Frequently Asked Questions

Does work experience matter?

In general, work experience is not necessary though it may be A) an indication of success in another field B) a source of future research ideas and C) a signal of legitimacy at more management-focused schools (e.g., Wharton, Harvard). Both Megan and Stephen had work experience with Megan working at Deloitte for three years and then working as a lab manager and Stephen working at McKinsey for two years and then at a start-up university in Vietnam. From our survey of admitted applicants, 50% worked in a non-research job before applying. When Stephen was considering applying to grad school directly after graduation, his advisors at Harvard urged him to work first in order to learn about “the big questions that managers cared about.” In general, most programs seem to value applicants gaining work experience before beginning grad school, though this is not a requirement. However, this can greatly vary by field with some valuing work experience much more highly.

Do I need to get a master’s degree before applying to a PhD?

No. You do not need to get a master’s degree before applying to a PhD (neither Megan or Stephen have master’s degrees). In fact, of our 46 surveyed admitted students only 12 had completed a master’s degree or only ~26%. Getting a master’s degree might be a good choice, however, if you want to get additional research experience or are trying to gain support from new faculty members. Nonetheless, it is not a requirement like it is in other countries. It is possible that programs may have higher expectations from applicants holding graduate degrees, so it is advisable to use the time well if your plan is to obtain a master’s degree before applying to PhD programs.

What are my chances of getting in?

Across top business school programs, the acceptance rate seems to range between 4% and 7%. For most business school programs, the cohorts are extremely small with usually four to five students admitted and two to three students matriculating each year. From our understanding, some PhD programs are more competitive than others (e.g., business economics seems to be one of the most competitive), so it is important to recognize variation across your field. Of the admitted students, they on average were accepted to ~50% of the schools they applied to which indicates a “winner-take-all” market where the top applicants receive multiple offers and some applicants may receive none.

These acceptance rates are only useful in the abstract; when thinking about your probability to get accepted, it is important to condition on your own background and abilities. Do you have research experience? Do you have good grades from a top institution? Do you have interests that relate to the faculty’s interests? Do you do research before applying (e.g., by reading a guide like this)?

How many schools should I apply to?

Apply to all the programs that in your opinion will make a fine researcher out of you and where you are likely to be happy for 5 years. It costs about $100-$150 per application, and most applications require similar materials. So go ahead and apply to as many programs as you like; applying to as many as 15 to 20 programs is quite common. If you are slightly unsure, apply anyway. Once you are admitted you can then talk to professors in the department before deciding whether or not to attend.

Should I write to professors before I apply?

This depends. Write only if you have questions which cannot be answered by reading publicly available material and by talking to graduate students. If you are interested in working with a particular professor, sending him/her a short email outlining your interests can help sometimes. Your mileage will vary, but if you can get them excited about your application then that is obviously a positive. If you write and don’t get a reply, don’t be disheartened – professors at most schools are incredibly busy and they get many emails from a large number of graduate students. In general the more senior the professor and the more prestigious the school, the lower your chances of getting a reply. So go ahead and apply nonetheless, they will have a good look at your application when you apply through the official channels.

What happens at visit days?

If you are admitted to a PhD program, most schools will fly you out to visit their campus for one to two days. These visit days are generally structured such that there is a meeting with the PhD faculty coordinator in the morning, a slew of back-to-back 1-1 meetings with faculty, a campus tour, and a dinner with current PhD students and faculty. These visits are an opportunity for you to get a feel for the campus and the life of current PhD students. Remember that your “performance” in meetings with faculty no longer has any bearing on your admission to the program, and do your best to relax and enjoy the visits!

Should I visit a school if I do not think I will accept their offer?

We would encourage you to attend any interview or visit day to which you are invited. It is very possible that you will find that seeing the school and talking with faculty members changes your opinion of the school and the program. Similarly, you may find that programs that you thought were your top choices are no longer so appealing when examined up close. If you decide after the visit that you still would not choose to attend the program, be as diplomatic and courteous as you can when communicating that decision. Ultimately, by embarking on the PhD journey, you are entering a community of scholars. It is valuable for your long term career success (especially when you go on the academic job market) to get to know other members of the community even if you do not end up attending their school.

How do the finances work out?

In general the stipend is enough to comfortably cover expenses and leave some over. If you are living with your spouse, it can be harder to manage though it is possible to get through without major debt. As stated before, starting salaries in business schools are pretty attractive! If you are working at the moment or if you are finishing school and have lucrative job offers, remember that the real cost of attending graduate school is in the wages lost while in school. Similarly, those coming from the corporate world might have to make significant lifestyle changes. General statements in this regard are difficult to make since backgrounds vary considerably depending on personal and financial situations and family commitments.

What is the typical age of graduate students in business?

Graduate students are usually between 22 to 35 years old when they start. The typical graduate student is around 24-25 years old, though those over 30 are fairly common. In general, there is a definite bias towards those in their mid and late twenties, but if you are significantly older (above 40) you should talk to PhD program coordinators at schools that interest you. It has been done before.

What percentage of students do not finish their business school PhD?

It is difficult to find reliable data to answer this question, and it will vary greatly by program and year. However, from our conversations at top programs it appears that somewhere between 15-20% of all PhD students do not finish their degree. Many will leave with an exit “masters” where they complete two years of course work and then do not complete their dissertation. It can be helpful to (diplomatically) ask questions about this during visit days, or through private conversations following visits, because this metric can be an important indicator of how a given doctoral program operates and its degree of commitment to student success.

What percentage of students do not continue in academia after finishing a PhD?

This is another case where reliable data is scarce, because this exit path is somewhat stigmatized (though perhaps less so in the field of finance). Some business schools seem to have more students exiting to industry than others. For example, many students from schools located in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to go into tech after graduating. This percentage will vary widely by school and by field, but it seems that somewhere between 20-30% will choose not to continue in academia based on our limited sampling. Within some fields (e.g., operations research and management) this percentage may be higher (exceeding 40% at some programs in recent years).