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The Complete Guide to Business School PhD Applications


Megan Gorges, Harvard Business School

Stephen Turban, Harvard Business School

(Authors contributed equally to the development of this guide. Authors listed alphabetically.)

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This document is intended as a guide to help future applicants navigate the process of applying for business school PhD programs. This guide is based on Stephen and Megan’s firsthand experience applying to PhD programs and is supplemented by data from a survey of 46 other successful applicants. Our objective is to provide open access to the “insider” information we gathered through our own journeys and to help level the playing field for all aspiring business school academics.


The competition for admission to business school PhD programs has grown in intensity in recent years. As a result, some successful applicants enter the admissions process with considerable information about business school academia – while others do not. The goal of this guide is to democratize access to this information so that applicants from all backgrounds have the opportunity to succeed in the admissions process.

The authors of this guide – Stephen Turban and Megan Gorges – first met while at an admitted students' day for a management PhD program. Over the following few weeks, we would bump into each other on several visit days across the country. As we did, we began to wonder: why were we accepted to these programs when others were not? We concluded it was not because we were better candidates, but rather because we had more access to information about the admissions process. Megan had worked as a lab manager at Berkeley Haas in the preceding year and had received guidance from faculty members and PhD students as she applied. Stephen, similarly, had spent a summer working at Harvard Business School in college and so drew upon his friends and mentors to help him through the process. The advice in this guide is drawn from our experiences combined with quantitative survey data collected from other admitted PhD students.

Specifically, this guide is intended to provide tactical advice on how to succeed in the business school PhD admissions process. It is inspired by Abhishek Nagaraj’s 2010 “A Guide to Business PhD Applications,” which we highly recommend. We have endeavored to make this guide complementary to the information already provided in that article.

We will begin with a general discussion of whether or not you should pursue a PhD, recommend a timeline for preparation (which ideally begins 2+ years prior to your planned application cycle), and then cover choosing where to apply, preparing your application materials, and navigating the interview process.

Before we begin, the following are some considerations regarding the authority and generalizability of this guide. Both authors applied to Organizational Behavior and Management programs (Stephen to the macro track and Megan to the micro), so our advice will be especially relevant for individuals applying to those areas. However, where possible, we have highlighted differences in expectations for different subdisciplines.

To gain a broader perspective, we invited all the applicants we met at program visits and interview days to participate in a survey about their experience in the admissions process. Of the 46 survey respondents, 50% were female, 46% had applied to organizational behavior programs (this oversampling is likely a result of our limited contact with students across other disciplines) while the rest had applied to a range of disciplines including marketing, economics, and strategy, and respondents had received their undergraduate degrees an average of 3.4 years prior to their planned matriculation date (with a standard deviation of 3.3 years and a median of 2 years). Collectively, the survey respondents were admitted to many top business school programs, including Berkeley Haas, Boston College Carroll, Boston University Questrom, Carnegie Mellon Tepper, Chicago Booth, Columbia Business School, Cornell, Duke Fuqua, Harvard Business School, INSEAD, Kellogg, London Business School, Michigan Ross, MIT Sloan, NYU Stern, Stanford GSB, Toronto Rotman, UCLA Anderson, USC Marshall, Wharton, and Yale SOM. Additionally, we would like to thank our fellow admits who reviewed this guide and improved it with their feedback.

Given our position as incoming students, we are only able to provide advice from the applicant's perspective and are not privy to insider information on how admissions committees select candidates. That being said, we are grateful to Abhishek Nagaraj – now a faculty member at Berkeley Haas – for his feedback on this guide. His input gives us confidence that the recommendations contained herein are valid from at least one faculty member’s perspective.

Should you get a PhD?

The following section serves as a complement to Abhishek Nagaraj’s 2010 guide, which provides a very clear account of the PhD experience and the life of an academic. We seek to add to his analysis by focusing on the trade-offs implicit in pursuing a PhD in a business field, particularly vis-a-vis working in industry and other non-business PhD programs. We will also highlight the impact faculty members make in the field.

Why apply to a business school PhD program?

The most common reason to pursue a PhD in a business school is to become a business school professor. In most business schools nearly all tenured faculty members have doctoral degrees from either a business school field (e.g., management, finance, marketing, etc.) or a related discipline (e.g., economics, sociology, psychology, etc.).

PhD programs in business schools can take many forms. Business research can take a highly quantitative approach – as in the case of business economics, accounting, or finance – or use qualitative methods such as ethnography. Research methods could include experiments, interviews, or the analysis of large datasets. What unites these disparate approaches is A) the connection between the research and the practice of doing business and B) that most PhD graduates intend to become faculty members at business schools.

If you have just started considering a PhD in business, you should seek to gather as much information as you can about what this career path entails and the degree to which it suits your interests and goals. This guide is a good start, but you may also consider attending a DocNet fair where you can meet with and learn from business school admissions staff. If you are a member of an underrepresented minority, you should also look into the PHD Project, which is an excellent resource for learning about the profession and connecting to mentors.

What do business school professors do?

If applying to a business school PhD generally leads to becoming a professor, it is important to understand, “What is the life of a business school professor?”

Broadly, the work of a business school professor can be broken into four parts:

● Research

● Teaching and advising

● Service to the school

● External work (e.g., consulting, popular writing, book publishing)


Research is the central focus of professional life for both PhD students and faculty members. In general, the success of both students and junior faculty members is based on their ability to produce original research in their domain of interest. Because research is the most important activity in the academic career path, you should only pursue a PhD if you are passionate about conducting research. Depending on the field of study, this could involve running lab experiments, investigating large datasets, interviewing or working inside a company, or setting up field experiments in the outside world. After finishing a PhD program, most graduates become assistant professors at business schools. They then have 5-7 years to produce sufficient original research, generally in top academic journals, to get tenure. Simply put, tenured professors cannot be fired from their jobs.

Teaching and advising

Teaching also occupies a significant share of faculty members’ time. Business school professors traditionally teach MBA students. However, depending on the school, faculty members could also teach executive education, undergraduate, or digital courses. Universities also expect faculty members to advise PhD students in developing their own research.

Service to the school

The category of service includes any tasks performed for the betterment of the school or department that are not included in research or teaching. This could include, for example, serving on school-wide committees on diversity, working as chair of the department, or helping with admissions for PhD candidates. Some faculty members may go on to university leadership positions (e.g., provost, president).

