“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I always hated this question, probably because I’ve never really been any good at making up my mind. My ideal future career has changed so many times that I can’t remember them all. History teacher, librarian, social worker, family law lawyer, nutritionist, therapist, math teacher, finance specialist, research in regards to the economics of happiness, accountant.
My interests have always been as wide and varied as any interests could be. I’ve dabbled in a lot, become a master of none—which makes narrowing down what I want to do for the rest of my life nearly impossible.
When I came to Drexel, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I started as a math major, teetering between accounting and actuarial science as future careers. I made the decision to switch into the accounting major at the end of my second term of school. My path in the business college really didn’t start until my sophomore year, and now, halfway done with my classes, my future is still uncertain.
Accounting is a bit more than just taxes and bookkeeping, especially after all the financial scandals of recent history. Enron and the housing crisis of 2008 showed the importance of financial oversight, especially when the traditional methods used by the major accounting firms and banks allowed things to spiral out of control. Forensic accounting is become a much larger field; everyone needs an accountant.
Enrollment in undergraduate accounting programs has increased every year since 2002, according to the AIPCA’s Trend Report. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the accounting-associated professions are currently experiencing a 11% job growth, which is above the national average.
“Have you thought about going into teaching accounting at the college level?”
Winter term of 2016, I was in my second accounting class, and I loved every second of it. I was happy with my decision to switch, I had my first co-op lined up; it was good, even though I had no clue what I wanted to do with the degree I was pursuing.
My future was—and still is—uncertain, but I was enjoying my classes and the concepts just clicked.
Towards the end of the term, a professor chatted with me after an exam and put the idea of graduate school into my head. He asked if I had ever thought about going into teaching accounting.
I hadn’t, which surprised me. Teaching was a career I had considered my future for the longest time. I spent most of middle school convinced I was going to teach history, and toyed with the idea of early childhood education at various points as well.
Professor Reichert and I talked for a little bit about the field of accounting as whole, and the growth it has experienced. What I didn’t know is that, due to factors like the larger number of retiring professors and the shortage of Ph.D. candidates, in the near future there may be a shortage of accounting educators.
The decline in students pursuing a PhD in accounting is not surprising. Becoming a tenured professor isn’t easy. Not only does it take twice as long on average as a bachelor’s degree to get a Ph.D., but almost half of students drop out of doctoral programs according to an article on CBS.
The impending retirement of the generation known as the Baby Boomers is part of why we need more professors, but despite that and the continued growth of accounting students in both undergraduate and Master’s programs, enrollment in doctoral programs has been lower than the average total enrollment for accounting programs for about 75% of the last two decades. It also has had a negative percent change more often than undergraduate and Master’s programs have in that same time period.
Maybe it has something to do with the attitude towards teachers in America. Considering that they’re the people who prepare the country for the future, it’s shocking that they’re not one of the most respected professions out there. But you know how the saying goes: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Teachers, especially those at the college level, spend years learning how to teach. They’re trained in their field as well as in pedagogy. Still, they’re the butt of a lot of jokes.
Bernhard Reichert is the professor who first got me intrigued by the idea of graduate school for accounting, and he and I recently spoke about his own experience with it. He received his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Texas, and before that he worked for one of the big four accounting firms.
There’s two main parts to a doctorate, he told me. You have your classes first, which don’t just pertain to your academic focus, but to statistics and research methods as well. There’re a few years of class, followed by a time where you focus on your thesis and putting together your dissertation (on average 100-200 pages long). Yikes; I’ve complained about 10-page papers within the past year and I enjoy writing
But, unlike many fields, a Ph.D. in accounting is not just going to graduate school. Before you can even think about applying to a doctoral program, it is customary to work at least four or five years in the industry. Getting a Ph.D. in accounting before getting your CPA, which stands for Certified Public Accountant, overqualifies you for a lot of jobs, and real world experience is what a lot of students look for in their professors. Learning from a book is one thing; learning from doing is another.
To work in the field, you need a bachelor’s degree. It’s highly recommended that you get your CPA as well. Some accountants take advantage of a benefits offered by many employers—they can get the cost of their Master’s degree reimbursed if they choose to pursue one and maintain a high GPA during the process.
Professor Reichert and I also talked about the cons, including the pay cut. He laughed when he told me that his last bonus check from his accounting job was half of what he made as a graduate student.
“And, college is a lot more expensive now,” Professor Reichert said., “People graduate with more debt than they used to.”
Two-thirds of undergraduate students leave college with over $30,000 in debt, according to an article on Time.com. The amount of debt, and the percentage of students who graduate with excessive amounts of debt are both increasing as time goes on. Professor Reichert worked in public accounting for four or five years before pursuing a doctorate.
