Approach for Ph. D program w/o research or professor recommendations?

Older professional (early 30s), pondering getting a Ph. D in a field that’s relatively friendly to professional movers (Business - Management). Seven years ago applied w/o any research but w/ professor recommendations, and was decent enough to make it to the deadline at a T25 school before official rejection (high GPA + GRE, extracurriculars, international experience, awards, nice recs, undergrad school meh, no research). I’ve enjoyed decent success in the private sector, but now thinking about academia again.

I have no research experience, and wouldn’t have professor recommendations any more due to passage of time. Would have glowing professional recommendations, professional work translates reasonably to academic setting (variety of experiences quantifying complex reality for businesses), and lots of familiarity with academic research in related fields that should make for interesting research avenues, though not necessarily traditional approach for field.

Approach possibilities:

  1. In my field it’s easy enough to get into an academically-oriented Master’s program with my current credentials, and from there could theoretically get some papers published/professor recommendations to improve my profile if I were to apply to a Ph. D program.
  2. I live near two T20 institutions, and could probably help out a professor with research for recommendations / maybe a paper credit if I’m very lucky. Least attractive to me.
  3. Apply to Ph. D programs as-is

What would your advice/assessment of my way forward be? I’m guessing #1 is the best approach by a mile, I’m curious to know if there’s any shot at #3 or if my profile is too far gone as-is.

Thanks for your time!

This isn’t too far off how I did it (BA-> work → MA → work → PhD → work).

The first and biggest question is: why do you want a PhD in business/management?

All PhDs are research degrees, but it is especially true in business/management, b/c there is a terminal degree for people who want to be practitioners/in industry (MBA & similar). What is your research interest? Is your goal to teach?

You will need some evidence of research work somehow.

What is your timeline? the typical PhD is 2 years of coursework (often even with a Masters) + 3 years of research & dissertation writing.

US PhDs are typically funded, but will be harder for you to get into and will take longer to finish. European PhDs are spottier on the funding, but will be easier to get into (b/c you are paying them at least part of the cost), and will be faster to finish (3-4 years vs 5+).

Thanks for the reply! Goal is absolutely to teach/advance knowledge frontier in academia. Timeline isn’t much of an issue, I’m fine with 6-8 years at a funded institution.

Reason for academia: I’ve done enough personal research on topics, to the point where my free reading consists of ~10 hours of academic-level topics a week, and my pragmatic reply is that I want more time per week to be engaged at the frontier of my knowledge level. I’m running up against the limits of what I can attain as a passionate amateur.

Research interests: heterodox, short answer is intersection of complexity + human systems, particularly trade + group responses to changing macroeconomic situations.

Long answer includes complexity science (Cynefin framework, ex. Mapping Porter’s/Blue Ocean/Growth Hacking strategy into theoretical framework), historical economics (economic situations/responses/reorganizations, ex. Comparative economic/sociological early modern states + how that translates to present day DEI), and how anything interacts with human processing in present day (evolutionary biology, historical philosophy, AI/computing, human performance).

I will ask a similar question as collegemom3717 - Why do you want to be in academia? This is the first question you need to answer for yourself. It takes 5-6 years for a PhD and then another 6-7 years to get tenure. Usually, business PhD’s are in good demand, so you should be able to land a TT job somewhere . Quantitative business PhD’s tend to be in higher demand. Are you able to move anywhere in the country for a good TT job?

Is there a Master’s program close by that you could do part time and build up relationships with a prof? Beware that even grad courses are farmed out to adjuncts - so be careful before shelling out $$. Ideally, you could stay there and advance to a PhD if the program is strong enough.

I have seen a lot of changes in academia in the past 30 years. It’s much more competitive in all fields and even no name universities want lots of research and publications (even though many of the tenured faculty in those no name departments haven’t published anything in eons). Once you get below R1 institutions, the academic culture is going to vary widely among institutions. Oh - and the pay will be awful, unless you are able to do some consulting etc. There’s a reason why academia can’t seem to attract a lot of business profs - they’ve done the math and decided the ROI isn’t worth it.

Thanks for the reply!

Why I’m interested in academia: I’ve been in FP&A for about ten years, primarily taking low-information situations and transforming data into meaningful chunks/presentation to allow business leaders to make decisions. This is across a wide variety of company sizes/types and a wide variety of data types (personnel, marketing, profitability, revenue, customer retention). I’m not running machine learning on the data, but am translating 50k line data sets into operational insights. I think I’m at the knowledge frontier of what can be obtained in the business world, and want to move up a level of abstraction. I find myself spending ~10 hours a week looking through academic resources (papers, books, it’s getting pricy), and I would like to spend a bit more time there.

for Master’s, I’ve found an, interesting (to me), affordable, heterodox program that operates primarily online. It’s a very unique take on university where it brings together a couple different R1 professors for a niche experience. Would not have name recognition, but it’s interesting to me and I could pursue part time, plus it’s very affordable.

I appreciate all your points, I’ll double-check pay bands, I remember R2 being ~100k with zero pay growth, which isn’t too terrible. The consensus so far seems to be to pursue a Master’s degree with more research opportunities :slight_smile:

The R2’s are where there will be a lot of variation in the academic culture. Some will have more teaching than others. Some departments more active than others etc. Generally, R2 public universities have higher pay than R2 private universities. But., overall, R2 universities are realistic targets, given your field.

Below R2, you’re looking at primarily teaching universities and colleges where your opportunities for research will be limited, and starting pay will be more like 70-80K. And you will still have to publish to get tenure, along with expectations of service and teaching.