External facing work (e.g., consulting, popular writing, book publishing) Finally, many faculty members – particularly at elite schools – work on projects intended to directly benefit the broader public. This could include advising companies on their strategy or business practices, writing popular press articles in publications such as Harvard Business Review, or authoring books. This ratio changes over time; as faculty members become more senior, they generally devote more time to external-facing work.

How does being a business school professor compare to other careers?

To begin, it’s important to understand what areas of a career matter to you – whether they be income, autonomy, impact, etc. It’s clear that there are many benefits to life as a business school professor – but also serious drawbacks.

For one, numerous researchers have documented the poor mental health of graduate students. One 2018 study conducted by researchers at Harvard, for example, showed that economic PhD students are three times more likely to show depressive symptoms than the average population (Barreira, Basilico, & Bolotnyy, 2018). It is worth noting that economics PhD programs may be harder on students’ mental health than most business programs, but we recommend looking into the large body of research on mental health issues in graduate students across a variety of programs. A PhD can be pressure-filled and the relatively small stipend can become a serious stressor for many students. Additionally, as many students argue, it’s hard to feel a sense of “progress” day-to-day. When the output is generating novel, innovative research, it is often unclear whether or not you’ve made progress toward that goal each day.

In addition, many PhD students face a significant opportunity cost by attending a PhD program – particularly a business school program. It is important to recognize that individuals who successfully become business school professors are generally highly educated and talented. That is to say, they have a skill set that would allow them to work successfully in other careers. In fact, PhD students who do not enter into academia often enter into other fields such as finance, consulting, and tech. Nonetheless, there are also numerous benefits to a PhD and business school academic career, including intellectual fun, autonomy, and a uniquely flexible lifestyle post-tenure.

Below is a general comparison of a business school professor’s career to one in industry. In general, professors win out on autonomy, lifestyle, and intellectual fun, but earn less and have fewer choices in location.

Individuals considering a PhD in business may also be interested in an academic career in a related field, such as economics, sociology, or psychology. For this group, it is useful to compare the career of business school academics to other academics.

When making a comparison based on these factors, business school academic careers win out over other academics in social science fields in most scenarios. One important caveat to this hinges on your ability to do “fundamental” or “basic” research. Because business schools exist to support managers and leaders, there is an expectation that your research be somewhat “applied” and connected to the practice of management. More fundamental topics (such as understanding personality changes across the lifespan which falls into the realm of basic psychology, or studying the structural elements of a machine learning algorithm which falls into the realm of computer science) can often fall outside the scope of business school research. If you are interested in studying an important topic that does not fit within the umbrella of business, then you may be more fulfilled pursuing a PhD in another discipline.

The main reason why business school academics are paid more (generally starting around $180 - $200k and then going up to $300-$400k) is because of their exit opportunities. If they left their career as an academic, they could command significantly higher salaries in the industry, which is not necessarily true for academics in other fields. Another reason why business school salaries are generally higher is that business schools bring in more revenue to spend on attracting high-quality faculty members and supporting their research. It is important to note that salaries likely vary by discipline (finance and strategy professors often command the highest salaries) and by school (more prestigious schools may be able to offer higher salaries).

What impact do business school professors have on the world?

In the comparison table above, we give industry careers a slight edge on the “impact” dimension. This begs the question: what type of impact do faculty members have on the world?

The reason industry careers may be judged as more impactful is that most business academics are solo contributors. This means that unless their research is picked up broadly – which is relatively rare – they will not be able to leverage teams and organizations to extend their impact as their industry peers do. In general, the distribution of the impact of academia has a long right tail, with research from a few superstars having significant influence, and most academics not achieving widespread exposure. Academics can combat this limitation by teaming up with other researchers or by developing academic organizations to expand the impact of their work (for example, founding a research lab or an institute in their particular area of interest).

What is the lifestyle of a business school professor?

A significant benefit of any faculty position is the autonomy. Professor and PhD students have the freedom to choose when and how to work. Generally, academia is a path that enables immense flexibility and self-direction.

Becoming a professor is a great way to engage in a lifetime of curiosity and learning. Professors often spend their days trying to learn about and answer questions that they find interesting. Unlike an industry career with its constant pressures towards commercial ends, professors are generally shielded from the day-to-day press of paperwork and profits.

How difficult is it to become a successful professor?

Unfortunately, even if you do complete a PhD, there is no guarantee that you will secure a job as a faculty member. The job market for assistant professor positions is quite competitive and most PhD graduates accept job offers at schools a rung or two lower in prestige than their degree-granting institution (Clauset, Arbesman, & Larremore, 2015). This 2015 study by Clauset, Arbesman, and Larremore found that PhD graduates in business go on to a faculty position at an institution an average of 25-30 positions lower in prestige (e.g., from Harvard to UT Austin). Others, of course, choose to forego an academic career and instead enter into industry, generally in a relatively high-paying position in finance, consulting, or tech. Some choose to complete their PhD and then take this path, whereas others elect not to finish the PhD and skip straight to their next career.

Why pursue a business school PhD?

This leads us back to the central question: why complete a business school PhD at all? If you are pursuing a PhD in a business school, it means that you either A) want to devote your time to conducting research and become a business school professor (and think the pros of this career outweigh the cons) or B) think that the PhD will unlock something else important in your life.

For Stephen, “A” was certainly true. He realized that the things he did for fun – write, explore data, and try to understand how organizations and business work – exactly matched the job description of a professor. For you, it is important to make that decision before you begin on the PhD application process and the long path to academia. The PhD can be extremely challenging, and the single best reason to enter into this journey is because you believe that you will be most happy spending your time conducting research.


To succeed in the PhD application process, you should give yourself ample time to prepare. As we will detail in the following section, there are numerous parts of the application. Some parts can be done relatively quickly – such as finding and uploading a transcript – and other parts require serious time commitment – such as doing research with faculty members.

In the below section, we outline an ideal timeline for an applicant. Of course, we recognize that most people will not follow this timeline exactly, and many will be able to complete some steps in this timeline more quickly. Rather, this timeline should serve as a benchmark as you go along your PhD application journey. For reference, most programs have application deadlines that range from early December to early January.

Illustrative timeline below

Illustrative Timeline for Business School PhD Application

Some quick notes on the timeline. We include a section that involves “Assist faculty member with research.” Though this is not 100% necessary, our experience indicates that research experience gives your application a strong edge in the selection process. The reason for this is three-fold: 1) prior research experience shows that you know what you are getting into and demonstrates your commitment to academia, 2) research experience signals some degree of preparation which may make you more successful in the PhD program, and 3) if you work on research specifically in a business school this can give you an “in” to the research community you are hoping to join. Notably in our survey, we found that 44 of our 46 surveyed admitted students had some form of research experience before applying. We will discuss this step in more detail in the section on the “the RA path to the PhD.”

