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Prep School:

How the Marriott School Gives Future Professors a Head Start

As a student in BYU’s accelerated master of accountancy program in the early 1990s, Darren T. Roulstone had a lot of questions about PhD programs.

For help navigating this labyrinth of unfamiliarity, Roulstone relied on Marriott School faculty, including Douglas F. Prawitt, then a new assistant professor who had just completed a PhD in accounting at the University of Arizona.

“He told me about the various schools and their areas of expertise,” recalls Roulstone, now an associate professor of accounting at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. “He talked about his experiences getting a PhD and engaging in research. He hired me as a research assistant as he prepared his dissertation for publication.”

Additionally, during informal mentoring sessions Prawitt advised Roulstone to take some graduate-level statistics courses to prepare for PhD coursework.

Meanwhile Roulstone applied to PhD programs, eventually being accepted at six top schools and choosing to attend the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. As Roulstone moved on, Prawitt reflected on how the Marriott School could better prepare accounting students for PhD studies. At that point, a plan was born, although at first Prawitt only allowed himself to think of it in speculative terms.

“What if we were able to prepare eight or ten BYU graduates per year who could become professors and have a huge impact on education around the country?” Prawitt recalls asking himself. “What if we could not only fill our own pipeline but also become the leading supplier of accounting PhDs in the country?”

Nationwide Impact

What began as merely an optimistic set of questions has become a program recognized in academic circles nationwide both for its innovation and its record. The BYU Accounting PhD Prep Track, with Prawitt as coordinator, now accepts as many as one dozen students each year. Results are meeting or exceeding Prawitt’s early hopes.

In its ten years, the prep track program has produced approximately fifty students who entered PhD programs at schools such as the University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of North Carolina, Indiana University, and Cornell University.

Meanwhile, BYU’s Master of Informa-tion Systems Management program has developed its own PhD prep track, coordinated by Paul Benjamin Lowry, assistant professor of information systems. The MISM Prep Track placed eleven students in top programs in its first three years and boasts 100 percent placement to date. Last year, all five of its graduates entered top-twenty programs and received health insurance, tuition waivers, travel money, research fellowships, and additional yearly stipends of about $15,000–$21,000, Lowry says.

Although many of its more recent graduates have not yet entered the job market, the Marriott School’s prep programs have helped produce faculty members at Texas, Chicago, North Carolina, Kansas, Illinois, Rice, and BYU, among other universities.

“Certainly this is the most well-organized and successful program that I’m aware of,” says Robert Libby, a professor of management at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where BYU alumni have recently constituted approximately 20 percent of all entering accounting PhD students. “There are a lot of schools that know about BYU’s success, but there’s no other school that regularly sends us students like this.”

Because of the relatively small numbers of new accounting PhD students across the country each year, the prep track has already become one of the nation’s top—if not No. 1—suppliers of PhD students in accounting. One prominent faculty member at a well-respected northeast school has told BYU faculty members that the school’s top sources of PhD students were BYU and Canada. BYU’s success in channeling students toward accounting PhDs coincides with a nationwide shortage of qualified accounting faculty; thus the BYU students enter a market in which supply struggles to keep up with demand.

At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan–Flagler Business School, BYU alumni made up two-thirds of the entering accounting PhD class in 2005 and half of the 2006 entering class. Additionally, North Carolina recently hired as a new faculty member Steve Stubben, a PhD prep alumnus who earned a doctorate at Stanford.

BYU students enjoy an advantage over students from other universities, says Wayne R. Landsman, associate dean for the North Carolina PhD program.

“What I like about the BYU program is the students entering have a pretty good idea of what they are going to be facing,” Landsman says. “There aren’t any surprises. The adjustment to getting a PhD is easier for them. They are ready to work.”

Lowry notes that the Information Systems Prep Track is the only one of its kind in the country, and that uniqueness, combined with quality, makes the program successful in preparing and placing students.

“What is ‘unusual’ is that business students, including information systems students, normally have little formal training in science, the scientific method, theory building, academic literature, and research methodologies,” Lowry says. “Our PhD prep courses provide this. So essentially, we are making scientists out of our students.”

The prep program may allow some BYU graduates to complete a PhD a year ahead of their cohort, says Lauren Maines, professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

“In essence, they have completed many of the courses that we would have students take in the first year of a doctoral program,” Maines says. “The program gives them a real head start in terms of completing a PhD program.”

The MAcc and MISM prep programs have had a significant impact on the Marriott School’s national reputation, says W. Steve Albrecht, associate dean. “The PhD prep program is giving us tremendous academic credibility among the best institutions,” he says. “They know we have excellent students who are very well prepared to study at any university in the world.”

Preparation for Research

Room 264 in BYU’s Tanner Building is not a graduate seminar room, but on this particular day fifteen desks form a circle for what promises to be a doctoral-level discussion. Prawitt leads a group of MAcc students in their first graduate-style class about the meaning of academic research and scientific inquiry.

As Prawitt and the students converse about the semester’s first reading assignment in Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the proverbial light bulbs seem to come on in heads around the room. Discussing the process and progress of learning, the students seem to understand they are on the threshold of a paradigm shift in their own academic careers.

Perhaps recognizing this, Prawitt pauses to tell the students what they can expect if they continue in the PhD prep track. “You’re going to have PhD programs knocking on your door,” he says. “You will know what you’re getting into, and you’ll have a solid quantitative foundation. Some of you as MAcc students will become active in research with a faculty member.”

Soon after, one student raises his hand and asks Prawitt: “Why doesn’t BYU have a PhD in accounting?”

Before Prawitt can even answer, another student whispers: “Expensive.”

