Ph.D. Prep – Selecting Programs

This post will outline what I’ve learned about program rankings & selecting programs.

As a rule of thumb, you want to go the most prestigious program to which you can get accepted.  Schools hire professors from peer schools or better, so if you get your Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, you will not teach at Stanford.  If, however, you graduate from Stanford and want to be a small-town teacher, you can always go the College of Southern Idaho.

Here’s the other reason why getting into a good school helps:  each finance program graduates maybe 3-5 Ph.D.s per year, but each university’s finance department only hires maybe 1-2 per year.  The top five schools’ graduates, then, tend to meet the hiring needs of the top 15 finance departments.  Job prospects get a lot harder for the middle-of-the-pack graduates of the #45 program.  If you do go to the #45 program, however, isn’t the end of the world.  You can end up teaching at a solid state school, make a good salary with limited publishing pressure, and even run a nice local consulting business on the side.

Ph.D. programs aren’t ranked separately from their business schools in the same way as MBA programs, though most of the highest-ranked MBA schools also have the best doctoral programs in finance.  Arizona State University maintains a Ph.D. Finance Program Ranking based on the number of papers published in top journals (though not all of these schools actually have doctoral programs).  The most helpful source I used was the faculty at my university–especially the youngest professors.  The reputation of your Ph.D. program will follow you to some degree throughout your life, and so it is an important consideration.  Professors will be able to tell you which programs are gaining prestige, which are considered top-notch, and which are heading downhill.

The other criteria that matters is subject of interest.  A few of the top schools like Harvard will have faculty focusing on just about anything you might care about, but most schools lean in one direction or another.  Professors can tell you what each school’s specialty is, and can often even tell you the names of the most productive researchers.  Those are the ones you’ll want to work with.

I applied to four or five programs I thought I’d really enjoy, plus another 15 of the the top-20 schools, plus 3-4 “backup” schools.  One of my MBA classmates shot himself in the foot by only applying to the top five programs.  He didn’t get into any of them, and now has to scramble to find a job during the last few weeks before graduation.

Next post:  Ph.D. Prep – Application Process