We do not include your graduate or undergraduate studies as part of the timeline, though they remain important in the application. Broadly, the expectation is that you perform well during both of those periods. Of the admitted students we surveyed, the average GPA was roughly a 3.85 with a standard deviation of .12. However, we saw GPAs in the survey range from 3.5 to 4.0. In general, the common wisdom is that a strong GPA is necessary but not sufficient for a successful application.

We recommend that applicants get ahead of the schedule for applying. One faculty member at HBS, who completed their PhD at Stanford in 3 years, advised that you should be done with almost all parts of the application by August or September (which is even more aggressive than our timeline above). Front-loading your application efforts provides more ample time for revision and can reduce the stress during the final few weeks of submission.

Choosing where to apply

One of the most important steps before beginning the application is to identify the PhD programs to which you want to apply. In general, applicants should first select their broader field of interest (e.g., accounting, finance, business economics, strategy, etc.). Next, they should begin to identify some questions or topics they find interesting (e.g., social networks, status hierarchy, VC flow of capital, etc.). Finally, after selecting their intended field and topics of study, they should identify the top programs (and specific faculty within those programs) that match their own particular research interests.

Choosing your field and topics of interest

Business academia is split into numerous fields and subfields within which you must identify your particular interests. In general, business school research draws from a set of disciplines such as economics, sociology, psychology, and to a slightly lesser extent other fields such as history, statistics, and political science. Over time, business school researchers have developed their own fields such as organizational behavior, accounting, finance, and strategy. The best way to gain an understanding of these fields is to look at the types of academic articles that these researchers are publishing. It is important to have a general sense of the field of your interest and the types of questions that it does (and does not) cover.

From there, it is important to ask yourself questions about the topics that interest you. Megan, for example, knew she was interested in emotions and prosocial behavior because she had enjoyed assisting with research in those areas, and this led her to consider programs in management and organizational behavior (micro). Stephen, on the other hand, was interested in physical space, social networks, and worker mobility. This led him to look at programs that covered these topics, which were management or organizational behavior (macro). If you are having difficulty honing your own interest, a good way to explore is by reading the major journals in the field (e.g., Academy of Management Journal for management, Strategic Management Journal for strategy, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology or Journal of Applied Psychology for social psychology and micro organizational behavior). While preparing your application you should have a general idea of your research interests and specific topics you can discuss in your application materials; that said, no one will force you to continue doing research on the topics you mentioned in your application. So, this is meant to be directional but not binding.

Choosing the programs to apply to

After identifying your topics of interest comes the difficult task of choosing which programs to apply to. In general, there is a limited amount that you can learn online about a program, and because the characteristics of a program can change dramatically as different faculty members join and leave it is important to seek out up-to-date sources of information. We suggest four main ways to learn about your specific programs of interest.

Method 1) Online search for programs & faculty members

Even with its limitations, an online search is often the best way to get an initial feel for a program and to identify which programs are out there. When reading through program websites, there are three important factors to note: the faculty and their research interests, the careers (academic or otherwise) that their students go on to lead, and the location of the school. When casting your net for potential programs, keep in mind that MBA program prestige rankings do not correlate perfectly with the quality of business school PhD programs. There are many schools outside of the Ivy League or top MBA rankings that have excellent business school faculty and publish research in leading journals.

The most important characteristic of a program is its affiliated faculty members. After identifying which faculty members are affiliated with the program, it is then useful to look at the type of research that they are publishing by using Google Scholar or looking at their most recent CV. Even a cursory look at the abstracts of recent papers written by an academic can give you a sense of some of their research interests. (Though not all! Remember that the publication timeline is long, so a faculty member’s recent publications may no longer reflect their current research interests.) One way to find the most recent work of a faculty member is to look at conference websites – this is the research for which faculty members are seeking feedback from peers, so it is generally newer work. Students should focus on applying to programs with multiple faculty members (2-4) whose research interests overlap with their own, ideally ranging in level from assistant to full professor.

After graduation, what are your possible prospects? For most business fields, the top 10-20 schools all recruit from one another. So, by going to one of these schools, you enter into an elite pool of candidates for an academic job. With that said, some schools consistently perform better than others when it comes to job placements. When conducting your due diligence on programs, look at the past ten years of academic and non-academic placements (which are often at least partially available on the program website). This will give you an idea of the type of school (or company) where you should expect to work post-graduation.

Take note of where potential programs of interest are located. In multiple conversations Stephen had, senior faculty emphasized the importance of location when choosing a school. Though the school itself is important, you are also making a decision about where you will live for the next five to six years. That is a significant part of your life! When choosing a school, it is also important to choose a place where you would actually want to live.

Method 2) Speaking with friends and mentors in the field

Reaching out to your connections in the academic world is a useful way to gain information about the different programs. In general, we recommend reaching out to a broad set of people even if they are not directly in your field of interest. For example, Megan reached out to her friends from her undergraduate psychology program who had gone on to PhD programs or faculty positions in psychology. Early on, these contacts can provide directional advice about programs and can help you connect with others in the field.

Method 3) Reaching out to current graduate students [Pro tip]

One of the most useful cohorts to reach out to is current graduate students. In particular, look for graduate students with similar interests in the same fields that you are targeting. Because graduate students recently went through the application process, they can provide tactical guidance on their own programs and how to approach the application. In particular, ask graduate students about their experience in their program and the faculty members they know in the department. One tip while talking with students is to pay attention to what they do not say about the program or advisors. In general, people speak very positively about their own programs and want to convince you to join. However, if they do not like someone or want to avoid talking about an issue with the program, they may not mention it. For example, at one program (left unnamed for anonymity), Stephen asked a current student about which faculty members he should consider as possible advisors. The student listed 4-5 names, but notably omitted a faculty member who had clear research alignment with Stephen. What Stephen realized through follow-up conversations was that this advisor had a notorious reputation for advising students. The student had answered Stephen’s question, but the omission was more telling than the answer itself.