Prawitt explains that BYU’s mission is largely as an undergraduate teaching institution, and competing against top-drawer, long-established PhD programs in accounting would be extremely difficult. What BYU can do as well as or better than anybody is prepare students for PhD studies elsewhere.

Fundamentally, that happens in four ways. First, students in the MAcc and MISM programs participate in a three-credit academic research seminar at the beginning of their fifth year of study. This seminar provides an introduction to methods of scientific inquiry as well as formulation of research questions and forms of academic writing. Each semester thereafter, MAcc students take a one-credit academic research readings seminar. Meanwhile, MISM students participate in two information systems research seminars, two required statistics courses, and a research project course.

Second, in place of some regular electives, PhD prep students take graduate-level courses across campus in disciplines such as mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, and economics. The goal is to help students avoid what happened to Roulstone; even though he had been advised to prepare in statistics, he realized quickly at Michigan that a stronger foundation in economics and econometrics would have been helpful.

“The end result,” Roulstone says, “was me sitting in class surrounded by PhD economics students who had been preparing for the class their whole careers—and knowing that I had to get a decent grade. The prep track offers better preparation for what is expected of an accounting PhD student.”

Third, some prep track students have taken advantage of opportunities to teach business courses at Utah Valley State College or the BYU Salt Lake Center. Occasionally, some of the prep track students will even teach a course at the Marriott School.

Finally, PhD prep includes a formal mentoring component—students meet regularly with faculty and participate in faculty research projects. In the MISM program, prep track students so far have a perfect record in achieving co-authorship of at least one publication in a peer-reviewed journal before entering their PhD programs.

“We make a concerted effort to publish with all of our students,” says Lowry, adding that students get a heavy dose of theory building and causal experimental data collection before they graduate. “We can do this with such a small program, because it allows one-on-one publishing opportunities.”

Outcomes for Students

Not all students who enter the PhD prep program finish it. Even among those who finish the program, not all actually apply for PhD programs. But those students are not considered failures; in fact, the early decision-making process facilitated by the PhD prep track is a positive aspect of the program.

“It’s better to go through the prep track and decide that academic life isn’t for you than to figure that out after a grueling year of a doctoral program,” Roulstone says. “And given the family emphasis of most BYU grads, the cost of a mistake is typically imposed on a spouse and kids in addition to the student.”

For Taylor Wells, an information systems graduate who entered a PhD program at Indiana in 2006, the primary benefit of the program was to get him involved in research. Like other students, by the time he left BYU, Wells already had academic publications either under his belt or in the works.

“Initially, I was a bit intimidated by academic research,” Wells admits. “Now, research is what I enjoy most and want to do.”

Wells credits his experience working as a research assistant with Marriott School faculty that enabled him to get accepted at several top PhD schools and eventually settle on Indiana, where he has a tuition waiver and annual research stipend.

Even though he graduated from the Marriott School in 2003 and is now working on his dissertation at North Carolina, Scott Dyreng continues to benefit from the PhD prep track. This comes partially through maintaining contact with his classmates—what Dyreng calls “an instant network of PhD student friends throughout the country with whom I can share experiences and ideas.”

Also, Dyreng and other PhD prep alumni are invited back to BYU each October to participate in the BYU Accounting Research Symposium led by Marriott School Associate Professor Theodore E. Christensen. This has created what Dyreng calls a “friendly environment” for presenting and discussing research while keeping personal relationships alive.

“Workshops like that can sometimes be discouraging because people can be overly critical and cynical,” says Ron Guymon, a 2002 Marriott School graduate now in a doctoral program at the University of Iowa. “However, the BYU symposiums are always encouraging.”

For some students, a major benefit of the program was highly practical—it cleared up misconceptions about salary.

“I had never considered becoming a professor—mainly because I had the misunderstanding that professors didn’t get compensated very well,” says Nate Sharp, a doctoral student at the University of Texas.

Perhaps even more important for some students, they also discover the autonomy and favorable lifestyle offered by academia. Prawitt tells students that someone with a PhD can interact with the profession at a much higher level much more quickly than someone without a PhD. Taking advantage of consulting opportunities is also an option for PhDs.

“In many aspects, academia leads industry,” says Tom Meservy, a 2001 MISM graduate pursuing his PhD at the University of Arizona. “Many in academia are asking questions about issues that likely won’t be considered by industry for another decade or two.”

Vision for the Future

In disciplines across campus BYU does extremely well in sending students on to PhD programs. BYU ranked tenth—just behind UCLA and just ahead of MIT—in the raw number of its one-time undergraduate students (2,116) earning PhDs in all disciplines from 1995 to 2004, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Still, Prawitt, Lowry, and others associated with the Marriott School believe there are elements of the PhD prep program that can be successfully adopted by other disciplines across campus to prepare students even better for graduate school.

Given the program’s low cost and high success rate, Prawitt says it could work in almost any discipline, and he is willing to share with other BYU departments the insights he’s gained in instituting the program.

Albrecht agrees the program could be exported to other disciplines. “I think it would be easy and wise for every program to have a pre-PhD track,” Albrecht says. “Being a professor is a wonderful career and one in which individuals can make great contributions, regardless of which university they are affiliated with.”

“It fits perfectly with BYU’s mission to educate members as well as build friends for BYU and the church,” Roulstone says. “It is raising BYU’s profile in a very important segment of academia.”

As was the case when he first considered starting the prep track, Prawitt poses a simple question. “I’d love nothing more than to see this replicated across campus. BYU could become the nation’s leading supplier of PhD students,” Prawitt says with a smile. “Why not?”

Article written by Edward L. Carter
Illustrated by Tyler Pack

About the Author
Edward L. Carter is an assistant professor of communications at BYU and a graduate of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. Before law school, he worked as a reporter for the Deseret News and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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