This is the latest post from Dr. Emelee, a former Big 4 employee who is in process of obtaining his PhD. Read the rest of his posts here.
The first year of a doctoral program is rough. Public accounting experience will make the transition easier in a lot of ways because ridiculous hours, lots of stress, and multiple deadlines won’t be anything new. For me, the stress of the PhD program had one unique aspect that the public accounting stress didn’t have — I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to make it through the first year of the doctorate.
As an accountant thrust into the first semester of a mathematical statistics or econometrics course it’s pretty easy to ask yourself two questions: 1) What the hell have I gotten myself into? 2) Do I have a realistic shot at passing comps?
The challenges of the first year are different for everyone, but there are commonalities. The tips here are mostly common sense, but I’ve found that particular commodity is a bit scarcer in academia than in the Big 4.
1) Show up early and stay late. You want to hold at least a regular 8-5 schedule in the office each week day. Showing up early makes a big impression on professors. People are going to be evaluating you from the moment you enter the program, and making a good impression is important. It’s a little unfair, but if profs don’t see you on campus then they will think that you’re not working as hard as someone that is in the office all the time. I also recommend coming in at least once during the weekend and I would alter the timing of that. Profs tend to come in at the same times on weekends, and if you alter your weekend schedule from time to time you will see more of them around (read: more of them will see YOU around).
2) Business casual during the week. Doctoral seminars are not the time to sport a trucker hat or velour sweats. This goes back to impression maintenance and is superficial, but it’s still important. You wouldn’t wear jean shorts to an audit committee meeting, would you?
3) Buy the best noise cancelling headphones you can afford. You will probably have a shared office with other PhD students. It gets loud in there, and it’s tough to focus. Your office mates may hold office hours, chat to pass the time, talk on the phone, and keep their phones off silent mode and text a lot. All of this can hurt your own productivity.
4) Get sent to the annual accounting doctoral consortium. Every year each doctoral program will send one accounting PhD student to something that’s like Top Gun for accountants except without the awesome one-liners and shirtless volleyball. It’s an honor to be sent to this, and it looks great on your CV. When you apply to universities and they see this, they know that you were considered by the faculty to be the best of your cohort.
5) You can’t always read it all. When I was admitted to a program, someone told me that it was impossible to read everything that’s assigned each week. She said to read just enough to not look like an idiot (of course, it’s better to try to read it all). In PhD courses it is fairly common to discuss published research papers. If you just sit there and don’t say anything, the prof teaching the course will suspect that you haven’t read the article. The rule I set for myself was that if I only knew one or two things about a paper I was supposed to have read thoroughly but had only skimmed, then I would jump out early and make the first comment. That would kick off the discussion, show the prof I had diligently "done" my homework, and then I could sit back and watch others either chime in about what they knew or sit there like deer in headlights.
Any other PhDs out there have tips after their first year in a program? Share them below.
Have something to add to this story? Give us a shout by email, Twitter, or text/call the tipline at 202-505-8885. As always, all tips are anonymous.