With such a short time spent in the workforce, potential Ph.D. candidates are likely to still have debt when they start graduate school. Loan repayments are expensive and the interest just keeps adding more to it. It’s hard to justify going back to school full time for eight years when you have outstanding loans from your Bachelor’s degree.
There’s another drawback—doctoral students work, hard. Not only do they attend classes, but their duties often include teaching undergraduate classes, grading, holding office hours, researching, and developing their theses. A friend looking into hard science Ph.D. programs this time last year said that he was advised to only have one hobby—there wasn’t time for any more than that while you’re in school.
“But you know,” Professor Reichert joked, “you’re so busy with your work that it’s not like you have the time to spend [money], so it’s not too bad.”
Regardless of the field you’re studying, doctorates are hard degrees to earn. It can be almost a decade of your life dedicated to a degree. And that’s before you even take into account what you need to do to get your thesis.
Obviously, it’s not all bad. There has got to be a reason people are willing to go to grad school, right? I’ve started to think about it, even though it’s not something I have to worry about any time soon. I still have two and a half years of my time at Drexel to finish and industry experience to get under my belt. I’m not sure that, for me, the benefits outweigh the costs, but the positives are there, difficult to dismiss.
Professor Reichert does a lot of research, largely on the managerial side of things. He looks at lab settings to see how people react to different situations, “to find out things like how incentives affect creativity, and how the distribution of incentives can impact job satisfaction.”
The process for accounting research is similar to most research, where you come up with a theory-based assumption and go into a lab to test it. Often, you have to go back and try again when your hypothesis doesn’t pan out. It’s a process that many find rewarding. It’s problem-solving and applying innovation in ways not normally associated with accounting.
Out of the dozen or so classmates I talked to about pursuing a Ph.D. or going into teaching, a few just didn’t have an interest in teaching. The rest weren’t really looking to commit that amount of money to school after pursuing their Master’s degrees. But one actually was planning on going into teaching.
“I like tax,” he admitted to me after class one day, “and I’d like to work in it for a few years, but my plan is to go into teaching. I like the idea of impacting the next generation, of taking part to shape them. I’ve done tutoring before and it’s so rewarding when you see a concept connect for them. I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life.”
I was right there, agreeing with him. I think that teaching, having the ability to impact my students’ lives is kind of awe-inspiring. My high school English teacher, whom I had for all of high school, is one of the most interesting people I know. I feel his influence daily in my approach to writing, studying, and how I view different situations. I learned to think critically and for myself in his class, and I don’t think I would be the same person if I didn’t have him. It’s the same with my high school calculus teacher, and one of the business law professors I’ve had in the last year. Teachers have the power to leave a lasting mark on their students. If I can do what my teachers did for me for one students… well, it might be worth the process of getting there.
I’d also get to write papers (did I mention I like to write?). I’d get to research and figure out how things work and correlate and spend the rest of my life learning. I’ve always joked that I was going to make a career out of learning, and if I went into academia, I might just be able to.
Academia can have its stresses though. Professor Reichert is working to get a paper published currently, and admits that it’s humbling. “You send your paper to an editor, who sends it to other people in the industry who volunteer their time to read it, and they can be harsh. They might think it’s absolute garbage. You have to do this a few times before it’s even considered for publication.”
There’s also a pressure to get published in the best journal possible. The higher the caliber of the publisher, the better the reflection on the school, the higher the chance of getting tenure. The process is beneficial to everyone involved: the students get a quality education from a respected university; the university is respected because its professors have been in important publications; and the professors are afforded higher job security and academic prestige.
The lack of interest from current students seems largely to do with the monetary side of things—most people aren’t going to want to sacrifice years of higher income even if they have some interest in the end result.
But maybe a part of it is not realizing academia is an option for an accountant. I didn’t realize I could get a Ph.D. and do research in accounting until I was 19. It wasn’t something that was on the table when I first started considering the profession.
Now, I’m seriously pondering the academic route. I’d get to spend my career constantly learning through research, writing papers, and from having to teach new strategies and theories to my students. Teaching has more flexibility than other related professions, especially when I think about the crazy hours worked during tax seasons at accounting firms.
Teaching can be rewarding in and of itself. I could grow with my students and make a difference in their lives.
So, I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, and while now I’ve considered maybe getting a Ph.D. and going into teaching, I’m not sure it’s for me. But, I’m also not sure a big four firm or public accounting in general is for me. Maybe I’m better suited for corporate or governmental accounting. Who knows? Maybe, in 30 years I’ll be teaching accounting to a room full of students in the basement of Lebow.