Method 4) Reaching out to faculty members

Finally, reaching out to faculty members of interest can be a useful way to gain information about programs and to introduce yourself to potential advisors. Because faculty members are busy, we would suggest reaching out to those faculty members with whom you share A) a clear research alignment, B) a connected trait (e.g., same undergrad school, same hometown, etc.), or C) a mutual connection. In general, faculty members are often open to talking with serious applicants and discussing their own research. Whenever possible, in-person meetings are more effective and produce a more positive memory than meetings online. While reaching out to faculty members can be helpful in the application process, it is not strictly necessary. For example, Megan did not contact faculty members at her target programs prior to applying.

Ways to distinguish programs

There are numerous ways to distinguish programs. We identify a few axes to consider when deciding where to apply. Oftentimes it will be difficult, if not impossible, to understand these differences between programs without speaking to people in them or in the field.

Disciplinary vs. phenomenon-driven

One core difference between programs is how “disciplinary” or “phenomenon-driven” they are. In this case, disciplinary refers to the original discipline that the field emerged from. Organizational behavior (micro), for example, emerged from social psychology and the two disciplines overlap considerably in terms of research topics and methods. When we call a program more disciplinary, we mean that it has a deeper focus on that discipline (e.g., psychology), and its faculty likely publish more often in discipline-oriented journals.

Programs which are less disciplinary are generally more phenomenon-driven. This means that their research is focused on understanding specific events, processes, and trends that are currently relevant in business contexts. For example, studying the impact of mentorship on promotion outcomes would be a more phenomenon-driven approach, whereas examining how power influences approach behaviors would be considered more disciplinary (in this case, psychological). In most fields, more disciplinary programs are considered slightly more prestigious. In practical terms, this means that you can graduate from a more disciplinary program and place in a faculty position at a less disciplinary program, but it is more rare to go the other way.

Degree of specialization in level of analysis

A related but distinct axis on which to compare the training focus of programs is the degree to which they expect students to stay within a particular level of analysis or set of methods. For example, some organizational behavior programs maintain strong divides between

the micro (psychological) and macro (sociological) faculty members and students, whereas other programs train students thoroughly in both methods and embrace “meso” approaches and methodologies. Similarly, some strategy programs have a clear boundary between economic and sociological orientations, whereas others embrace mixing the two.

Apprenticeship model vs. entrepreneurial model

Another key difference between programs is the extent to which they are “entrepreneurial” in nature. When a program is entrepreneurial, this means that there are very minimal support structures in place for the student. This provides flexibility for the student to pursue their interests, but it also requires students to identify and connect with faculty members on their own initiative to successfully conduct research.

Apprenticeship models involve a much more structured path for a student. When a student enters a program, they are assigned a faculty advisor. They then work with this faculty advisor on their research agenda, starting as a research assistant and then working to be a co-author. Oftentimes apprenticeship models are paired with “labs” in which people work under 1-2 faculty members interested in similar topics. One advantage of an apprenticeship model is the speed and ease with which graduate students earn publications. However, on the job market, candidates are often penalized for being too similar to their faculty advisors and failing to establish their own research identity.

In general, the top business school doctoral programs all follow some version of the entrepreneurial model, with only minor differences in the degree of support provided.

Senior-faculty heavy vs. junior-faculty heavy

There is significant variation across departments in the percentage of senior and junior faculty. Some departments are very senior-heavy, meaning that they have many tenured faculty but fewer junior faculty (e.g., assistant professors). Other departments have a handful of senior faculty, but are dominated by a younger set of professors. Of course, some departments sit in the middle, but it is often possible to characterize departments as senior- or junior-dominated.

The advantage to collaborating with more senior faculty is that they can provide high-level, strategic advice on your career. Additionally, their clout and social connections can serve you enormously when you go on the academic job market. The drawback is that senior faculty are often less research active, meaning you will collaborate with them less and projects may proceed more slowly. Junior faculty-heavy programs, on the other hand, provide you with ample productive collaborators for your research. As research is the primary criterion for junior faculty to gain tenure, their incentives are aligned with yours to produce a large volume of high-quality research. However, they may have less clout in the field, which could make your job search more difficult.

An ideal program will have a mix of both senior and junior faculty with whom you can collaborate on research so that you can balance the pros and cons of each.

To how many programs should I apply?

In general, we recommend applying to more programs rather than fewer, given the low admission rates at each of these programs (roughly 4-7%) and the low marginal cost of applying to an additional program. In our case, Stephen applied to 7 programs and Megan applied to 11 programs. Our survey respondents applied to an average of 8 programs (with a standard deviation of 5.5). That said, we do not think you should apply to any programs that you would not consider attending – this is a waste of effort on your part and potentially could block out another deserving candidate.

Application Materials

Your application materials will be the main (if not only) input that admissions committees use to evaluate you, so it is important to invest the time and effort to get them right. Your main goals in preparing your materials should be to A) highlight your strengths as a candidate and B) meticulously meet every requirement for the school you apply. Taken together, your application materials should demonstrate your intelligence, persistence, intellectual creativity, and clear understanding of the realities of the path ahead.


At the time this guide was written, all major business school PhD programs require that applicants submit either GRE or GMAT scores, including verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing scores. Most do not state a preference between the two tests, so you can choose whichever one you think will give you a higher score. From our survey of admitted students, 96% submitted GRE scores for their applications, and this seems to be the current standard across all programs. Both Stephen and Megan took the GRE, so the following information will be most relevant to that test.

Business school PhD programs seem to pride themselves on maintaining high GRE/GMAT averages for admitted students. Many programs include these metrics on their admissions websites (often in FAQs), so you can check the figures for your target schools to see how you match up. For example, in 2019 Wharton listed their average GRE verbal score as 163 (90th percentile) and their average quantitative score as 167 (91st percentile). It is important to note that these averages usually include all admitted students across the business school PhD program, including those in finance, accounting, management, and marketing, so the average score may not be very informative for your particular area of interest. For example, one would expect that successful finance PhD applicants might have a higher average quantitative score than organizational behavior applicants, and within organizational behavior macro applicants may have higher quant scores than organizational behavior micro applicants. If your intended research methods require more intense quantitative skills, you can reasonably expect that the average quantitative score will be higher.

Average GRE Scores by Business School Discipline

The table above shows the number of responses, mean, and standard deviation of GRE scores by business school discipline from our survey of admitted students. Of the 42 individuals who reported both GRE scores and disciplines, 22 applied to multiple disciplines; their scores are included in the results for each discipline to which they applied. Please note that the survey respondents were admitted to R1 PhD programs, which represent only a small portion of all programs. Therefore, these scores are higher than may be necessary to gain admission to other high quality PhD programs.

