Applying To A Marketing PhD
This is my personal advice. It is in no way meant to reflect the views of any school I have been involved with (e.g., Terry College of Business — UGA, or the Ivey Business School, where I was when I initially wrote this). I think it probably applies to many North American schools. Many will undoubtedly disagree with elements. All schools and professors look for slightly different things but I believe that this should help people applying to study for a marketing PhD. The aim is to decode what the professors are looking for when you apply to a PhD program.
The first question to answer is:
What Side Of Marketing Are You On?
You don’t necessarily need to answer this question explicitly in your application but the reader will need to know that you have a clear idea. For background: generally there are two broad categories of marketing scholars, quantitative and behavioral.
- Quantitative marketers mostly specialize in empirical work on secondary data sets (e.g. scanner panel data). The typical applicant in this area will have a background in mathematics, statistics, economics or data heavy marketing. A subset of these people do analytical (theoretical) models though this is less typical.
- Behavioral marketers typically have a psychological background, although anthropologists and sociologists also appear. Many of these researchers run experiments often in university labs with student participants. There is also a group who do more qualitative work.
Obviously few people are in the happy position of liking and being talented at everything. Your background will generally determine which type of marketer you can credibly claim to be.
Applicants often think that they can straddle the divide and do everything. I personally have a lot of sympathy with this view as I think marketing needs to be more unified and less divided into the two camps. That said your PhD application is absolutely not the time to argue this point. Claiming you are a generalist will make it seem like;
- you don’t know how academic marketing works and/or,
- are intellectually flighty and unfocused.
Pick a side and write your application to emphasize how you are perfectly prepared for work in that area.
Why Do Schools Recruit Students?
Schools want you to produce research. Making a research contribution while you are a student is ideal. Indeed the professors who recruit you will want you to come up with ideas, run experiments or crunch data for them and co-author papers with them. Even if you don’t deliver much finished product while on your PhD program they want you to go onto be a star amongst their professional colleagues. Basically they want you to be hard-working, clever and focused on research to maximize the chance of this happening. If you have most of the skills necessary to succeed prior to starting your course (don’t worry no one has them all) then so much the better.
Schools gain prestige by placing you at a good school when you graduate. This is one of the key objectives of PhD programs. As such you want to convince schools that you have, and can gain more, marketable skills in the academic job market. Econometric skills are probably the most marketable. Experimental skills can also be useful but there tend to be more good experimenters on the job market than good econometricians. (Expect finding a job on the behavioral side to be more challenging).
You may wonder whether marketing work experience helps. It does, maybe a little more so on the quantitative than behavioral side, but probably less than you think. As an applicant with work experience sell your work achievements but, just as important, you need to emphasize that you are clever and committed to academia. The rule is that you can get accepted to a PhD program with no marketing experience but you can’t get accepted without strong evidence of methodological aptitude.
If you have worked in marketing explain why your experience is useful (e.g. it hopefully gave you some research ideas). That said also make sure you explain that you know what being a student again will entail. Remember you will be pretty low down on the food chain as a PhD student (sad but true). If you have been a manager make sure that you are comfortable with what will seem, at times, like a step back in your career. I was used to being a senior manager and I found being the least important member of the department challenging at times. Indeed business schools often appear to be strangely managed which can be frustrating and you won’t be able to change much as a student.
Just as important as making sure you are personally comfortable with being a student make sure you communicate your comfort in your application. No school wants to recruit someone who will drop out of the program because they couldn’t cope with being a student again. This applies to students quitting for any reason so always emphasize the strength of your commitment in your application.
What Should Your Aims Be?
One mistake that applicants often make is to be “too MBA” ish. In your application emphasize that you want to write research articles. You can make it clear that you will be a good teacher — this is important when you look for a job — but research must be your primary passion. Being a great teacher matters less in the academic world than you might expect. Publishing academic research is (nearly) everything. Again you might think that is strange, I do, but your application is not the time to try and change the world by suggesting teaching should be taken more seriously. Being “focused on teaching” is code for “not very bright” in some academic circles. I agree this is wrong but it is a battle for another day.
Note you absolutely cannot aim to consult after you get your PhD. Academic marketing PhD programs are not about training you to get a nice job in industry. Similarly you should not aspire to create anything too close to popular business work (and this designation includes the Harvard Business Review for many academics). Academics, for good or ill, want their PhD students to be well respected by other academics and the only way to do this is to publish academically focused research.
Of course it is perfectly reasonable to want to consult or similar but just not to aim for that while applying to the big North American schools. If that is your aim, even if you get accepted, you will be miserable as you will not be trained for that. Think honestly about what you want. If trying to impress other academics seems unimportant to you don’t apply to a PhD program.
