Life as a Doctoral Student

It's easy to see why everyone wants to be a professor, they live an exhilarating life full of adventure, fame, and fortune. Far fewer understand the journey it takes to reach the hallowed career of academician--the journey through a Ph.D. program. This page is intended to provide an overview of life as a doctoral student. While each doctoral program is different, this page provides an overview of doctoral studies in general and is intended to help you know whether a Ph.D. program is right for you. In addition to reviewing this page, reading about life as a professor and talking to faculty and doctoral students at many different universities will help you make an informed decision.

  • 1 What do you do as a doctoral student?
  • 2.1 Hours spent studying/working
  • 2.2 How long does it take?
  • 2.3 Stipend
  • 3 Coursework Phase of the Ph.D. Program
  • 4 Comprehensive Exam Phase of the Ph.D. Program
  • 5 Dissertation Phase of the Ph.D. Program
  • 6 Working as a Teaching Assistant or Teaching your Own Class
  • 7 Working as a Research Assistant
  • 8 Why not get a Ph.D.?
  • 9 More Information

What do you do as a doctoral student?

There are three significant phases to an accounting doctoral program: (1) coursework, (2) comprehensive exams, and (3) the dissertation. Also, during each of these phases you are expected, at most schools, to work as a research assistant or teaching assistant (or teach your own class). In this section, we discuss each of these five topics individually.

Coursework Phase of the Ph.D. Program

During this phase of the accounting program you are a traditional student. That is, you go to class, have tests, and all the other things you probably did as an undergraduate or masters student. There are a few differences from your undergrad. First, the classes are a usually a lot harder. Second, you tend to not take as many different classes at the same time. Third, there are fewer students in each class.


The courses you take are commonly separated into major courses, minor courses, and then other "tools" courses.

The major courses focus on your discipline, with a particular focus on the research your discipline conducts. For example, in accounting, you do not take any more classes where you learn the rules of how to be an accountant (i.e., in-depth study of tax law, audit practice, financial transactions, etc.). Instead, your classes focus on understanding how to research accounting issues. Often times, the classes take the form of seminars. A typical seminar class will entail reading several academic research papers and then having one class member present on those papers. The presentation takes the form of an active discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, how the paper could be extended, the theory on which the paper builds, etc. The professor usually takes a somewhat back-seat approach to seminars and allows the students to do much of the discussion. Professors then chime in to discuss points the students missed or to emphasize particularly important concepts. Most programs have students take several different accounting research seminars. The seminars are grouped based on research topical areas or methodologies .

The minor courses are taken with Ph.D. students in other areas. In accounting, students often minor in economics, finance, information systems, psychology, or statistics. The minor courses are usually major courses for students in those other fields. In most of these classes, the focus is once again on understanding the research that these disciplines conduct. Minor courses can take the form of seminars or a more traditional lecturing format.

Finally, the "tools" courses are courses that are intended to build specific competencies so that individuals can conduct research. These types of courses often center around gaining knowledge of statistical methods or experimental design. They may also focus on the basics of the scientific method and philosophy of science. Depending on what type of research you want to conduct, these courses can vary significantly.

The coursework takes two years for most Ph.D. programs. In some instances, this is extended to three years--especially if incoming students have a lack of background knowledge or have been away from school for an extended period of time. Your work is very structured during the coursework phase of the program and will be very similar to your undergrad or masters experience.

Comprehensive Exam Phase of the Ph.D. Program

After finishing the coursework phase, Ph.D. students are required to pass a comprehensive exam. This exam may be written, oral, or both. Most accounting Ph.D. programs require a written comprehensive exam. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to test whether students have a strong grasp of the current and past research findings in their discipline and whether students are capable of understanding the methods used to conduct research. Studying for the exam also helps students identify important gaps in the research stream or interesting questions. These often times turn into a students dissertation topic. Most students will spend several weeks and even months preparing to take their exams. The exams usually last an entire day or are spread over two or more days.

The exact format of the comprehensive exam can differ significantly from university to university. The most common form of a comprehensive exam are essay questions and a review of a paper. If asked to review a paper, the student will be given a "finished" academic paper (usually a working paper) and asked to write a reviewer report. This is similar to the task of reviewing academic papers for peer reviewed journals, as professors are sometimes expected to do. The student will have a set period of time to read the paper and write a review explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the paper.

