7 PhD Application Tips For PhD Programs (In Business Administration)


This post provides tips for applying to PhD programs, particularly in any of the disciplines in Business Administration (i.e. Strategy, Finance, Marketing, etc.). Applying to PhD Programs is always a stressful affair. I remember when I applied to mine, nearly 15 years ago. It took several months of preparation, from writing the GMAT (I did my PhD in Business Administration), to crafting the statement of purpose, to actually sending in the material. All I can say is, boy, did I get a lot of things wrong. Obviously, some things worked out for me, but looking back, I feel that I was pretty lost with the process. 

Why do you want to get a PhD? The biggest reason is that it allows you to get into research careers, like becoming a research associate, or becoming a professor (Read more about my ideas about how to become a business professor or advantages and disadvantages of getting your PhD in Business).

How do you prepare for a PhD Application? You start early – I would recommend that if you are serious about doing research that you start 1 or 2 years out before you actually start applying to PhD programs. Why? You have to do a lot of exploration to find a PhD program that fits your style and your interests.

Before I go further, I should share with you about why I am doing this r3ciprocity.com project. The main reason is that I like to solve problems, but more specifically, I wanted to create a system that I can have a real world impact. I thought wouldn’t it be cool to solve a problem that I experience every day, but making this solution scaleable to a larger audience. Anyway, I created a sharing economy proofreading software that is based on reciprocity. After I created the software, I realized that I did not have an audience (a sort of chicken and egg problem – you need software to get an audience, but you need an audience to make the software work). Anyway, I choose to help PhD students and other academics, particularly those in the social sciences, because they could really use such a software. (I can’t be the only one that is terrible at writing.) I also thought that it would be cool that when this made money to give back with scholarships for grad students (Yes, it’s a pipe-dream, but a kid’s gotta dream, right).

You can watch the following video of me talking about some of these tips for applying to PhD programs.

Tips For Applying To PhD Programs (in Business Administration)

Remember that this advice for PhD applicants does not just apply for those interested in Business Administration, but because it based on my own experiences, it is most relevant for Business PhDs, especially PhD programs in strategic management. (Want to learn more about how long it takes to get a PhD or a DBA? Check out my blog post). When you write a PhD application, you should think about the following:

1. PhDs Like To Talk About Their Love of Research.

Generally, most potential PhD supervisors and PhD acceptance committees do not career too much about what your industry accomplishments, unless it relates to research. Many (not all) academics find industry experiences rather tedious. They are more interested in ‘the idea.’ If you can share a curious finding that you observed during your time in industry, academics are going to be interested in that finding. For example, you observed that venture capitalists ‘herd’ in their investment decisions (see Isin Guler’s work) However, if you tell academics that you were so-and-so of so-and-so company, many academics will disregard this experience. Thus, if I were you, I would discuss and talk about your love of ideas and curious findings. There is nothing so exciting as a deep discussion about some strange thing in the world.

You can, however, talk about some weird fact about yourself. For example, if you were an Olympian or wrestled bears, it sometimes helps your application. Why? Academics are humans, and we use heuristics to remember people. It is easier to remember the ‘space-girl’ or ‘bear-guy,’ than it is to remember Joe or Jane Maffraw.

2. Read At Least A Few Of The Faculty’s Papers.

Potential supervisors do not expect you to read everything that they have ever written, but you likely should read 1-2 of their articles before you talk to them. Do not be afraid that we are going to quiz you on all of the details of the article. Heck, I can’t even remember what I wrote yesterday, … seriously. But, you should have a general sense about the article to carry on a light conversation, like “that was a great article about the lightning industry you did. It was very insightful” or, “how did you think of the idea for your paper on the start-up businesses in the Canadian Rockies.” You are really just looking for a way to carry on the conversation with your own future research.

Read this blog post on why the R3ciprocity project can be viewed as an online writing accountability group. You will love it!

3. Demonstrate Your Ability To Do Research.

You should come up with some proof of your ability to do research. This is extremely important if you want to do research for the rest of your life. You have to some one or two analytical articles that you wrote during your undergrad or grad school. (This post helps with crafting a research paper for a PhD). The best possible thing is a paper that you wrote that is very ‘academicy.’ You should have a theoretical overview, hypotheses (if required), data collection, and some analysis of this data.

It is also a good idea to show how talented you are with you analysis or crafting of an idea. If you can program, I would write a short piece of code for the school of choice. If you can analyze data, I would ask to analyze some data for a professor. Pretty much every business professor has some data that they need to get cleaned – this would be a good chore for you to do. Cleaning data is an important part of research that very few people like to do. You can impress a potential advisor by doing this work for them.

For the first several years of your PhD program, you will likely do a lot of reading and ‘work.’ You could summarize a set of articles for a professor for a literature review. In general, there are many ways to demonstrate your ability to do research, but what you should focus on is trying to be of service to potential supervisors.

4. Work On Your GMAT / GRE Scores.

Ok, so many people will tell you that the GMAT / GRE scores do not matter for research. This is true – it is likely not a strong predictor of research abilities. Why is that? There are so many other things that go into doing research over the long run. For example, you need to be able to do something over the course of 5-10 years, so many times basic life things will get in the way of your research success. You know – those simple things, like divorce, marriage, babies, deaths, depression, big moves, and all that easy stuff.

