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Criteria for PhD programmes and PhD supervisors

Key Issues to Consider Before Registering for a PhD

By

Martin Walker

Professor of Finance and Accounting

Manchester Business School

Embarking on a PhD is a major commitment that should only be entered upon after a great deal of thought. The purpose of this paper is to help you think about how to optimise the process of studying for a PhD. The hope is that the guidance provided by this paper will help you maximise the probability of successful graduation along with the lifetime value of the time you spend studying for your degree. This paper is based on the experience of the author as well as the views of others who have been kind enough to offer comments on previous drafts. I hope you find it useful.

The Unique Nature of a PhD Degree Program

In most degree programs you are treated as primarily a consumer of knowledge.  You learn how to absorb and apply the knowledge that others have produced.

A good PhD program will convert you from being a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. You will learn how to make and defend key choices involved in the production of new knowledge. You will learn how to choose and frame interesting research questions. You will learn how to think about the key theoretical issues involved in your area, and you will learn how to choose between alternative research methods and research designs in order to make progress with your research. You will also learn how to write original research papers for publication in peer reviewed academic journals.

In a sense a PhD student is a kind of apprentice to supervisor, and often the relation between the PhD student and the supervisor will be vital to the success or otherwise of the PhD.

Choice of Supervisor/s

The success of your PhD will depend considerably on the quality of your supervision.

  1. Does the school allow students to choose their own supervisor among the faculty (or are students assigned to a supervisor by the school)? Related: does the school have procedures in place to change supervisors if the student feels unhappy with the supervision?
  2. Does the school allow students to develop their own projects or do students have to work on research projects designed by their supervisors? The single most important quality students need to develop to become successful researchers is to find promising ideas.
  3. What is the School’s policy on joint authorship of papers arising from the PhD involving the supervisors as author/s. Is it clear that supervisors should not put their name on a paper unless they have contributed in a material way to the paper?
  4. Is there sufficient evidence that the proposed supervisor is “open-minded” when it comes to investigating new ideas and/or using innovative approaches? Unless you have a very clear idea about what you want to new ideas and/or using innovative approaches?
  5. Research Record. Do the proposed supervisors have a track record of high quality publications in your area? If not then they are probably not suitable people to supervise your PhD.
  6. Recent Publications of Supervisors. Look for publications in the recent past. Supervisors who last published 20 years ago are unlikely to be up to date with their subject. They may also have chosen an easy life, so will not have much time or enthusiasm for new work.
  7. Track Record. Does the proposed supervisor have a track record of successful PhD supervision? Have their students gone on to get good jobs with good employers? Have their students published high quality papers from their PhD?
  8. Editorial experience. Have the proposed supervisors a current or recent track record of working for academic journals, as editors, associate editors, or regular reviewers?
  9. Personal Reputation and Standing. Do the supervisors have an international reputation for their published research? What journals have they published in recently?
  10. Personality. Does the proposed supervisor have a record of being someone who is easy to work with? Do they nurture their students? Are they enthusiastic and committed to research?
  11. Other commitments. Some of the best researchers have too many commitments. Can you be sure that they will have time for your project?
  12. Connections. Look for a supervisor with a good network of academic contacts and good contacts with policy makers.