After completing the exam, your professors will grade your exam and let you know whether you passed or not. If you did not pass, you are often allowed to take the exam one more time (if you fail the second time, you are usually dismissed from the program, although this does not occur frequently at most programs). If you pass the exam, you enter the dissertation phase of the program. Some universities also grant you a masters degree upon successful completion of the comprehensive exam.

Studying for and taking the comprehensive exams is a stressful part of the Ph.D. program. Becoming an expert on the research in your field is a laborious process. The time is also completely unstructured such that procrastination is possible and can really hurt your chances of passing if you do not take your study time seriously. Although difficult, the feeling of passing your exams is euphoric. You also gain significant confidence in your abilities as a scholar when you pass the exams and know that you are an expert on research in your field.

Dissertation Phase of the Ph.D. Program

The third and final portion of the Ph.D. program is the time spent preparing your dissertation. The process of writing a dissertation has several parts.

After finishing your comprehensive exams, and often times before then, you identify a faculty member to serve as your dissertation committee chair. This is usually someone who shares an interest or similar research skill set. This person serves as your mentor through the dissertation process and is incredibly important in helping you develop your academic career.

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After selecting a chair, the first part of developing a dissertation is coming up with a research question. This part of the dissertation starts now, that is, you can develop an interesting question to answer at any time and use that for your dissertation. Ideally, as you study for your comprehensive exams or work in other classes, you create a list of interesting research questions. You then decide, with help and guidance from your chair, to use one of these questions for your dissertation. Click here for more information about determining a dissertation topic.

After developing an idea, you must refine the idea to the point that you are ready to pass your dissertation proposal defense. The time required for this depends on how diligently you work on the project and on your university's norms. Some schools required a virtually finished paper at this point, others require a much less refined idea. As you get ready for the proposal defense, you will spend a significant amount of time working with your chair. The proposal defense is a formal meeting where your dissertation committee (several faculty members including your chair) quiz you about your research idea. They are testing to see whether your proposal has merit and, if upon completion, the work is sufficient to earn a Ph.D. After your presentation and a question and answer period, the committee will vote. A successful vote establishes a contract between you and the university such that if you complete your end of the deal, they will award you your degree. An unsuccessful vote means you will have to continue to refine your idea or select a new idea and go through the process again.

After passing the dissertation proposal defense, you conduct the rest of your research and produce a final copy of your dissertation. You then present this final copy at your dissertation final defense. Again, a committee of faculty examines what you did and questions you about your work. After they finish questioning you, they vote. If they vote in the affirmative, you are awarded a Ph.D. If they vote in the negative, you will be required to rework your dissertation and repeat process.

The time to complete a dissertation varies widely. A dissertation may be completed in a single year or as many as 9 years. The average time to completion is usually 2-3 years.

Working as a Teaching Assistant or Teaching your Own Class

Doctoral students often earn their stipend (a stipend is the money a Ph.D. program pays you while you attend) by teaching or helping to teach classes at the university. The amount of teaching that you are required to perform is usually a function of the research ranking and funding of the school. Private schools and schools that conduct more research will generally have a lower teaching expectation. You should be aware of the teaching requirements that are expected when you apply to programs. The greater the teaching requirement, the less time you will have available for research.

Often, doctoral students teach introductory financial or managerial courses. Occasionally, students will teach higher level classes, but even then they are usually still undergraduate courses. It is rare for a doctoral student to teach graduate courses.

Working as a Research Assistant

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As the name implies, working as a research assistant means that you assist a professor in conducting research. At the beginning of the semester, you are either assigned or selected (or some combination of both depending on the program) to work with a professor. The professor will then ask you to help in conducting research. What you do usually depends on (1) what you are capable of doing and (2) the professor's needs. Thus, your experience as a research assistant can vary widely.