Once you have a handle on what score you need for your target schools, it is time to understand the gap between your current and desired test performance. For some, the GRE is the easiest component of their application to prepare. For others (such as Megan), it was the most difficult. It is a good idea to take an official ETS practice test at least six months prior to your intended test date so you can develop a systematic and sustainable plan to address your weak points. If you find you have a large gap to close, Megan recommends dedicating about ten hours per week (ideally spread across five to seven days of the week) to practicing with official ETS material (Greg Mat’s YouTube videos are an excellent free resource), punctuated by practice tests weekly or biweekly (there are multiple free ETS practice tests available online). It can be helpful to supplement your preparation with test prep programs such as Magoosh, but bear in mind that only genuine ETS questions can rigorously prepare you for what you will encounter on the GRE. If preparing for the GRE is causing you a great deal of anxiety, it may be worth enrolling in a class or hiring a tutor to provide you with structure and outside validation of your effort and progress. Plan to take the test two to three times to reach your desired score, and arrange for your final test date to occur at least three weeks prior to your first application deadline.

If you have done everything you can and your score is not what you hoped, do not let that hold you back from applying. Megan almost did not apply in 2019 because her GRE quant score (160; 73rd percentile) was lower than all posted averages, but decided to give it a shot anyway with positive results. Based on conversations with faculty members and other admits, it appears that the GRE/GMAT score is used mainly as a general cut-off in the review process; however, a high GRE score is only a baseline requisite and is not nearly sufficient to secure admission.


Your CV (curriculum vita) should include all the most important information that you would like faculty to consider as they are reviewing your application. CVs are similar to resumes in the sense that they should summarize your qualifications, skills, and experiences, but they are allowed to be longer than the standard one page so that they can provide a full record of your contributions to academia. Your CV is a good place to include the technical details of your research projects (i.e., particular tools or methods you used or skills you built), especially if you find that your statement of purpose is being bogged down by these details.

CVs usually follow a consistent format, which you can see by looking up any academic’s CV or by searching online for a CV template. While it is advisable to match your CV’s aesthetics to the norm, you should feel free to pick and choose which content sections to include. Stephen, for example, decided to include the abstracts of all the research articles he had worked on (e.g., his senior thesis) so that he did not have to include it in the statement of purpose. Similarly, you may want to make up your own novel section to highlight your technical skills. On the other hand, you may not have any grants (most applicants won’t), so you can forego that section entirely.

Generally, CVs can be as long as necessary to cover all of your accomplishments, but some programs impose a two page limit. It may be a good idea to stick to that two page limit (as Megan did) so that you can 1) use the same CV for all of your applications and 2) acknowledge the value of brevity in this situation where very busy faculty seek to quickly understand who you are as an applicant.

You can see example CVs submitted by successful applicants in this folder.

Academic Record/Transcripts

You will need to submit transcripts for all post-secondary institutions you have attended (anything after high school, i.e., undergraduate or graduate education and study abroad programs) either as a PDF or as a mailed copy. For both of these options, you will need to request your official transcript from your school, usually through an online portal. It is a good idea to carefully read the instructions for submitting transcripts for each school to which you intend to apply a month or more before the deadline so that you can mail transcripts as needed.

Writing Sample

Some programs will ask you to submit a sample of your academic writing. The ideal item to include here would be a paper or thesis (master’s or undergraduate honors) that you have already written and reviewed with multiple academics. Megan used her undergraduate honor’s thesis (completely untouched since its completion three years before applying) as her writing sample for applications. Stephen submitted a paper that he had published with a mentor that was loosely based on his senior thesis. If you really do not have a good writing sample already prepared, spend the summer before applications writing and polishing one appropriate to the discipline. The writing sample seems to function as another (somewhat peripheral) measure of your research experience and thus your credibility in saying you intend to pursue an academic career. The importance of the writing sample seems to vary by applicant; for some, it was a topic of conversation in many interviews whereas for others it was never discussed.

Letters of Recommendation

Most programs will require you to include three letters of recommendation with your application (with some asking for only two and others allowing up to five). Both the source and content of your letters are very important, and together they should send the message that you demonstrate excellent potential for a career in research at a business school.

The business school academic community is small and tight-knit, and your network can play a key role in your success in the application process. Ideally, your letters should come from business school faculty members with whom you have worked on research (and the more senior and well-known the faculty member, and the closer their connections to your programs of interest, the better). They will be in the best position to speak to your potential, and their letter will get you noticed by the other faculty members in their network. If you cannot get a letter from a business school faculty member, the next-best option is to request one from a faculty member in another discipline. If you find that you can't identify enough letter writers in your immediate academic environment, consider taking a non-degree course at a local university, engaging with the professor, and asking them to write a letter. Once you have exhausted your options within academia, you can then consider soliciting letters from your other connections (such as work supervisors).

The content of your letters is equally (if not more) important. A vague letter with faint praise from a famous professor will not help your case for admission, whereas a specific and detailed letter with glowing remarks from a relative unknown in another discipline may take you far. To set yourself up for a high-quality letter, you should find opportunities to increase the breadth and depth of your research experience with faculty members. You can do this by contributing to multiple research projects, taking on a leadership role, and having conversations with faculty members about your research ideas and interests. If you have someone who you think is a potential letter writer, make sure to keep in contact with them even after graduation. This can include email updates, dropping by their office when you are in town, or discussing your PhD plans with them when you begin the application process.

It is important to be organized and purposeful in obtaining your letters of recommendation. If you have been out of contact with a potential recommender for some time, reach out to them as soon as you decide to apply to re-introduce yourself, discuss your plans, and ask for their support. Rather than asking if they are willing to write you a letter, instead ask if they feel they would be able to write you a strong letter. If they express any misgivings, you should thank them for their honesty and move along to another option. If they confirm that they are able to recommend you highly, you can then have a discussion about what experiences or characteristics they might highlight in their letter. This may feel like overstepping - after all, they are free to write whatever they like and you are not entitled to read it - but it can be quite helpful to remind them of the details of your work together (especially if significant time has passed) and to give them a sense of the story you intend to tell with the rest of your application materials.

Once you have your letter writers lined up, you must turn your attention to logistics management. Much helpful advice for tackling this challenge has already been shared (notably, Susan Athey’s list of tips). Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for them to submit their letters on time and to the correct schools. This will likely entail A) emailing them a summary of your shared research or other experiences with the faculty member (make it easy for them to remember!), your draft statement of purpose and CV, and a list of all the schools to which you are applying and when you intend to submit your application, B) coordinating with the professor (and potentially their faculty assistant) on when to trigger the email invitations for them to submit each letter (some recommenders will prefer that you invite them to submit letters for all applications at once so that the links are easy to find in their inbox), and C) following up with them regularly (and politely) until they submit their letter to each school. Once they have finished submitting their letters, it is a great idea to mail them a handwritten thank you card to communicate how much you appreciate their support.

Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose (SOP) is your opportunity to communicate a compelling narrative about who you are, where you come from, where you want to go in the future, and why [insert school here] is the best academic community for you to join as you ascend to greatness. The SOP is a key part of your application and deserves a significant investment of your time and effort.

Before you can communicate your research identity to admissions committees, you need to figure it out for yourself. The most important step here is to understand your research interests to the best of your ability. Once you have that piece, you will be able to sort through your experiences to tease out the important moments that led you to those interests so that you can craft a cohesive narrative. The best way to narrow down your interests is to engage with a lot of research. Read many journal articles, and take note of the ones that excite you most. Stephen, for example, read a number of research articles across micro and macro organizational behavior to choose which side he fell on.

Once you have amassed a robust cloud of potential research areas, there are two paths you can take. One option is to find a connecting thread between a handful of the ideas that spark the most passion for you, and build your essay around that core. Another option is to write multiple versions of your essay that highlight different clusters of your interests, and submit these more diverse essays to each of your target schools accordingly. Rest assured that no one expects your research interests to be fully formed at this point, and they will not force you to study the specific topics included in your essay. However, you may find more success if you write as if you know exactly what you want to study and why, even if internally you feel less certain. The objective is to demonstrate that you understand the field well enough to articulate interesting and testable research questions.

There are many different ways to write a great statement of purpose. Successful versions can vary on many factors, including their focus on personal anecdotes and underlying motivations vs. impersonal discussion of research experience and interests, past accomplishments vs. future ambitions, and how exactly the connection is made to your target program. For examples of these different options in practice, read through this folder with sample statements of purpose contributed by successful applicants in the 2019-2020 application cycle. For additional example essays across a diverse array of academic fields (and helpful exercises to kickstart the writing process), check out the book Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher. For those who wrote essays for college admissions in the US, know that this process is very different. The focus of these statements is much more on what you can do and have already done in research and much less on telling an intricate narrative about your life’s journey. It is advisable to keep the statement of purpose clear and concise; you will have the opportunity to address the breadth of your interests and personal motivations in the interview process.

Regardless of your stylistic and structural choices, one of the most important things you do in your essay will be to clearly demonstrate how your research ambitions and interests make you an excellent candidate for your program of interest. Tactically, this will likely involve emphasizing different aspects of your research interests for each program, as well as mentioning potential faculty collaborators by name. To do this, you will need to gain an understanding of the research being conducted by the faculty at each of your target programs by reading their faculty profiles, CVs, personal websites, and research articles. We recommend keeping this information in a spreadsheet or other document to stay organized. Once you have identified the handful of faculty members whose interests overlap with your own, you can then highlight those interests more prominently and propose potential areas of collaboration in your essay. There is no need to change your interests entirely for each school. Instead, the objective is to find and emphasize points of overlap and connection that fit each school’s academic community.

Once you have written the core content of your statement, it is time to edit ruthlessly. Most schools set a limit of 1000 words, with a few allowing up to 2000. It is important to get multiple people to review your statement. If you feel that you need significant improvement on the less academia-specific aspects of your essay such as the logical flow and sentence structure, be sure to get feedback from people close to you, such as friends and family, before asking your more academic reviewers. Receiving feedback from current professors and graduate students in your field of interest is the best way to ensure that your essay is up to par. They will be able to notice the logical gaps, unfortunate language choices, or annoying cliches that could otherwise turn off admissions reviewers. Be sure to leave significant time (a few weeks to a month) for this review process.


Once admissions committees have reviewed applications and identified a short list of promising candidates, they will reach out to these individuals to schedule interviews. Most top programs require interviews, with some exceptions (which vary by year and by applicant). From the perspective of an applicant, it appears that the interviews serve two purposes: A) to help programs distinguish and prioritize between applicants who look equally good on paper and B) to weed out applicants who appear interpersonally unpleasant (e.g., are excessively arrogant or unable to hold a conversation).


The vast majority of interviews take place virtually (e.g., via a video call), with only a couple of programs opting to fly candidates out for in-person interviews. If you are invited to an in-person interview, schools generally provide hotel lodging and pay for all travel expenses. The most common form that interviews take is a 30 minute virtual meeting with one or more professors (often faculty members you mentioned in your application), where they will ask you a handful of questions and leave time for you to ask questions of them. Often, you will be asked to interview individually with multiple professors. For Megan, the highest number of interviews for a single program was seven (on an in-person interview day), the lowest (aside from those with no interviews at all) was two, and the average was around three. For Stephen, only one program had more than one interview. All others were a single interview with a few faculty members or no interviews at all. Other applicants report a wide array of interview experiences, with some having only minimal interviews (and no more than one per program) and others having many more interviews for the same program due to their interest in working with specific faculty members.

Common questions and preparation

Interviews for PhD programs are very similar to interviewing for competitive jobs, and the questions are usually fairly standard and intuitive. Here is a list of all of the questions we were asked in our interviews (schools anonymized). Some commonly asked questions (and their equivalent versions) include:

● Tell me about yourself.

○ Tell me about your background and interests.

● Why do you want to do a PhD?

● Why did you choose to apply to this subfield rather than other subfields? ○ Why business academia instead of psychology/sociology/economics academia?

● Why this program?

○ Which faculty would you see yourself collaborating with?

● Is there a particular research question you are interested in pursuing?

○ If you were in a PhD program right now and had unlimited funding, what study would you want to run?

● What questions do you have for me? (Megan had multiple interviews where this was the only question asked, so it is important to have a sizable bank of questions prepared.)

You may also be asked to articulate a vision for your career (e.g., 20 years down the line, what do you envision yourself doing and what impact would you have made on the field?), identify your favorite researcher or favorite research article, share about your strengths and

weaknesses, or discuss one of your failures and what you learned from that experience. For some programs, interviewers may delve deep into the methods (e.g., experiments, statistics, identification for econ-related fields, etc.) you may use to test a research idea proposed in your statement of purpose, ask you to interpret the results in some hypothetical data, or analyze a research paper (shared in advance to allow time for you to prepare your thoughts).

