Succeeding in a PhD program

The mechanics of attending a PhD program

Each department at most business schools will typically admit 2-3 students every year and provide them full financial support. This includes a tuition waiver and a monthly stipend approximately equal to $2800-3700, though this figure might vary to a certain extent. The first two years consist of course work where students gain expertise in the application of research techniques. Students are also exposed to seminal research in their area. At the end of approximately two years students take qualifying exams which marks their progression to PhD candidature. Qualifying exams typically consist of a reading list of papers (decided upon in collaboration with faculty) which the student is expected to master. There is also an attempt made by various departments to provide hands-on experience and students often work with professors as research assistants (RA) or teaching assistants (TA). Many programs will require such RA/TA commitments as a part of the student’s funding and such experience is usually extremely helpful in an academic’s training.

Once students have taken their set of required classes and passed their qualifying exams, they will often work seriously on finding and pursuing a dissertation topic. Often the final choice of advisor is made at this point. The advisor will now guide the PhD candidate through writing a dissertation proposal, finding a dissertation committee (more on this later) and ultimately writing the dissertation itself. Students will also work on independent articles for submission to journals during the course of their PhD, which may or may not be a part of their final dissertation.

At this point it bears stressing that the quality of the graduate student’s relationship with the advisor is often critical for her training, job prospects and overall happiness in the program. The choice of an advisor is probably the most crucial decision graduate students make during the course of their PhD. The dissertation committee that is formed at a later stage and which consists of other academics enlisted by the graduate student is also considerably important. This committee will comment on drafts of the dissertation, provide advice on research projects and will officially certify that the dissertation meets the standards required by the university. Importantly, it will also serve as a source of reference letters during the search for academic jobs.

Getting a job and having an impactful academic career

The ‘academic job-market’ is a highly developed system to help recruiting schools fill tenure-track and occasionally, non-tenure-track positions. Students will enter the job-market in their final year usually after having substantially worked on their dissertation topic. Each job-seeker will prepare a ‘job-market paper’ that will be a part of the application packet sent out to other schools. Recommendation letters along with documents pertaining to the applicant’s academic history also form a part of this packet. A variety of idiosyncratic factors6 go into making this year a highly stressful one for graduate students but in general, job-market success (defined as finding tenure track positions in prestigious university departments) seems to be correlated with the prestige of the applicant’s home university(universities typically hire only from departments they consider to be equal or higher than them in prestige), previous publication history (if any) and quality of the applicant’s job market paper. Additionally, advisor recommendations can often have a significant influence, in particular helping the applicant gain access to his advisor’s network for jobs. It bears repeating though that applicants are hired almost exclusively for their estimated potential to produce top-quality research and factors like previous work experience or teaching abilities are largely secondary considerations.

Having helped the graduate student find a job of her liking (hopefully!) the university department will now rest at ease, put her name on the alumni roster and send her off into the wide world of academia to navigate her own course!