How to Get a PhD or DBA in Accounting or Taxation

According to a recent survey of admissions officers conducted by BusinessWeek, PhD programs at some business schools have seen a nearly 40 percent rise in applications in the last few years. The sudden increase is attributed in part to retired professionals seeking a PhD in business in order to qualify for postsecondary teaching positions. Many career coaches believe that the increase is due to a competitive market for leadership roles at top corporations raising the education bar, turning a business doctorate degree into a strategic tool for many job seekers.

Just as the MBA exploded as a must-have degree for executives in the 1990s and early 2000s, doctorate degrees in business have become essential for Americans with the ambition to lead major companies. Graduates of PhD programs also may find it easier to land jobs in government agencies, with consulting firms, and as professors . Until recently, prospective students could choose from only a handful of colleges and universities offering business doctorate degrees. Demand has led to more schools offering specialized terminal degrees in business than ever before.

Typical doctoral degrees in business

  • PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
  • DBA (Doctor of Business Administration)

Most employers consider a PhD in business and a DBA similar enough to qualify degree holders with either designation for top jobs. Colleges and universities draw distinctions between these two business doctoral degrees. DBA programs often extend the kind of hands-on work favored by most MBA programs, making them more of a professional degree. A PhD in Business, on the other hand, typically involves more abstract analysis of business fundamentals, philosophies, and trends. Most graduate business programs consider the PhD in Business to be an academic degree compared to its DBA counterpart.

Specializations define the business doctorate

Although most graduates of MBA programs leave business school with a broad skill set, earning a PhD in Business typically requires a concentration.

  • Accounting: Topics such as computation and quantitative finance can prepare professionals to forecast financial scenarios. Recent upheavals in global financial markets have made employers even more sensitive to the need for well-trained accountants on their payrolls. A PhD in Accounting develops stronger understanding of risk management and decision modeling that can help company leaders make the right decisions about new products, acquisitions, and even hiring. A DBA in Accounting gives graduates a firm grasp of theory, but focuses quite a bit more on its applications in the business world.
  • Forensic Accounting: This growing specialty within the business world is said to have its beginnings in the IRS investigation, and subsequent arrest, of Al Capone. More recently, forensic accounting professionals made headlines with their investigations of Enron and Bernie Madoff. Not only do forensic accountants work closely with law enforcement, many of them now work for major corporations. By investigating from the inside, these specialists help their employers identify internal fraud and policy violations long before government officials are forced to step in. Forensic accountants typically earn higher salaries at larger corporations or in bigger cities. A DBA in Forensic Accounting can give you the necessary tools, public policy background, and investigative skills to take part in this growing–and increasingly important–field.
  • Taxation: From tax law to corporate taxation, tax planning to estates and trusts, a DBA in Taxation prepares professionals to provide management and tax advice both to corporations and individuals. Though taxation specialists have offered crucial guidance to companies for decades, recent changes to state and federal regulations make their oversight even more crucial for growing businesses. Small businesses that add employees or major contracts require help navigating OSHA or Sarbanes-Oxley rules, while large companies have revisited global business strategy to avoid violating international tax agreements.

How to select DBA & PhD programs in accounting

Graduates of PhD programs note the application process for some schools can be as daunting as a final exam in a graduate business program. Earning a PhD or DBA in Accounting requires first that you get admitted into a doctorate degree program. By following three critical steps, you can build a short list of prospective business schools that match your career training needs.

Step 1: “Begin with the end in mind”

Stephen Covey said it best in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Without a clear idea of the end result you want to achieve from earning a PhD in Accounting, you could end up missing out on the right degree program. While students should take national rankings into account when choosing a doctorate degree program, every school offers a unique set of values and benefits. Some schools emphasize cutting edge theories and research, while other schools cultivate insight through guided work experiences and alumni mentoring.

Goal: Build a list of campus-based and online PhD programs with the right mix of benefits, accessibility, and affordability.


