Earning a doctoral degree in accounting is an unusual path that few choose to follow.
Accounting education at the doctoral level has surprisingly little to do with what most students think of as accounting practice. As a doctoral candidate, you will already have learned everything you are supposed to know about GAAP, accounting information systems, tax, financial, and management accounting during your years as an undergrad.
Doctoral programs instead focus on providing the tools you need to conduct advanced research into accounting topics. This means a lot of math, statistics, and economics studies, as well as learning research methodology and practices.
Doctorate holders in accounting are in demand in academia and fill a role integral to the business world: producing more qualified graduates and bringing new ideas to light through research at a time when businesses face a shortage of talent and ever more complex and interconnected economic and financial conditions.
The reasons for the demand for PhDs in accounting are easy to chart. With the same educational background required to be accepted into a doctoral program, you can find a six-figure job in corporate America. Relatively few people are interested in the deep research and teaching skills that come with a doctorate or the long and intensive education required to get it.
According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’s (AICPA) 2019 Trends report in supply and demand for accounting graduates report, doctoral program enrollment has maintained a fairly steady level of a couple of decades now. The report does not track demand for doctoral graduates, but other studies, other studies reveal a serious and increasing shortage of qualified accounting faculty.
This crisis is creating great opportunities, however. The introduction of non-traditional doctoral programs has opened up the doctorate option to working professionals with online and hybrid class options. In turn, business and government have been eager to hire highly-educated experts who can untangle complex economic and financial issues. And universities are hungry for accounting faculty to meet undergraduate degree demands. If research in accounting is your bag, you’ll find plenty of jobs waiting for you once you complete your doctoral degree program in accounting.
Career Options for Doctoral Graduates in Accounting
Positions for PhDs can open up in almost any sector of government. You won’t find many positions in the private sector expressly calling for a PhD, but the value of a candidate with the kind of research skills, creativity and depth of thought on the inner workings and applications of accounting that come with earning a doctorate goes beyond the credential itself. They can be found working at the Department of Commerce, the United Nations, or at Goldman Sachs. Although most people enter doctoral programs with the intention of going into education, there’s no shortage of options for graduates.
The primary destination for graduates of accounting doctoral programs is colleges and universities. Academia is known for lower pay rates than the private sector, but also for more job flexibility and security. The jobs involve considerable research, but educating the next generation of accountants, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, is the primary mission in this position.
Accounting consultants with doctorates work at very high levels analyzing organizational or economic matters for business or governments. Consultants may work for one of the Big Four financial service providers and use their special expertise to help audit major corporations. They might also be brought in to develop financial systems or help crack difficult accounting problems in specialized areas where their research and analysis has given them special insights.
Most accounting doctorate holders will end up performing research to some degree or another, but for a few, it will be their primary mission. Working for think-tanks, non-profits, or government, researchers spend their days applying econometric principles to data to develop new perspectives on markets and finance. With the advances in data science in the past few years and accumulation of very large sets of information to parse, these positions are becoming more and more common in organizations such as Google, Facebook, or even online gaming companies like Blizzard.
Advances in financial complexity and big data analysis have begun to put pressure on corporate executives to have more and more expert perspectives on financial process and theory. Earning an advanced degree in accounting can boost your career potential as well as your paycheck if you are aiming for senior management at a major company.
Accounting professionals with doctorates working in government are usually involved at the highest levels in developing and determining fiscal and trade policy or evaluating regulatory impacts on the economy. They are also heavily involved in tax policy matters. Monitoring and helping to police financial markets is another role for DBAs in government.
Selecting a Doctoral Program in Accounting
You’ll find accounting doctorates listed under different titles, including:
- Doctor of Philosophy in Business Management – Accounting Specialization
- Doctor of Accounting and Financial Management
- Doctor of Business Administration – Accounting/Financial Management Specialization
- Doctor of Professional Studies in Business – Finance Concentration
The primary difference between the doctor of philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is in the orientation and intended outcome. PhD programs are more oriented toward teaching and developing new theory, while DBA programs are more oriented toward applied theory. Either program may have more or less of a research or teaching focus, which is also a consideration.
Your choice will be based on whether or not you plan to stay in academia after graduation. Business professionals looking for advanced credentials in finance or management will probably focus on research-heavy DBA programs, as will academicians who plan to continue as researchers. Students aiming toward accounting faculty positions may find teaching-focused PhD programs a better fit.
Almost all doctoral programs assume a solid accounting background among applicants. If you do not already have a master’s or baccalaureate degree in accounting, you will often need to demonstrate some other professional experience in the field.
Further, you are expected to have a solid grounding in mathematics, including algebra and calculus. You may need to take required background courses in these subjects before beginning the doctoral program, although you can usually apply before having completed them.
Doctoral programs in accounting typically last between 4 and 5 years.
Because most doctoral graduates will be headed for careers in academia, you’ll want to look at program placements. Most programs will publish a list of academic appointments that previous graduates have received. In some cases, they may also list commercial hires. Both types of information provide perspective on the quality and likely job opportunities you can expect after graduation.
