Vantage point

Saturday, September 16, 2006

PhD in Marketing

While deciding to apply for a PhD in Marketing, I was stumped at how little information was available online. I googled desperately, but never really came across any useful inside information. The universities have their websites of course, but they are useful only for the basic information. So I am writing this to share whatever I learnt during the application process and later, so that if someone googles "phd marketing", they have at least one personal account to go by.

The reason there aren't too many resources, rankings or forums for PhD in Marketing, or in any of the management sciences in general, is the tiny size of the market. It is not an option that the masses throng to. It is not like an MBA which millions target every year. A doctorate in management sciences is a very small niche and so even its applicant pool is very small. From India, I doubt if more than 10-15 people seriously apply for a Marketing PhD every year.

Why PhD?
The first thing you need to realise is, that a PhD in Marketing is very different from a PhD in Engineering, in terms of career options. You get into a Marketing PhD program only if you are sure that you want to be an academic. i.e if your eventual goal is to become a Professor at a business school, and do lots of research in marketing. If you are considering a PhD to help you out with a corporate career, perish the thought. It would be a better idea to stick around in the corporate world and get 5 years of experience instead of spending 5 years to do a PhD.

Why Academics?

I got into it because I like research. Academic research in marketing is very different from "market research" or even consulting or writing cases. It is hardcore theoretical research, often involving a lot of quant. And I find it fun. I like teaching. I also like the academic lifestyle, which is a lot more flexible and satisfying. And though college professors in other disciplines are not very well paid, the pay is very handsome in business schools. For last year's graduating PhD class, the average starting pay in the US was $125,000. And this is just the salary. Most professors earn a LOT more writing books, and providing consulting to the industry. Even in India, profs from the good b-schools easily take home at least 10 lakhs a year.

PhD Life
A management PhD typically takes 4-5 years. The first 2 years is when you do your coursework, i.e complete credit requirements by taking courses to build up your skills for research. From your third year onward you start working on your doctoral dissertation, which you defend and submit in your fifth year. Of course, right from the first semester, you try to work on research papers with Professors.

Management PhD programs, at least in the US are fully funded throughout. You have a tuition waiver and you get quite a comfortable stipend. The stipend would seem extremely lavish if you are single. And even if you are married and the sole breadwinner, it is enough for a decentish life.

The "class size" for a PhD program is also very small. On an average each school takes 2 students a year for every field. So combining Marketing, Management, Finance, Accounting, OB, and sometimes IT, the average PhD class is 12.

Application process
The application process is fairly simple. You take the GMAT. Usually a 700-plus score will ensure you enter the consideration set. A 750-plus score will attract extra attention for sure. But GMAT is just 1 component. Far more important is your essay, i.e your Statement of Purpose. Your statement of purpose should explain why you want to do a PhD and what aspects of research attract you the most. If you are clear about a particular sub-domain, it helps since the admissions committee will take you more seriously. It will also help you decide on which schools you want to go to. For instance I was focused on B2B Marketing, and was very keen on Penn State since the B2B faculty here is superb.

You also need 2-3 recos from your professors. Usually most Indians who come here come after a Masters, mostly an MBA. Officially, you just need an undergrad degree for a PhD in USA. But at least in Marketing, I have seen most students have an MBA. Of course if you are an undergrad with an outstanding profile, you could still make it.

Even if you have work-ex, recos from your boss or anyone from the industry is useless for a PhD. They want to judge your aptitude for research, and so they want only your profs to write the recos.

Most schools nowadays have an online system of submitting recos. So if you are not in the same city as the one where you did your Masters from, start talking to Profs about recos really early. Personally I underestimated the time, effort and coordination needed for the recos and had a tough time since I was in Bombay and my alma mater was in Lucknow.

You also need transcripts... some schools ask for two sets. This can also be a time consuming process. And you need transcripts from your MBA as well as undergrad. The process at IIML was very simple. I just sent them a cheque and they sent me 15 sets of transcripts. But the process at my engineering college was very tedious and my mother had to spend a lot of time getting them.

Importance of Work Experience

Work experience is not very important in the selection process. American MBAs usually require a hefty work-ex. But PhD programs are not looking for it. A tenured prof at Penn State went straight from IIM to PhD and yet has a great career. The academic world has many such people. The actual research done is very theoretical, so they dont treat work-ex as a must.