  • Accreditation and certification: For a DBA or a PhD in Accounting to help you qualify for employment, choose only business graduate schools that have been accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or other recognized bodies. Top business schools may also have earned recognition for teaching industry certifications and standards, such as Sarbanes-Oxley or ISO compliance.
  • Alumni network: Alumni connections can be one of the biggest benefits of attending a business school. While you may not enjoy a direct connection with a school’s superstar graduates, the strength of a school’s alumni network can determine the kinds of job leads and business deals you may discover after graduation.
  • Program heritage: While you should measure the quality of a business school on the strength of its curriculum, a well-known name on your diploma can increase your chances of landing a top job. The more prospective employers have heard good things about a program’s graduates, the easier it will be to land placement interviews.
  • Job placement rate: College and university career offices keep careful track of graduates’ job hunts, especially for the first few years after earning a degree. Put schools on your list when they offer transparent statistics that indicate better-than-average success.
  • Access to well known, expert faculty: Many schools now boast full or adjunct faculty members with prestigious careers as company leaders or respected authors. Although you might not have cause to study directly with a “celebrity” professor, their presence at a school can lend your own doctorate degree some additional clout when reviewed by hiring managers.


  • Scheduling: Some doctorate degree programs require students to follow rigid schedules. Others, especially online PhD programs, allow students to set their own pace. Eliminate schools from your list that require you to work too quickly or too slowly for your taste.
  • Learning style: Many adults learn more effectively through experience than through absorbing lectures. Review the delivery style of prospective doctorate programs to determine if they match your personal needs.
  • Campus orientation: On-campus programs may require you to overcome parking and commuting challenges, especially if you visit campus part-time. Online graduate degree programs eliminate travel time, but may require you to beef up your home office. Find business schools that match your physical needs.


  • Tuition reimbursement: Many major employers offer tuition reimbursement for managers and executives. Some schools may even qualify for more financial assistance than others, thanks to special company partnerships.
  • Scholarships and grants: Learn about the incentives that prospective business schools can offer you. If you fit the profile of a student your target school would like to recruit, you may be able to save money on tuition.
  • Other financial aid: Discover whether a prospective business school’s financial aid program can help facilitate connections to state and federal aid resources.
  • Financing and payment plans: Some schools offer their own financing or payment plans to help working adults manage their cash flow.


By combining online research with personal conversations, you can build a strong list of prospective graduate business programs for earning your doctorate degree in accounting:

  • U.S. News & World Report: Each year, researchers and editors of this well-regarded news magazine conduct objective rankings of top colleges and universities with business doctorate programs
  • Internet Research: WorldWideLearn offers an online college research resource, with sections on executive education, online PhD programs, and distance learning options for busy executives
  • Mentors: If you want to emulate the career of a respected mentor, consider learning more about their alma mater. Not only can they share insight about the inner workings of a doctorate degree program, they may even provide you with a letter of recommendation
  • Business Networking Groups: Graduates of prominent business schools frequently gather for networking events and other social affairs. Most business school attendees enjoy talking about their college experiences almost as much as they enjoy hunting for prospective accounts

Step 2: Narrow your options

After identifying the first round of prospective accounting doctorate degree programs, take a second look. Identify the benefits each school offers while thinking about the kind of educational experience you crave. Some schools may be out of your price range, while others may not offer class options that fit with your current personal or work commitments. Whittling away at your list gets you closer to the goal of finding the right business graduate schools to which you can apply.

Goal: Eliminate the programs that don’t fit your goals, your experience, or your learning style.