Non-Traditional Doctoral Accounting Programs
The 2012 Pathways Commission report, Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants, commissioned by the American Accounting Association and the AICPA, calls for unlocking doctoral programs with more flexible and accessible pedagogies.
A 2012 study published by the American Accounting Association identified traditional programs as lacking in specific enrollment information, offering few financial aid resources, and over-focusing on a handful of areas of accounting.
A number of universities have started non-traditional doctoral programs in accounting or related fields. These may allow for online or part-time attendance. Some are hybrid programs, which have some courses entirely online while requiring in-person attendance for others. They are often aimed at current working professionals seeking to build their credentials to further their careers rather than moving into academia. This means less of a focus on research and teaching topics.
For the most part, these programs are business administration or management degrees that offer an accounting focus. They are not generally considered to offer an adequate education for academic positions, although attitudes may be changing as a shortage of qualified professors grips the field.
Accounting Doctorate Program Classes and Electives
Classes at the doctoral level of accounting bear little resemblance to those found in undergraduate or even master’s-level programs.
More coursework at the doctoral level will fall into the category of seminar classes instead of lectures. A seminar involves a smaller group of students and is more discussion-based than listening-oriented. Participation is expected and will likely be part of the final grade.
Informal interaction with faculty and other students also plays a far greater part in a doctorate than in master’s or baccalaureate programs.
Programs are usually most highly structured in the first two years. The final two or three years are left to customized schedules tailored to your individual goals, developed in concert with your adviser, and to dissertation research, writing, and defense.
Advanced research in accounting
These courses teach you to conduct research in the accounting field, often with genuine, original projects. They may include psychological and behavioral considerations or questions of economics. Ethical standards in accounting research will be examined and taught.
Finance and accounting theory
Financial accounting in capital markets will be examined in depth. Classical theory of finance and markets will be examined together with contemporary issues and understanding in finances and accounting. Some programs also include additional courses on business management and operations.
Research processes and theory
Most programs have a great deal of general education on scientific methods and the research process. You will learn how to document and validate results as well as techniques for pursuing questions without contaminating the data. Academic writing standards are also taught as part of this process.
Micro- and macroeconomic theory
A deep dive into the basics of economic theory offers a look at the foundations of the field, going beyond the conclusions you will have learned as an undergraduate. This will include global economic issues as well as more detailed examination of supply and demand curves and resource allocation theory.
Econometrics and quantitative analysis
Much research in accounting is based on statistical analysis, but many ordinary statistical methods are based on the presumption of randomness in underlying data. Economic data rarely meets that criteria, so the field of econometrics is the bridge to make statistical and quantitative analytical methods provide valid results with economic information.
Like any other doctoral degree, a doctorate in accounting requires you to write and defend a dissertation. This is a long-form essay on a topic you will choose together with your adviser, usually documenting the results of original research that you will conduct in the field. The dissertation may take a year or more to research and write, with multiple drafts. Before you can be awarded your degree, you will have to defend it in front of a committee of faculty who will probe your methodology, writing, and conclusions.
Partly for experience in the research aspects of accounting, which you will need for your dissertation, and partly as education into the topic of study, most programs will require one or more in-depth research paper projects in addition to your dissertation. You will also participate in research projects being undertaken by faculty and other students in the program.
Because most doctoral candidates will eventually go into teaching, teaching experience is required as a part of many doctoral programs. Students are expected to learn both accounting subject matter and teaching techniques. This improves your understanding of the underlying information as well as provides real-world teaching experience.
Tracks or Concentrations
Most programs allow a significant degree of customization within the doctorate coursework to tailor the education to your specific interests and requirements. There are certain common topics that some programs offer as structured concentrations you can opt to take as part of the doctorate program. These may include:
- Empirical Track
- Analytical Track
- Tax Research Concentration
- Financial Accounting Research Concentration
Accreditation Standards for Accounting Doctoral Programs
Accreditation is the process of having an independent third party evaluate a college or degree program to ensure that it is following established standards of academic rigor. This is even more important at the doctoral level than with other degrees, since the reputation of the program is paramount when it comes to finding jobs or having your research accepted by the larger community.
As with other degree levels, it’s absolutely vital to ensure that you attend a school that is accredited by one of the regional accreditation bodies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).They set the gold standard for higher education in the United States and look at factors such as:
- Qualifications of faculty
- Standards of technology and educational resources
- Outcomes tracking
- Support systems at the college
- Number of credit hours and type of coursework offered
Specialized Accreditation is Key for Doctoral Programs
In addition to standard regional institution-level accreditation, it’s also important to ensure the department and program itself has been accredited by one of three specialized accreditors that establish standards for business school programs:
- The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
- International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
They evaluate business school programs with more specificity with regard to curriculum and conditions expected by the business world. Their exhaustive investigations look at standards of:
- Ethical education in business programs
- Business process courses
- Business communication education
All three have even deeper standards that are specific to accounting programs. You’ll want to make sure that the doctoral program you choose has not only achieved a specialty accreditation, but that it has the accounting-specific accreditation rather than the general business version.
It can be difficult to find a non-traditional program accredited by any of the three specialized bodies, but the AACSB has accredited some non-traditional programs and more are likely to follow as those degrees become more common and accepted.