It is a good idea to prepare thoroughly for each of your interviews, both by reading up on your interviewers and by thinking through your answers to commonly asked questions. You will likely spend the most time preparing for your first interview because you will need to craft your messaging about your journey to the PhD, your research interests, and your intended path forward in academia. Then, for each interview, you should spend a couple of hours reading the interviewer’s CV and latest and most cited papers, reviewing your statement of purpose and your match with other professors at that school, and preparing your particular questions about the program and your faculty of interest.

During your interviews, do your best to have fun and enjoy the experience! This is a rare and precious opportunity to discuss exciting ideas with some of the most influential researchers in the field. Though not required, it is recommended to follow up with a brief note thanking your interviewer for taking the time to meet with you.

Path to PhD: the Rise of the Predoctoral Research Job

As we met our potential incoming cohorts during school visits, we started to notice a trend: many successful applicants had one to two years of post-undergraduate, predoctoral research experience working as a lab manager or research associate at a business school. At one school, for example, of the six students accepted across the macro/micro organizational behavior program, only one (Stephen) had not previously worked in a research job. In our survey of admitted students, 61% had worked in predoctoral research jobs before applying.

Mirroring the rise of postdocs on the back end of the PhD, there seems to be a proliferation of these predoc positions, likely for the same reason: candidates seeking to differentiate themselves and enhance their credibility as a researcher in an increasingly competitive field.

Megan took this path in positioning herself for the application process, and noticed several advantages gained from this approach, all of which cluster around a central theme: embeddedness in business school academia. To be clear, this is not a necessary path – Stephen did not become an RA and instead focused on using his research experience in college and his research collaborations post-graduation to position himself, and other applicants have successfully gained admission with work experience in the private sector (e.g., consulting and finance).

It is important to note that predoctoral research jobs often pay very little and thus may not be financially feasible for some. In these cases, you can still gain research experience and many of the attendant benefits by volunteering as a research assistant for a particular project on a part-time basis (e.g., 5-10 hours per week) while maintaining a full-time job.

Gaining research experience

Any predoctoral research position you accept should give you the opportunity to participate directly in most (if not all) aspects of the research process. This is a great way to hone your research skills and gain a better understanding of your interests. Ideally, you would work for a faculty member who is excited about involving you in their research as an author so that you can begin to build your research pipeline and CV before beginning a PhD program (though bear in mind that it usually takes years for a project to progress from data collection to publication). This research experience may be especially valuable to applicants who have not previously worked as an undergraduate research assistant, or who worked in an unrelated job between their undergraduate/master’s degree and applying to PhD programs.

Building relationships with faculty and students

In the best predoctoral research positions, you will be working very closely with at least one faculty member. If you perform well and are able to form a strong relationship with this faculty member, they will likely be the most valuable advocate for you in the application process. They will be able to write a well-informed letter of recommendation and may draw upon their own connections to encourage programs to consider your application.

Beyond the most obvious benefit of a strong letter of recommendation, connections with both students and faculty can provide you with valuable information and advice about the application process, specific programs and faculty members, and launching a career in academia. Because Megan was a lab manager, she had access to multiple faculty members and grad students to review her essays, received a crash course from a helpful post doc about a particular faculty member’s research right before a surprise interview, and entered into the PhD application market with other well-informed lab managers from her department with whom she could share tips and tricks.

A window into the academic experience

Working in a research job at a business school is also an excellent way to figure out if this is the best career path for you. Ideally, this role will embed you into the rhythms of academic life that you would experience as a PhD student and faculty member. You get to see what it means to think about research, work individually on challenging new tasks, meet with collaborators at the peer and advisor level, and participate in department events such as

colloquia, seminars, and journal clubs. This experience may confirm that business school academia is the life for you. Alternatively, it may help you learn that academia is not for you and allow you to extricate yourself without having committed to a PhD program. Either way, you will have gained valuable self-knowledge and a clearer vision for your future.

Landing a predoctoral research job

Now that we have described the opportunities unlocked through a predoctoral position, you may be asking how to get started. These are difficult positions to find because they are somewhat scarce and are often advertised and filled through informal networks rather than official recruitment postings. A good first step is to contact anyone with whom you have an existing connection in business school academia (or a related field), tell them you are searching for a predoctoral research job, and ask that they let you know if they hear of any opportunities. Then, you should find any websites that aggregate relevant job opportunities and subscribe to their feeds. For example, Harvard Psychology maintains a page for post graduate research jobs which occasionally lists roles relevant to micro organizational behavior, and the Twitter account econ_ra shares open Research Assistant roles in Economics. At time of writing, Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB both have official programs for pre-docs with HBS’ RA program (this program includes opportunities for individuals seeking to prepare for either MBA or PhD applications, so it is important to clearly communicate your desire for a predoctoral role) and Stanford’s Research Fellows Program, and the Stanford GSB Behavioral Lab also hires multiple Research Coordinators each year who often go on to business school PhD programs. Northwestern, Columbia, and NYU also have predoctoral job opportunities, though at the time of writing, they are somewhat smaller.

Even in these formal programs, but especially for schools without them (the majority), reaching out directly to faculty is critical. Spend time crafting excellent cold emails to professors to inquire if they may be looking for a lab manager or research associate. You should approach these cold emails as miniature statements of purpose; you must concisely state who you are and why you are emailing them, provide a compelling summary of your background (tastefully name-dropping any other professors you have worked with), and communicate what excites you about contributing to their research. Do not be discouraged by non-responses. Because these jobs are quite rare, you may need to reach out to dozens of faculty (if not more) and should plan to cast your net as wide as you are willing to move.

Once you have found a professor who is in fact hiring a lab manager or research assistant, you will need to interview for the job. This interview process will likely be very similar to a PhD admissions interview, though perhaps more relaxed around understanding your specific research interests. The interview and selection process can be quite competitive, but take solace in the knowledge that if you receive an offer, you will have placed yourself in one of the most dominant pipelines into top business school PhD programs.


The great management thinker Clayton Christensen once wrote, “While experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life when we simply cannot afford to learn on the job…. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen even before you experience it.” Just as business school professors take experiences about the world and synthesize them into lessons, we hope that this guide highlighted the useful insights we gathered from our experiences and that it will give you the information to successfully navigate the PhD application process.

To this end, we are particularly grateful to the dozens of people who have supported us in the writing, revising, and data collection for this business school PhD guide. In particular, we want to thank the 46 fellow applicants who were willing to share their experience applying via the survey as well as the applicants who shared their application materials and spent time providing feedback on this piece. As well, we want to thank Abhishek Nagaraj again for his guidance and initial foresight to create such a guide. It is our hope that this guide will help future applicants and create a more level playing field for aspiring scholars from all backgrounds.