Matching business PhD programs to your experience level

Online graduate degree programs in business have proliferated in the past few years. The flexibility and quality of education that online graduate business programs offer have led many employers to either replace or enhance their in-house training and development programs with tuition reimbursement initiatives. Be sure to look into the possibility of tuition reimbursement and other financial aid opportunities your employer might offer. This alone might sway you in the direction of one doctoral program over another, but it isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. Be sure to do your homework, and…

  • Prepare yourself for rigorous learning: Think about the amount of time you have available to spend on pursuing a doctorate degree. Earning a PhD or DBA in Accounting requires much more than classroom attendance. Participants must engage in significant research, writing, and presentation projects. While some of those projects can overlap with duties or development programs at your current job, others may require you to carve out time throughout the week. Evaluate your schedule to determine whether part-time or full-time study would work better for you.
  • Check for business degree prerequisites: Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need an MBA to pursue a DBA or a PhD in Business. Many colleges and universities position their doctorate business programs as complementary to master’s degrees earned in other fields. For instance, a job seeker with a master’s degree in criminal justice and a DBA in Forensic Accounting can enjoy lucrative and specialized employment offers. Likewise, many lawyers and doctors have turned to business PhD programs as avenues to help build successful practices into larger companies.
  • Review any required exam scores: Many college placement counselors advise prospective students to complete both the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Most business schools require applicants to complete one or both of these standardized tests. If you perform exceptionally well on one test, but not the other, you can eliminate schools from your list that would count only your weaker score.
  • Study the competitive landscape: Doctorate degree programs are always competitive, no matter the field. For business doctorate candidates, competition can break out over potential tenured professorships, over rivalries between companies, or even over selection for journal publication. If you prefer a mellow academic environment, you can still get a top-notch education from a research-oriented business school. If you’re ready to swash-buckle your way into the CEO chair, highlight degree programs that prepare you for battle.


  • Online networks and bulletin boards: Look for Web sites and social networks visited by current students of the programs you’re attending. Eliminate programs from your list when you don’t feel like you’d fit well with the majority of students or professors. Although a terminal degree program is always an opportunity to challenge yourself by building competitive relationships, you don’t want to set yourself up for a struggle.
  • Admissions counselors and department chairs: Talk to some of the professionals from each of your short-listed schools. Admissions counselors can give you a big picture idea of what life is like for current students. Department chairpersons and key faculty members are happy to share information about the kind of students that perform well in their programs.

Step 3: Choose between campus-based or online PhD programs in accounting

Goal: Of the remaining doctorate programs on your list, determine whether online PhD programs suit your personal and professional goals better than traditional, campus-based programs.

Online learning has revolutionized doctoral degree programs in business. Unlike other fields of study, business doesn’t always require a high level of access to dedicated libraries or laboratories, and accounting is no exception. Many business school research projects involve looking at public records, company data, and news reports that can easily be found online. Some online PhD programs complement their virtual classrooms with networking events and field trips. Live events allow students to focus on building personal relationships that carry through to the professional world.


  • Campus calendars and websites: Business schools often keep publicly available calendars of campus events, guest speakers, and field trips. Consider the types of experiences your prospective business schools provide and whether they fit your desired academic goals.
  • Student blogs and social networking pages: Business school students aren’t typically shy about what they’re working on and who they’re meeting. Look at any public-facing personal Web sites that shed light on the kind of experiences they enjoy as participants in your prospective programs.
  • Alumni publications and student newspapers: Alumni magazines are among the best indicators of success for business school graduates. Read the class notes from alumni magazines and newsletters to learn who’s doing what and how long it took for them to achieve their goals. Likewise, student newspapers and other campus publications report on special events and class speakers, providing insight into the added value of being on campus.

Leveraging a PhD in business into a top career

No graduate business program can guarantee you a top job automatically. However, statistics and history show that job candidates with a PhD or DBA in business from an accredited college or university routinely earn significantly higher salaries than business school graduates who stop attending class after completing an MBA. Top leadership roles in accounting, taxation, or forensic accounting are typically hard to come by. However, the connections made while completing a business doctorate can build strobng personal and professional networks. The foundation of leadership and analysis cultivated by earning a PhD in Accounting can help you climb the ladder all the way up to the executive suite.


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