Examples of different types of activities you may be asked to perform include hand collecting data (e.g., searching press releases for pro forma information for hundreds/thousands of companies), finding previous research that is related to a topic, writing up a summary of previous research on a topic, designing an experiment, conducting statistical tests, writing up final results for a study, or supervising other students in these tasks. As your skill level for research increases, you are usually assigned more important roles in the research process. Depending on who you work with and what you do, you may even be considered to be a coauthor on a project. This should not be expected in most instances, but it is possible.

Why not get a Ph.D.?

While we have mentioned many of the positive aspects of earning a Ph.D., there are several costs to this decision that are important to weigh. These can be viewed as red flags that might cause you to second guess going into academics.

In relation to the benefit of flexibility, we mention the curse of flexibility. There is little oversight of the day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month progress you are making in a doctoral program and as a professor. Once coursework is finished, there are few deadlines and it is unlikely that someone is looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. If you are not self-motivated and able to work in an unstructured environment, you will struggle in a Ph.D. program and as a professor.

If you do decide to start a Ph.D. program, be prepared to give it some time. The first semester or two will likely be very challenging and will not be representative of what you should expect during the rest of your time as a doctoral student or throughout your career as a professor. Students who drop out of a program after one or two semesters have not given the school, or themselves, a fair chance for successful completion of the program. Getting a Ph.D. is very rewarding, but it does require significant effort. If you do decide to enter a Ph.D. program, be committed to finishing at least one or two years before considering whether you should continue.

For an additional perspective, read two former Ph.D. Prep students' stories about their decisions to not pursue a Ph.D.

More Information

These are the basics of life as a doctoral student. For related information, see the following pages:

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Doctoral Programs

Comprehensive Examination

The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to examine the student's command of the finance literature, both academic and professional, and the student's ability to integrate and evaluate contemporary finance theory, practice, and research. The examination process is comprised of written and oral parts, and is not considered successfully completed until both parts have been judged as passed. Retaking the written portion may be required if the student is unsuccessful on the oral portion.

Finance Program

Administration of the Exam

The Associate Dean for Academic and Research Programs will determine the eligibility of the candidate to sit for the comprehensive exam. The department must obtain a written statement of the student's eligibility before the candidate may sit for the exam. To be eligible, the student must:

The written part of the comprehensive examination will be given during the third week of May (usually, Wednesday and Friday) of each year. The comprehensive examination will be divided into fields, each field covers a different classes. The specific fields to be included in the exam will be will be communicated to eligible students by the end of the prior Spring Semester. Currently, there are five fields included in the comprehensive exam. The first day, students will take the field exams covering Microeconomics (I & II), and Financial Management I. The second day, students will take the rest of the fields (currently, Options and Futures, Econometrics (I & II)). The Finance Ph.D. Coordinator will solicit examination questions from faculty members of the department, and will prepare and administer the examination. Each semester the Finance Ph.D. Coordinator may specify a departmental faculty member as administrator of the departmental examination process.

Oral Examination

The oral exam must be taken within nine months of the date of the comprehensive examination. The written part of the comprehensive examination must be passed prior to the oral examination. During the oral exam the student will present and defend the Empirical Paper.

The student in consultation with the chair of the student's advisory committee will be responsible for establishing a date for the oral exam. Written notice must be given to all faculty members of the department at least one week prior to the exam. The student's advisory committee and all full-time faculty members attending the oral are included in the assessment of the student's performance. Two-thirds majority of those voting must assess the student's performance as passing for the oral to be considered passed. The member of the student's advisory committee representing the student’s support area may participate in the assessment of the student's performance on the oral exam.

Notification of Results

A student must receive either a "pass" (usually, 70% of points in exam or better) or "fail" on the basis of the evaluations of the written exam. No conditional passes will be allowed. The decision regarding a student's performance on the written part of the comprehensive exam shall be provided to the student within three weeks of the completion of the exam. This decision will be communicated to the student in writing by the Finance Ph.D. Coordinator with copies to the Bauer College of Business Office of Student Services and the Chairperson of the Advisory Committee. In the case of a fail, the letter shall cite the specific deficiencies warranting such action.

