Tips for strengthening your PhD program application

· by Brian Anderson · Read in about 7 min · (1466 words) ·

As a PhD Program Director, I’ve seen more than a handful of doctoral program applications. One thing that is clear is that there is no ‘silver bullet’ predictor of success in a doctoral program in entrepreneurship and related fields that is discernible from an application packet.

That said, there are things that make some application packets stand out from others. What I’m highlighting below are my suggestions for ways to strengthen a PhD program application. My perspective applies to entrepreneurship, management, strategy, and related disciplines, and may apply to other social science fields. By no means is this post meant to be a guide for how to get in to a doctoral program. I do think, though, that being cognizant of these factors may improve your odds. As a disclaimer, the below is my perspective, and does not reflect the official admissions policy at the Bloch School of Management.

Intellectual horsepower isn’t a differentiating factor

This one is more philosophical, but critical for your application. Yes, there is a certain level of intellectual horsepower required to be successful as a professor. But you can think of this level as the cost of entry, rather than the differentiating factor. Once beyond a certain threshold, there is little separating, say, an applicant in the 85th GMAT percentile from the 95th percentile. It is important to communicate evidence of your raw intellectual ability, and standardized test scores and undergraduate/graduate GPA is a common —although imperfect—marker for that ability. I start with this advice first because while intellectual ability is important, it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. I have seen several PhD students with high intellectual ability drop out of PhD programs or graduate but fail to establish a research stream. I have also seen PhD students with more modest intellectual abilities build successful research careers because other positive attributes enabled them to exploit what abilities they had. If there is a weakness in your test scores or GPA, make sure to emphasize how other positive traits—hard work, discipline, intellectual curiosity, and coachability—position you for success as a doctoral student.

Be clear in your desire for a career as a researcher

One of the first things I look for in an application packet is whether the individual explicitly discusses a passion for research and a desire to be a professional researcher. Most entrepreneurship PhD programs exist to train future tenure-track faculty, and a typical breakdown of your time as a tenure-track assistant professor is 60% research, 40% teaching, and 10% service to the field and to the university. That does not mean that you should not value teaching. Quite the contrary—being an effective teaching will not get you tenure, but being a poor teacher can prevent it. My point is that in your statement of purpose, it is in your best interest to signal a genuine passion for a career as a researcher and for intellectual inquiry. If you are not sure about what a research career entails, the best place to start is to reach out to prior or current tenure-track faculty for their perspective and for a realistic job preview.

Of course, if you are not “all in” for a career as a social scientist and researcher, then a doctoral degree is not the best choice. If you are interested in teaching, most business schools will consider adjunct and clinical faculty with a masters degree or first professional degree (e.g., J.D.).

A related question that comes up is the importance of having a defined research interest congruent with the research interest of doctoral faculty in the program. How importance this factor is varies by program and by faculty member, and the best way to determine the importance of research interest congruence is to talk to current PhD students in that program. From my own perspective, I am not all that interested in whether you already know what you want to research, because the odds are that you will change your made as you start learning more about the field . What is more important to me is whether you have a passion for doing high quality research using high quality methods, that you have a strong moral compass, and that you have a passion for learning.

Signal coachability

Faculty invest a tremendous amount of time, energy, and resources into PhD students. This investment should translate to a rewarding professional relationship and research productivity. Working with PhD students is one of the most rewarding parts of being a professor. But, and this is important, it can also be draining and unproductive. A key part of the relationship being successful is that neither the student or faculty member is a jerk. This is something that personal interviews and talking to recommenders helps to flesh out, and it is important. But what you can signal in an application packet is your coachability. I use that word specifically—coachability in this context is the openness of the student to take direction and to accept constructive criticism. There are few things more frustrating as an adviser than to feel like you need to “fight” with a PhD student to get him or her to accept feedback, or to have that feedback ignored. Material in an application packet that help signal coachability is taking part in successful research projects as an undergraduate or graduate student, and having your recommenders comment on this trait in their letters.

As a personal note, I have a bias for prior military and athletes as PhD students (yes I am both, so yes, this contributes to my bias). The reason being is that these individuals have experience with taking coaching and feedback in stressful and consequential situations. Of course, that does not mean that all prior military and athletes are coachable, nor does it mean that non-military and non-athletes are not coachable. Rather, a military/athletic background may signal that you are comfortable working in a mentor/mentee position, and that you are comfortable taking directions. There are of course related careers and experiences that also signal coachability.

Be purposeful in your choice of recommenders

This is part of the application too often overlooked. Most programs require three letters of recommendation in your application packet, but the choice of recommender is at your discretion. Do not discount the importance of these letters and who writes them. The strongest letters are those from former or current faculty members who speak about you, your work ethic, your intellectual ability, and your potential for success in a doctoral program and as a future faculty member. In the best case scenario, I like to see the recommender end with a comment such as “When Kristin graduates from your program, I want to hire her at XYZ University.” The perspective of our faculty colleagues can have significant weight, because he or she is lending his or her reputation to you.

It may not be feasible to have a former faculty member write a recommendation letter because, for example, you have been working for several years after your last degree. In this case, a good choice is individuals who can speak to your work ethic, coachability, discipline, and intellectual curiosity. These individuals are not likely to comment on your potential as a researcher, but they can speak to things that are important predictors for success in a doctoral program.

Remember, the PhD degree is NOT a higher-level MBA

There is a growing number of Executive PhD/DBA programs. These programs generally target working professionals, may allow study on a part-time/distance basis, and do not offer tuition assistance or a financial assistantship. For applicants looking to stay in industry or to accelerate a consulting career, the traditional PhD is not a good fit. Most traditional (full-time, in-residence) PhD programs exist to train future tenure-track (research) faculty members. The coursework in traditional PhD programs bears little resemblance to MBA or related coursework. Beyond courses on the theoretical underpinnings of the content taught in MBA programs, because we are a quantitative research field, most doctoral coursework emphasizes research design, data science, and various applied statistical methods.

It is also worthwhile to note that success as an MBA student does not equate to success as a doctoral student. The degrees are very different, and serve very different stakeholder communities. It is in your best interest to spend time with your undergraduate and graduate faculty to talk about life as a researcher and scholar, and whether you have the skill set and passion for the career.

Being a professor is a ridiculously good job—it is a license to learn and to explore. If you have a passion for discovery and for sharing those discoveries with others, than a doctoral degree and a career as a professor may be a good fit. Hopefully this post helps your position your application materials for success.