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The Pathway to PhDs

BYU leads the nation in the number of students who go on to earn PhDs, and BYU Marriott’s dedicated mentoring and pre-PhD prep tracks are some of the reasons why.

Long before Rebekah (Bekki) Brau joined the faculty of the BYU Marriott School of Business, she was a student at the same school. And she wasn’t just a student, says ethics professor Brad Agle. She was a star student with brilliant potential. PhD potential.

So, as professors do every fall with some 40 or 50 undergraduate and master’s degree students across BYU Marriott, Agle encouraged Brau to enroll in a pre-PhD course. And he wasn’t the only one to do so. BYU Marriott professors Kristen DeTienne, Sheli Sillito Walker, Nile Hatch, Cindy Blair, Scott Webb, and Jim Brau (Bekki’s father) all joined the pre-PhD chorus. Fast forward about 10 years and a University of Arkansas doctorate degree later, and Bekki is back at BYU—not only teaching and researching but mentoring the next generation of future PhD students from BYU Marriott.

“Everyone at BYU Marriott is amazing; everyone wants to give time and help students who are interested in PhDs,” says Bekki, now an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing and Global Supply Chain. “Now that I am on the other side, I want to be the mentor that our students need me to be.”

Bekki is one of thousands of former BYU undergrads who have gone on to earn PhDs across the country. From 2009 to 2018, 3,040 former BYU students completed a PhD, according to the federally sponsored Survey of Earned Doctorates—that’s an average of about 300 students per year. These figures put the university in the top 10 in the nation for future PhD earners, but if you really want to see where the magic happens, look closer at BYU Marriott.

Over the most recent 10-year period, 241 former BYU students completed PhD degrees in business management and administration, enough to claim the No. 1 spot in the nation by a long shot. The school that ranked second-highest for future business doctorates was the University of Pennsylvania—home to the famous Wharton business school—which produced 95 PhDs in that same period. BYU produced 250 percent more.

The data definitively backs up what many at BYU Marriott have pieced together anecdotally for years: BYU is not just one of the best universities at preparing business PhD students, it is the best.

“Once you build it, they will come,” says Doug Prawitt, director of the School of Accountancy at BYU Marriott. “Word of what was happening got out. The pre-PhD program just became kind of self-sustaining.”

Make no mistake, BYU Marriott’s top ranking in PhD preparation is not a happy accident. It is the result of a concentrated effort from the top down, with heavy investments of time and resources from the Deans Office, individual departments, and dozens of faculty members across the school.

Mentoring and Shepherding

In the early 1990s, Prawitt was a new assistant professor at BYU Marriott, fresh out of a PhD program at the University of Arizona and eager to establish his footing and build relationships with students. As he did so, he started to field more and more questions about PhD programs.

“I was naive and unprepared for my PhD program, and I didn’t want any of my students to be like I was,” Prawitt recalls. “If our students wanted to do this, we needed to plan now and get them in certain classes that would help them prepare. I knew that if someone wanted to pursue a PhD and they proactively prepared for it, there would be a real demand for that person.”

So Prawitt went about mentoring and shepherding a couple of students each year toward PhD programs. One of his earliest mentees, Darren Roulstone, was accepted to all seven schools to which he applied, choosing to enroll at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. (Roulstone is now a professor of accounting at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business.)

Prawitt felt like there was potential for more PhD success stories, so he enlisted his colleagues in establishing something more permanent. One day in the late ’90s, Prawitt approached the SOA junior-core coordinator and asked if he could take five minutes at an upcoming career day to present a pre-PhD track for accounting students.

“That visual of a professor sitting at the table up front with the professionals who were there created the vivid impression that this was a viable career path,” Prawitt says. “Numbers started to increase. In 2000 a group of eight students entered the pre-PhD track, and all eight eventually went into PhD programs. All eight are now faculty around the country; some came back to BYU, including SOA professor Bill Tayler.”

Now officially 22 years old, the SOA pre-PhD track—a program with PhD-style seminars that cover research and academic work combined with coursework in math, econometrics, and statistics—boasts more than 300 alums across the world, roughly 220 of whom are now professors. According to BYU Marriott associate dean Bonnie Anderson, each year nearly 10 percent of all new accounting faculty nationwide have a BYU connection.

As the SOA’s pre-PhD program was blossoming, former information systems professors Paul Lowry and Anthony Vance created a similar pre-PhD track within BYU Marriott’s master of information systems management (MISM) program. The MISM pre-PhD track placed 11 students in top programs in its first three years and, like the SOA’s program, still boasts nearly 100 percent PhD program placement. According to James Gaskin, the current information systems pre-PhD coordinator, an estimated 45 students have entered PhD programs since the track was established, with 30 of them becoming professors.