Having said that, a work-ex does help. Especially relevant marketing or management experience. From a personal perspective, it gives you a sort of a reference point. It may help you in determining your dissertation question. But from an admission point of view, it is largely a non-issue.

Branches of Marketing
If you want to be an academic, there are mainly three branches of Marketing. The oldest is consumer behaviour. It hinges on psychology, and as the name suggests mainly studies the consumer. Then there is Modelling. In this, researchers try to develop and impose mathematical models on whatever is happening in the market place. This is heavy on quant, especially econometrics and also requires a level of comfort with programming. The third branch is B2B Marketing, a relatively newer discipline which studies the B2B market-place. This is also quite quant-heavy.

Choice of Schools
A lot of thought must be given to the choice of schools. First go to that well-known resource - US News MBA listings. And then forget all about it. Because that list is absolutely useless in deciding where to apply. It has been compiled with only MBA in mind, and MBA and PhD are courses as different as chalk and cheese.

In MBA, the big names help. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Dartmouth... are all prize catches. But while applying for a PhD you follow a different approach. You decide which discipline of Marketing you are more interested in. Then you go through the websites of the schools, go to the faculty pages and see what sort of research the Profs are doing. Better still, try to get hold of recent issues of the big 4 journals of Marketing - Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research and Marketing Science. Actually, throw in Journal of Management Science too, since very often Marketing papers with a broader implication are published in it.

On the basis of that identify which are the good departments with good profs. Get in touch with the PhD students there and take their help. I was guided almost completely in my admission process by an IIML senior at USC.

A little interaction with the Profs will help too. But it should not be interaction for the sake of sucking up. If you are really interested in what a particular Prof is researching, mail them. And try not to make it a "Hi, I am xyz and I want to do phd". Make it a mail they would take something away from as well. But please, don't go overboard mailing Profs. They are busy people with heavily laden inboxes.

In Academics, the key rule is "Publish or Perish". Schools which have a lot of publications in recent years in your specific area of interest are the ones you want to be in. A very useful link for this is -

UTD Top 100 Business School Research Rankings

Using this, you will see that schools like Wharton, which are top MBA programs, are also on top from a research perspective. But some schools like Harvard, Stanford and Dartmouth are not that great.

On the basis of all these criteria, make a list of schools to apply to. An average applicant will apply to 6-12 schools. It depends on your comfort level and confidence.

PhD programs begin only in Fall, i.e in August. So the application deadlines for various schools range from December to February. I suggest you get all the transcripts together as early as August or September. Also start talking to your profs for recos before that, at least get them to write out a standard 1-page draft. If some schools have a particular format for recos, get it in advance and send it to the profs. Don't schedule your GMAT and TOEFL any later than October. ETS, the body administering those tests, is notorious for unexplicable delays in reporting official scores to schools. Keep a good buffer.

Application expenses
The GMAT and TOEFL together cost about 400 dollars. Each school's application fee, at least for Fall06 was on an average $70. So if you are applying to 10 schools, I think your expenditure will be around 1200 USD, or around 60,000 rupees at the current exchange rate.

Word of Caution
PhD and a life in academic research is fun. In management, it is also very well paying. But it is by no means an easy or "chill" life which you can just sleepwalk through. If you are contemplating this career only because you are sick of pressure at work, don't. Pressure is universal. Come for a PhD only if you are more attracted to academic research than your work. It really is fun, exploring new questions, learning and building theories, reading tonnes of interesting stuff. And of course, living on a campus.

My personal philosophy is that your career should be such that every Monday you wake up thinking - "Wow, they are actually paying me to do all this cool stuff". And that's how my Mondays begin now.
Update (January 2010): In the 3+ years since I wrote this post, I have been amazed to see how the interest in a Marketing PhD has grown, as evidenced by the sheer volume of emails I now get. Initially, when I asked readers to contact me if they had questions, I got maybe an email every couple of weeks. Now I get almost a dozen emails every week asking for detailed advice. For a program that only takes in an average of 2-3 new students a year, that's a major increase.

Which brings me to the point of this update. A lot of emails start off saying "I found your post helpful", but then go on to ask information that has already been provided above. I am glad to help aspiring PhDs whenever I can, but it would make my life as well as yours easier if you actually read the full post. And then ask me something beyond that.