Choice of School

  1. Does the school have an international reputation for its research? Look for rankings that show the scale and quality of published outputs.
  2. There are also some international rankings available for PhD programs, such as the FT ranking.
  3. Does the School have a track record of success in PhD supervision?
  4. Does the School provide opportunities to share ideas and experiences with other students. Working on a PhD can be a lonely task. You should try to find out if the School has a reasonable number of other students working in Accounting or related areas. Avoid schools with only one or two students. Look for a critical mass of at least 10 students.
  5. In what types of research does the school have real strengths and a track record: archival, analytical, experimental, critical/qualitative?
  6. Training. The quality and range of PhD courses is vital. A number of schools now have a highly structured program, at least in the first year. A decent PhD program should offer access to a range of courses designed to strengthen your research skills and knowledge. Make sure these courses cover the theories, methods, and applications relevant to your own research interests. It is important that the course provides a sound introduction to the aspects of accounting theory relevant to your area of research. In addition there needs to be well designed course that covers qualitative and quantitative research methods. A good grounding in econometrics is essential for archival based researchers. Qualitative researchers need to be learn how to arrange and carry out interviews and case studies.   The international norm is to have two years of graduate level, purpose-developed research-focused courses.
  7. Supervision Arrangements. Does the school have staff with relevant research expertise in your area? Have the proposed supervisor published in high ranking research journals within the last five years? Does the School follow practice of co-supervision? Normally this will be the best approach. How often will you meet with your supervisors for discussion about your research? You should be looking for a minimum of a monthly meeting, but most good places will meet with you at least fortnightly.
  8. Does the school have a good research infrastructure for your style of research? For example, for behavioural researchers, are there laboratory facilities for conducting economics and behavioral experiments?
  9. Does the school have an active workshop program that features a broad range of international researchers presenting their work? Does the school facilitate interactions between workshop presenters and Ph.D. students? Does the school have a visitor program in which internationally-visible researchers spend longer periods in a school and interact with graduate students?
  10. Does the school provide funding for students to visit international conferences, job market events, and other networking events?
  11. Does the school encourage cooperation between departments, especially for adjacent fields such as finance, economics, econometrics, management, and the behavioral sciences?
  12. Does the school provide funding for students to conduct research? Experimental research often requires payments to participants; archival research might imply the need to buy additional database licenses.
  13. Does the school offer funding for research visits to top foreign universities as part of the Ph.D. training?
  14. Library and Data Services. It is essential that you have electronic access to all the main journals in your area, and, for archival research a full range of electronic data services.
  15. Business and Accounting Industry Contacts. These are especially vital for qualitative research. This is one of the things you should ask about at your interview.
  16. Career Outcomes. Does the School have a track record of placing its students in good jobs? Look to see where the PhD students get their first job after graduation.
  17. Publication Outcomes. Do the PhD students from this School publish articles from their PhD in international (at least A level) journals?
  18. Teaching experience and training. If you are considering an academic career, you will need to ensure that your chosen school is able to offer your training in teaching and interesting opportunities to teach. However, this should be adequately rewarded and not exceed more than 20 percent of your time.
  19. PhD as a research assistant. Some schools will require you to work as a research assistant to a senior member of staff in return for PhD support. This can work well if you are working on a project related to your PhD led by your supervisor. However you should avoid situations that require to you to work long hours as the personal teaching and admin assistant of a member of staff who has no particular interest in you or your research.
  20. Funding. You should consider the funding package offered by the School, but be aware that some Schools that are prepared to pay well to attract PhD students, are incapable of delivering a successful PhD outcome. Wasting three to five years of your life at and intellectually weak University that offers good funding is still a bad deal. You may need to trade-off the quality of the supervisor and intellectual package against the level of funding. Most top US programs would offer a tuition waiver and reasonable funding to qualified Ph.D. candidates. Many European schools offer something very similar. Many UK schools offer competitive scholarships.
  21. Before applying for a PhD program you should ask for a copy of the criteria that the School uses for judging candidates, including such things as GMAT and language requirements.

Choice of University

Look for a research based university that has a well-established set of PhD programs.

You should look for universities where the majority of staff are highly research active and with international visibility.

Avoid universities that allow staff who have limited research achievements to supervise PhD students.

Geographical Location

It takes between three and six years to complete a PhD. So you are going to be spending a good chunk of your life in the place where you study for your degree. Thus it is very important that you find a location where you will feel happy and supported.

Generally speaking you should look for a place where the local culture is friendly and welcoming of strangers. The World is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, and it makes sense to recognise and join in with this trend. It is very important to make a special effort to learn about and benefit from the local culture of your PhD location.

Having said that, there are also advantages to having a group of people close by who share your own culture and beliefs. Many European cities have thriving ethic communities that provide a home from home for students who share their traditions. These links are especially useful during the first year of a PhD. Finding friendly faces from your own culture can help you settle down.

Even though a PhD involves a lot of hard work, it is vital to find time for your favourite leisure pursuits. If you like skiing then some parts of Europe are more supportive of this hobby than others. If you like good restaurants, theatre, and cinema then find a city that has these. Some cities offer a good balance between country pursuits, sporting activities, and nightlife.

As a PhD student you will find that you will need to travel to other universities, research sites, and conferences. So check out the transport links of your candidate universities. Good access to an international airport and mainline rail links can save you a lot of time and inconvenience.

Having said all this it is important to be clear that PhD students have to work very hard if they want to compete on the international market. Going to the occasional movie or party is fine, but other than that, it is important to be realistic about the amount of work needed to finish a dissertation (within 5 years) that can be published in top tier journals. Realistically you should assume that your working hours will be at least 50 hours a week for around 46 weeks a year.

 PhD Research Prior To Working in Industry

This paper has focused on a traditional academic PhD, and is based on the assumption that you are expecting to follow an academic career path following your PhD. Some people study for a PhD in order raise their level of expertise in a particular area prior to taking a job in industry or the public sector. A lot of the ideas above still also apply to this type pf PhD, but in addition you will also need to carefully consider the extent to which your choices improve your chances of getting a job related to your PhD work. In particular you should look for evidence that the University, School and PhD supervisors have a successful track record of working with commercial partners.


February 2015

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