As the pair of us worked on this guide, we spent hours poring over a single question “Why do some people get into these PhD programs and others do not?” However, as we drew to the end of the writing and revising, we began to realize how deep down the proverbial “rabbit hole” we had gone. Of course, PhD admissions matter. That is why we wrote this. But, so do many other things. So, for you – the prospective applicant – we have a few final thoughts on this process.

We are doing a PhD because we think it is fun

The reality is that a PhD – even from the most prestigious of programs – is still a life path that is less lucrative, less notable, and perhaps even less admired than many other things we could do. We want to do it because it is fun. And so even though the application process is a drag (particularly when you fill out the dozens of forms to apply), remember that you are doing this because you want to enjoy a lifetime of exploration and curiosity.

If you do not get in, life goes on

While Stephen was applying to PhD programs, one of his mentors took him aside. He said, “Stephen, I know that you’ve wanted to do a PhD program for a while. But, if you don’t get in, I want you to know that it is OK. I secretly think your life may be more interesting if you

don’t.” If at the end of this process, you do not get into the programs you wanted, it is OK. You can always apply again – as Megan would have done – but you can also use that as an opportunity to consider other possible life paths. Life goes on, and it may be more interesting than if you had gotten in. However, if your dream is to pursue the business school academia career path, don’t be afraid to invest the time to strengthen your credentials and reapply. Take a look at the background of students in your target programs: often, business school PhD students are a bit older than those in other disciplines, and taking a different route to academia is not stigmatized.

Once you are done, pay it forward

As Megan and Stephen went through the application process, we spoke with dozens of friends, mentors, PhD students, and faculty members. That is to say that collectively we benefited from a lot of people’s time talking about the PhD process. This guide is our small attempt at penance – to pay forward what we cannot pay back.

We ask that you do the same for other applicants and people interested in this world. When you get into your dream PhD program, there will likely be a moment when a friend, distant contact, or even a complete stranger wants to talk about what you do. We hope that you take that time; it is a small gift that we believe will compound into a community of generosity.

Frequently Asked Questions

For a look at other FAQs, please refer to Nagaraj’s “Guide to the Business School PhD”

Does work experience matter?

In general, work experience is not necessary though it may be A) an indication of success in another field, B) a source of future research ideas, and C) a signal of legitimacy at more management-focused schools (e.g., Wharton, Harvard). Both Megan and Stephen had work experience with Megan working at Deloitte for three years and then working as a lab manager and Stephen working at McKinsey for two years and then at a start-up university in Vietnam. From our survey of admitted applicants, 50% worked in a non-research job before applying. When Stephen was considering applying to grad school directly after graduation, his advisors at Harvard urged him to work first in order to learn about “the big questions that managers cared about.” In general, most programs seem to value applicants gaining work experience before beginning grad school, though this is not a requirement. However, this can greatly vary by field with some valuing work experience much more highly.

Do I need to get a master’s degree before applying to a PhD?

No. You do not need to get a master’s degree before applying to a PhD (neither Megan nor Stephen have master’s degrees). In fact, of our 46 surveyed admitted students only 12 had completed a master’s degree, or only ~26%. Getting a master’s degree might be a good choice, however, if you want to get additional research experience or are trying to gain support from new faculty members. Nonetheless, it is not a requirement like it is in other countries. It is possible that programs may have higher expectations from applicants holding graduate degrees, so it is advisable to use the time well if your plan is to obtain a master’s degree before applying to PhD programs.

What are my chances of getting in?

Across top business school programs, the acceptance rate seems to range between 4% and 7%. For most business school programs, the cohorts are extremely small with usually four to five students admitted and two to three students matriculating each year. From our understanding, some PhD programs are more competitive than others (e.g., business economics seems to be one of the most competitive), so it is important to recognize variation across your field. Of the admitted students, they on average were accepted to ~50% of the schools they applied to which indicates a “winner-take-all” market where the top applicants receive multiple offers and some applicants may receive none.

These acceptance rates are only useful in the abstract; when thinking about your probability to get accepted, it is important to condition on your own background and abilities. Do you have research experience? Do you have good grades from a top institution? Do you have interests that relate to the faculty’s interests? Do you do research before applying (e.g., by reading a guide like this)?

What happens at visit days?

If you are admitted to a PhD program, most schools will fly you out to visit their campus for one to two days. These visit days are generally structured such that there is a meeting with the PhD faculty coordinator in the morning, a slew of back-to-back 1-1 meetings with faculty, a campus tour, and a dinner with current PhD students and faculty. These visits are an opportunity for you to get a feel for the campus and the life of current PhD students. Remember that your “performance” in meetings with faculty no longer has any bearing on your admission to the program, and do your best to relax and enjoy the visits!

Should I visit a school if I do not think I will accept their offer?

We would encourage you to attend any interview or visit day to which you are invited. It is very possible that you will find that seeing the school and talking with faculty members changes your opinion of the school and the program. Similarly, you may find that programs that you thought were your top choices are no longer so appealing when examined up close. If you decide after the visit that you still would not choose to attend the program, be as diplomatic and courteous as you can when communicating that decision. Ultimately, by embarking on the PhD journey, you are entering a community of scholars. It is valuable for your long-term career success (especially when you go on the academic job market) to get to know other members of the community even if you do not end up attending their school.

What percentage of students do not finish their business school PhD?

It is difficult to find reliable data to answer this question, and it will vary greatly by program and year. However, from our conversations at top programs, it appears that somewhere between 15-20% of all PhD students do not finish their degree. Many will leave with an exit “masters” where they complete two years of coursework and then do not complete their dissertation. It can be helpful to (diplomatically) ask questions about this during visit days, or through private conversations following visits, because this metric can be an important indicator of how a given doctoral program operates and its degree of commitment to student success.

What percentage of students do not continue in academia after finishing a PhD?

This is another case where reliable data is scarce because this exit path is somewhat stigmatized (though perhaps less so in the field of finance). Some business schools seem to have more students exiting to industry than others. For example, many students from schools located in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to go into tech after graduating. This percentage will vary widely by school and by field, but it seems that somewhere between 20-30% will choose not to continue in academia based on our limited sampling. Within some fields (e.g., operations research and management) this percentage may be higher (exceeding 40% in some programs in recent years).

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