In recent experience the “somewhere” has been the critical factor. TT openings have been thin on the ground recently, though I agree that the quantier end does better!

One of the things that you will need to work on is focusing your research interests- there are a lot of interesting things in your (long) list, and even a Masters program is going to want you to focus more. That can be one of the hardest parts of the process!

Thanks y’all for your kind responses. I think my biggest worry in pursuing academia would be the lack of academic freedom – i.e. being confined by the narrow dictates of finding Ph. D-research that the advisor is willing to work with, and having one’s domain of research highly circumscribed by those limits. I’m reasonably certain that my value as a scholar would come from my ability to synthesize highly divergent fields, and being too confined would take away from both my skill + passion, in which case I might as well continue on my current path.

I’ve got some things to ponder then.

As a potential PhD candidate, you always need to find a professor (and a program) who is willing to sponsor the type of research that you’re interested in. It takes a lot of resources to pursue a PhD degree and it’s only fair that the viability (and success) of your research is to be judged, not by yourself, but by other competent people. This isn’t about academic freedom.

As a potential PhD candidate, you always need to find a professor (and a program) who is willing to sponsor the type of research that you’re interested in. It takes a lot of resources to pursue a PhD degree and it’s only fair that the viability (and success) of your research is to be judged, not by yourself, but by other competent people. This isn’t about academic freedom.

Sure, I understand why the institutions have incentives to do things the way they do. I’m not out to change the academic world. I’m out to understand where the full package fits me best, given the options that I have. It seems to be a very different experience to get a professor who heartily believes in interdisciplinary approaches vs. one who’s staunchly against, given my particular inclinations.

It’s not so much an institutional issue as it is a question of training. One of the key elements of the PhD process is being able to ask a research question- and answer it. That means being able to take a range of ideas, and winnow them down into a question, figure out a possible way to answer the question, do the research to find the answer, analyze the outcome of the research, and put a shape onto the outcome that makes the knowledge gained accessible to other people in the field.

You don’t “get a professor”, in that supervisors are not assigned: you identify a supervisor that you want to work with and they decide whether to accept you as a student. The fit between a PhD student and their supervisor is one of the most important success variables in the process!

I think you are right to be worried about this.

There are several elements, starting with the funding: if you want to be paid to do your PhD, the money has to come from somewhere. Typically it comes from grants: your supervisor has grant funding for various research projects, and the grad students do much of the actual research. So, finding a PI whose areas of research are broadly interesting to you is Step 1. I did it by going through the research interests listed on the website of the university that I was planning to attend, highlighting every topic that looked interesting to me. Then I looked up whose area they were in and discovered that all but 2 had the same PI. I went and met with that professor, found that we had a good rapport, and that he had funding for a grad student in an area that was reasonably interesting to me.

During a PhD you move from mostly doing somebody else’s research to doing your own research, and typically one leads to, or at least informs, the other. But a PhD is not a career, it is training: the goal is for you to become expert enough in your field that you can teach it to somebody else, to demonstrate that you can make a meaningful contribution to the field, and for you to lay the groundwork for a career of work.

Once you have completed your PhD and (hopefully) landed a TT position the next few years are about earning your place in the institution: doing your bit on committees, teaching, and demonstrating that you are a valuable contributor to your department / school / field through output (ie, successfully writing grant proposals, getting the research done, and the results published).

There is a lot of interest in cross-discipline studies, and finding the right program & supervisor could give you the space that you want to find those syntheses. But the above makes me think of somebody who is used to improvising being asked to put structure on what they do, and it sounds as if that could chafe. Sometimes learning something new (and learning to be an academic would be something new to you) requires backing up before you go forward. Sometimes you will be right that there is a better way to do things- and sometimes you won’t, and you won’t really know which is which until you come out the other side.


Be aware that the admissions process for PhDs at T25 Business and Econ programs was extremely competitive over the past two years, with many schools not taking in any incoming cohorts, others cutting cohort sizes by half, and still others issuing only unfunded offers. The phrase “blood bath” was frequently used by Econ and BS applicants to describe the F21 cycle.

Even if the pandemic continues to recede I suspect it will take several years for admissions to get back to something close to the “old” normal.

That suggest that a non-traditional applicant might help their chances by nailing down some highly valued credentials: RA at a top program (preferably T10) and hopefully get highly laudatory LORs from a Prof with a strong reputation in their field. Combining that with an MS or MA in the field you wish to pursue would help even more.

Thanks y’all again for the further replies! Really good stuff that I’ve been spending some time digesting.

There is a lot of interest in cross-discipline studies, and finding the right program & supervisor could give you the space that you want to find those syntheses. But the above makes me think of somebody who is used to improvising being asked to put structure on what they do, and it sounds as if that could chafe.

The special skill sets that I perceive an academic as having:

  1. Finding answers to things within complexity/non-clarity
  2. Monetizing their search for answers (securing grants/funding)
  3. Publicizing results (articles, books, etc.)
  4. Teaching

Along with the normal soft skills, navigating university politics, etc. 2-4 I’m definitely starting from scratch professionally, 1 is something I have loads of experience in with FP&A/data side of business, although it sounds like the process for 1 is a bit different than the business world.

Ultimately if I condense the learnings from the thread down, it’s seems to be about getting more reps in the academic world + networking. Finding some individuals whose research/approach is of interest, and preferably doing some work with at least one. I’m tossing around attending the virtual AOM Conference, that’s probably the next logical step.

Thanks y’al!