Each field in the Finance written comprehensive exam will be graded separately. To pass, a student cannot fail any field exam. If a stduent fails the comprehensive exam, the student will be required to retake the failed field exams. Only one retake of the failed field exams will be permitted. This retake must occur, at least, two weeks before the start of the next Fall semester (usually, first week of August). A second failure of a field exam will result in dismissal from the doctoral program in Finance.

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Accounting PhD Plan of Study

accounting phd comprehensive exam

Coursework and Research by Program Year

Typically, students finish the Doctoral Program in Accounting in five years, with four years being a possibility conditional on a student’s dissertation progress and pipeline of other research.

Prior Coursework and Boot Camps

See the doctoral handbook for classes expected to be completed before starting the doctoral program.

A few weeks prior to starting the fall semester, all students benefit from a “Math Boot Camp” along with “SAS ® Programming Boot Camp.”

Years One, Two and Three and the Comprehensive Exam

Coursework typically takes place over the first and second years of the program. Students are expected to consume as much knowledge as possible on various research areas, disciplines and methods. Students are expected to work on a summer paper that includes a replication and extension in the summer after the first year. 

A written comprehensive exam is normally taken at the end of the second year. Please refer to the PhD handbook for the year-by-year overview of the program.

Years Three and Four: Dissertation and Research

The third and fourth years of the program are largely spent on producing (i.) a high quality dissertation and (ii.) a pipeline of research close to or submitted to top research journals. The student is required to present a co-authored study by the end of the third year and present their dissertation proposal in the fourth year. The student will arrange for a tenured faculty member to serve as dissertation supervisor. The student and dissertation supervisor work together to form a dissertation or examining committee, which provides timely input to the student and ultimately is responsible for approving the dissertation. The oral comprehensive exam is typically completed in the fourth year.

Year Five: Recruiting, Dissertation Completion and Final Oral Defense Examination

The fifth or final year of the program is largely spent on progressing the dissertation, research pipeline and the job market recruiting process targeted to earn a full-time tenure-track research appointment. Upon completion of the dissertation, the student must take a final oral defense examination that focuses on the dissertation.

Doctoral Handbook

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Concentration in Finance - Major Field (Comprehensive) Exam

Upon completion of the coursework, the student must pass a comprehensive examination in his or her major area of study (Finance). This comprehensive exam will cover material from all of the Finance doctoral seminars, the research seminar series (FIN 6122), and may also include material from the supporting fields (e.g., statistics and economics). Students should also study other financial concepts not specifically taught in their seminar courses. The expected level of knowledge for these additional concepts is what would be expected of a master's-level Finance student.

Suggested Study Resources

To assist in studying for the comprehensive exam, and to also supplement Ph.D. course material, the Area of Finance recommends the following master's- and Ph.D.-level textbooks.

Corporate Brealey, Myers, and Allen, 2017, Principles of Corporate Finance . Copeland, Weston, and Shastri, 2005, Finance Theory and Corporate Policy .

Investments Bodie, Kane, and Marcus, 2014, Investments . Back, 2010, Asset Pricing and Portfolio Choice. Cochrane, 2005, Asset Pricing . Campbell, Lo, and MacKinlay, 1997, The Econometrics of Financial Markets .

Financial Markets and Institutions Van Horne, 2001, Financial Markets Rates and Flows . Mishkin and Eakins, 2015, Financial Markets and Institutions .

Market Microstructure Harris, 2003, Trading and Exchanges .

Structure of the Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive examination comes in two parts: a written exam and an oral exam. Failure of either the written or oral exam constitutes a failure of the Finance comprehensive exam. Students who fail the comprehensive exam may petition the Doctoral Committee for permission to take the exam a second - and final - time. Students who fail the comprehensive exam a second time will be dismissed from the Ph.D. program.

The comprehensive exam is offered once a year in May or June and would typically be taken after the completion of the second year of course work. The written portion of the exam is given over one day.The oral exam is usually scheduled about one week after the written exam.

Supporting Field Exam

Although not required, students may (at their option) take a supporting field exam (generally in statistics and/or economics). The supporting field exam is typically taken at the end of the second year.

Admission to Candidacy

Upon successful completion of the required coursework and major field exam, the student will be admitted to candidacy.

Ph.D. Program Links

Program Requirements

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Comprehensive Exam


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