“Top PhD programs from around the country come on their own dime to recruit our students,” Anderson says. “Our students have a record coming out of their programs that looks like that of most PhD students when they graduate. The pre-PhD program sets our students up for future success.”

A Schoolwide Vision

Of course, for BYU Marriott to rule the national rankings so authoritatively, it follows that the SOA and MISM programs wouldn’t have the monopoly on future business PhDs. The vision is schoolwide now, with discipline-specific pre-PhD tracks established in every program to go along with the general pre-PhD course offered to all students.

The general pre-PhD course now taught regularly by Agle is rooted in his career experience both at BYU and the University of Pittsburgh. Before coming to BYU in 2009, Agle spent 17 years at Pitt working with doctoral students and serving on committees that admitted doctoral candidates. That experience helped Agle identify what committee members care about most when considering prospective PhD students.

The introductory course pulls no punches when it dives into what students’ career tracks may look like, but more important, it places BYU Marriott faculty members front and center. Each fall, for the first month of the course, a host of professors give short presentations on their research and careers. Students gain a sense for faculty members’ research areas, methods, and perspectives. In addition—and in alignment with BYU’s mission, which integrates the gospel with secular learning—they get to hear how professors were guided spiritually on their career paths.

By the end of September, each student chooses a professor to be their mentor and then proceeds to do research with that professor throughout the rest of the semester. At the conclusion of the course, which also includes regular interaction with current PhD students from BYU, those in the class have a clear idea of what a doctoral program looks like and whether they want to forge ahead with a career in academia.

“If you choose to take this pre-PhD course, your opportunity cost is three credit hours,” Anderson says. “Compare that to quitting your job, moving your family across the country, and doing everything else that comes with starting a PhD program on the fly. It’s a far more efficient way to know if you’ll like this path or not.”

It also saves oodles of money for schools when new PhD students come prepared to stick it out and avoid the dreaded title of ABD (“all but dissertation”). According to an investigative article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on doctoral completions, the PhD attrition rate is nearly 50 percent.

“When a university makes a decision on a student, that is an expensive decision,” Agle observes. “It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars per student. The university pays tuition, insurance, stipends, and more. Universities want those investments to be good investments.”

This is the ninth year Agle has taught the general pre-PhD course, and he estimates that on average about 20 students enroll annually, coming from programs across the school and even from outside BYU Marriott. According to the school’s tracking, about one-half of the students who take the general pre-PhD course end up pursuing PhDs each year.

Add that to those who take the specific pre-PhD tracks from the different programs, and you get about 20 to 25 new BYU-produced PhD students a year, almost all of whom will complete their PhDs and begin teaching within the next five to seven years.

Paying It Forward

One such PhD student is BYU alum Hilary Hendricks. In an interview with BYU’s University Communications office last year, she recalled how her BYU mentors helped her overcome feelings of inadequacy for her doctoral program at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“I’d be walking across campus in Ann Arbor thinking, ‘There’s just no way I can do this,’” says Hendricks, a PhD candidate in management and organizations. “But then I’d think, ‘John Bingham thinks you can do this. Kristen DeTienne thinks you can do this. Brad Agle and Jeff Thompson think you can do this.’ I would recite to myself all of the professors at BYU who helped me to get where I was.”

While Hendricks’s final destination is still unknown as she completes her program, the BYU alums ahead of her are finding their professorships nationwide, including several at BYU. This is, of course, a big part of the plan. According to Anderson, BYU Marriott hired 11 new faculty in the summer of 2021, and seven of those professors were products of the BYU pre-PhD program. Professors such as Bekki.

It’s no coincidence that Bekki sounds exactly like Hendricks when she talks about her PhD journey. The mentors who guided her along the way were her strength and inspiration too.

“The personal interest that faculty take in students and the level of faculty that we have—those two working in tandem make the difference,” Bekki says. “We have outstanding, incredible, world-renowned faculty members here who are the top of their class, top of their league, but are here because they chose to be here. They know this is a student-focused university and that they must have a focus on and commitment to our students.

“We have top-trained researchers who are then training students,” she continues, “and those students come into PhD programs already knowing how to read research articles and write literature reviews—things that can be really overwhelming for those who come from industry—and they are prepared to succeed from day one.”


Written by Todd Hollingshead

This article was published in BYU Marriott's 2022 Annual Report.

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