect students to stay within a particular level of analysis or set of methods. For example, some organizational behavior programs maintain strong divides between the micro (psychological) and macro (sociological) faculty members and students, whereas other programs train students thoroughly in both methods and embrace “meso” approaches and methodologies. Similarly, some strategy programs have a clear boundary between economic and sociological orientations, whereas others embrace mixing the two.
Apprenticeship model vs. entrepreneurial model
Another key difference between programs is the extent to which they are “entrepreneurial” in nature. When a program is entrepreneurial, this means that there are very minimal support structures in place for the student. This provides flexibility for the student to pursue their interests, but it also requires students to identify and connect with faculty members on their own initiative to successfully conduct research.
Apprenticeship models involve a much more structured path for a student. When a student enters a program, they are assigned a faculty advisor. They then work with this faculty advisor on their research agenda, starting as a research assistant and then working to be a co-author. Oftentimes apprenticeship models are paired with “labs” in which people work under 1-2 faculty members interested in similar topics. One advantage of an apprenticeship model is the speed and ease with which graduate students earn publications. However, on the job market, candidates are often penalized for being too similar to their faculty advisors and failing to establish their own research identity.
In general, the top business school doctoral programs all follow some version of the entrepreneurial model, with only minor differences in the degree of support provided.
Senior-faculty heavy vs. junior-faculty heavy
There is significant variation across departments in the percentage of senior and junior faculty. Some departments are very senior-heavy, meaning that they have many tenured faculty but fewer junior faculty (e.g., assistant professors). Other departments have a handful of senior faculty, but are dominated by a younger set of professors. Of course, some departments sit in the middle, but it is often possible to characterize departments as senior- or junior-dominated.
The advantage to collaborating with more senior faculty is that they can provide high-level, strategic advice on your career. Additionally, their clout and social connections can serve you enormously when you go on the academic job market. The drawback is that senior faculty are often less research active, meaning you will collaborate with them less and projects may proceed more slowly. Junior faculty-heavy programs, on the other hand, provide you with ample productive collaborators for your research. As research is the primary criterion for junior faculty to gain tenure, their incentives are aligned with yours to produce a large volume of high quality research. However, they may have less clout in the field, which could make your job search more difficult.
An ideal program will have a mix of both senior and junior faculty with whom you can collaborate on research so that you can balance the pros and cons of each.
To how many programs should I apply?
In general, we recommend applying to more programs rather than fewer, given the low admission rates at each of these programs (roughly 4-7%) and the low marginal cost of applying to an additional program. In our case, Stephen applied to 7 programs and Megan applied to 11 programs. Our survey respondents applied to an average of 8 programs (with a standard deviation of 5.5). That said, we do not think you should apply to any programs that you would not consider attending – this is a waste of effort on your part and potentially could block out another deserving candidate.
Your application materials will be the main (if not only) input that admissions committees use to evaluate you, so it is important to invest the time and effort to get them right. Your main goals in preparing your materials should be to A) highlight your strengths as a candidate and B) meticulously meet every requirement for the school you apply. Taken together, your application materials should demonstrate your intelligence, persistence, intellectual creativity, and clear understanding of the realities of the path ahead.
At the time this guide was written, all major business school PhD programs require that applicants submit either GRE or GMAT scores, including verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing scores. Most do not state a preference between the two tests, so you can choose whichever one you think will give you a higher score. From our survey of admitted students, 96% submitted GRE scores for their applications, and this seems to be the current standard across all programs. Both Stephen and Megan took the GRE, so the following information will be most relevant to that test.
Business school PhD programs seem to pride themselves on maintaining high GRE/GMAT averages for admitted students. Many programs include these metrics on their admissions websites (often in FAQs), so you can check the figures for your target schools to see how you match up. For example, in 2019 Wharton listed their average GRE verbal score as 163 (90th percentile) and their average quantitative score as 167 (91st percentile). It is important to note that these averages usually include all admitted students across the business school PhD program, including those in finance, accounting, management, and marketing, so the average score may not be very informative for your particular area of interest. For example, one would expect that successful finance PhD applicants might have a higher average quantitative score than organizational behavior applicants, and within organizational behavior macro applicants may have higher quant scores than organizational behavior micro applicants. If your intended research methods require more intense quantitative skills, you can reasonably expect that the average quantitative score will be higher.
The table linked above shows the number of responses, mean, and standard deviation of GRE scores by business school discipline from our survey of admitted students. Of the 42 individuals who reported both GRE scores and disciplines, 22 applied to multiple disciplines; their scores are included in the results for each discipline to which they applied. Please note that the survey respondents were admitted to R1 PhD programs, which represent only a small portion of all programs. Therefore, these scores are higher than may be necessary to gain admission to other high quality PhD programs.