However, GMAT / GRE scores are generally used as a way to screen out potential applicants. Why? Its standardized across countries and regions. It also might be a mild predictor of either ‘grit’ or IQ (I think standardized tests confounds the two). It might also be a strong predictor of privilege as only those with sufficient resources will take courses or spend enough time to study on the test to do well. Even if it is arbitrary, these standardized scores are just an easy way to screen out candidates, right or wrong. You should invest some time, effort, and resources to do well on the GMAT / GRE.

I have learnt that it will pay off considerable returns if you do well over the long-run.  You have to think about it as the returns you will get over the course of 30-40 years. Even if you make an extra $1000 / year because of a slightly higher GMAT score (ie. because you get into a better university for a PhD), investing the small amount in studying for the GMAT / GRE will be well worth it.

5. Look For PhD Programs Outside Of Your Field.

I would highly recommend that you search broadly when you look for a PhD program. Cool PhD programs are often in places that you would never expect.  We often get fixated on a specific program or field of study, but you should be aware that people get PhDs in many areas and study very similar things. You might be searching for PhD programs in Business Management or Business PhDs because you did your undergraduate degree in Business, but you don’t have to do your doctorate in the field that you did your undergraduate degree in.

You can also get considerably different returns by simply changing the course of study. For example, in my field, there are people that study geography and geographic methods (to look at things like firm or venture capital location), yet, they do not have a PhD in geography.

If you want to investigate PhD programs, there are many institutions and programs around the world that do the same thing as a PhD in your area, but are called something different. For example, some engineering programs have a good management department (UCL, Waterloo, Stanford, UC Barbara, etc) in which you could get a PhD. The ‘feel’ of the department will be quite a bit different than a business school, but you can study and move around to business schools. The key thing is that you are doing good research, and that you find great mentors that will help you do good research.

6. Go To An Academic Conference To See What ‘Academia’ Is All About.

I think it is odd with many professions, including academics, that we train people to do something, but then we never really show them what it is like until they are in the profession. For example, many programs will teach people about a particular subject, but then when people actually ‘do’ that subject they either do not know ‘how’ to do that subject, or they discover that they dislike that subject. For this reason, I very much like apprentice-type programs or coop programs (my undergrad university ‘U. Waterloo’ has a great program).

One way that you can observe what academia is like for little commitment is to attend several academic conferences. If you are thinking of a PhD in Strategic Management or Innovation, you should consider attending either the Strategic Management Society conference (more specialized and better food, but more expensive), the Academy of Management conference (giant and diverse, but reasonably priced and you can find free food), or the Informs conferences (very ‘academicy,’ but somewhat removed from strategy and leans toward social science). (Learn about how to get a PhD in Strategy).

At these conference, you will learn about what academic presentations are, what it takes to write a paper, and the questions people ask in academia. You will be surprised how much you learn by watching people at these conferences. Academics, like any other career, has a lot of ceremony and protocol.

You might meet a few people there that might be of interest, but do not expect too much as a junior potential PhD student. If you are outgoing, you are going to of course meet more people. When you attend your first conference, make sure you dress ‘business causal’ and just be a fly on the wall. Try not to make a scene, as this could potentially harm you in the future.

Want to learn more about academic conferences, watch this video:

7. Build Relationships With Faculty Members.

Last, I think an important thing that you might want to consider is to build strong relationships with faculty members. If you are currently an MBA or undergraduate business major, get to know your faculty. This is one of the advantages of starting your journey to a PhD at a younger again (Read my post about doing your PhD in your 30s). Ask them to do simple tasks for them. For example, when I was in undergrad (Chemical Engineering), I did several years of an undergraduate research assistantship. While I probably did not create much in terms of usable research and I might have slowed down my Professor, he was nice enough to work with me and I truly learnt a lot from the experience. From that I will always be grateful. What I did was build a small piece of simulation software, but there are many things that you could do, like do some data cleaning, collect some information, or interview different people.

You want to reach out to faculty on a regular basis. Try to find time to stop by their office and ask them if they need a hand with something. I am sure there is something that they would be willing to let you do.

Why do you want to work with faculty? You will greatly improve your chances of getting into a PhD program. Not only because you might get a letter of reference, but this demonstrates that you are interested in doing research long before you actually start your PhD.

Building A Research Story For A PhD

If you have not figured it out yet, getting into a PhD program in Business Administration (or any other program) is a lot about crafting a long-running story in what and who you are about.  It is not just about getting the PhD (See my post about the difference between a PhD and a DBA), and that is the end of your story. How you get into a PhD program is showing others how excited you are about doing original research, and that you are willing and excited to learn new knowledge.

No PhD program wants to bring you on board to realize that you do not like doing research. Doing research means that you like reading, writing, and arithmetic; and you are going to do this for a long-time. You have to demonstrate and provide a story that this is what you want to do. Doing a PhD, and then the subsequent career as a Professor or Research Associate after that is challenging. Going forward, try to build your program around this story and your desire to do research.

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