I talk about the GMAT but the same advice goes for the GRE. I’d advise doing the GMAT if you have a choice as more applicants do that but it usually isn’t especially important which test you do.
You are asking to be trained to do innovative research and teach the next generation of students. It is reasonable to expect that you have the intellectual capacity to do this.
Does a good GMAT score really show this intellectual capacity? I think that everyone will agree it is far from a perfect measure. That said it is one of the few objective and standardized numbers that schools get in considering your application. The GMAT doesn’t measure intellectual ability perfectly but it is probably better than the reader’s hunches.
My personal yardstick is that you should have a GMAT score noticeably above the students you plan to teach. What does that mean assuming that you want to work at a good North American school after qualification? (And remember you should want a research post at a good North American school because that will generate kudos for the school training you). You really should ideally have a GMAT in the 700s. (I personally am very reluctant to support any student with a score of less than 700). You can get accepted with scores lower than 700 but six hundreds will count against you to an increasing extent the further down you go. With a score less than 600 I’d suggest it is not worth wasting anyone’s time by applying.
You might want to ensure your scores speak somewhat to the side of marketing you see yourself on. For example if you are aiming to be a quantitative marketer a low score on the quantitative side is usually fatal. That said you might not realize it but a balanced GMAT is important. All marketers who do research have to write up their work. This means even if you are on the quantitative side of marketing being able to use English is important. Similarly even if you are a behavioral researcher you still need to be able to understand statistics so a respectable quantitative score is important.
Does the GMAT really matter if the rest of my application is strong? You may think the GMAT doesn’t measure your research potential and there is validity to the argument. As you, rather bizarrely although for understandable commercial reasons, can take the GMAT multiple times even if it doesn’t measure intellect it does measure a key requirement for success in a PhD — your persistence. Think of getting a good GMAT as a credible signal of commitment to the program. If you have a low score either:
- You haven’t researched enough to know what a good score is (not a good sign),
- You feel that even with work you won’t be able to do better (an even worse sign), or
- You aren’t committed enough to retake the test despite knowing you could better (a fatal sign).
You will have to do lots of annoying and occasionally pointless things in your PhD studies and academic career so a willingness to re-take the GMAT, even if it isn’t a perfect test of ability, is a sign you will do what is necessary to succeed. The GMAT, if nothing else, can show commitment to your studies.
Your Previous Schooling And GPAs
Having good grades is useful but far from everything. Universities all have unique grading practices so an A at one school is very different to an A from another. This makes it very hard for professors to judge what any GPA means. Thus good grades matter but probably less than the average applicant thinks. A compelling story of why you want to study and a stellar GMAT will make up for more mediocre grades at all but the very top schools. It is worth noting that different countries (and schools) use different standards. Thus getting a 70% in England is an A and an achievement while in the US 70% is often a damning criticism. Don’t be modest. If you have done well make sure that the reader knows you did well as they might not work it out from the raw numbers.
Remember the people recruiting you want you to start on research asap so emphasize anything that suggests this. Various masters degrees are usually desirable and may even be expected. The MBA is a strange degree to have. In some ways it is nice, it will definitely help you in your teaching. That said because the PhD is so different from the MBA (less practical, less sociable, more in-depth) people may worry that you think a PhD is an extension of your MBA. It isn’t. Make sure the reader knows that you want to embrace the obsessive attention to details that normal people don’t care about that is the defining characteristic of a PhD.
What should you have studied? Presumably it is too late to do much about this when you are about to apply. Clearly prior studies like masters in statistics, economics or social psychology will help. Don’t be put off applying if your background is more unusual. (Mine is politics and ancient history). Have a good story for why you want to do a marketing PhD and some evidence you will be able to cope with the challenges then try to make your unusual background a plus. What special skills did you learn that you can bring to marketing academia?
Who to get to write your letters? Obviously someone who is going to say very, very nice things. These things should also echo your application. Can they say you have always planned to go into academia? Can they say you are very hard working? Can they say you have an obsession with retail? (If that is the claim in your statement of purpose.) Generally details help. The more effort it seems that your letter writer has expended the more belief in you they communicate.
It might also be helpful if the letter writers understand North American letter writing styles. Being British I find the overly positive nature of many North American’s letters a little insincere. Your letter writer might think you are the greatest person ever but if they are subdued in their praise the subtle recommendation might be lost. No one is really in the top 2% for everything but if your letter writer says you are only in the top 25% for a few things this can look pretty damning. The people you are competing with may have all been put in the top 2% by letter writers who say everyone they know is in the top 2% of people they know. Try therefore to recruit letter writers who are naturally very positive. If not try to subtly brief them a little. Your letter writers should want you to succeed (or why have you asked them to recommend you?) so should understand when you explain what you need.
You should also think of the type of person to ask to write letters. Try and get at least one academic. This can be tough if you have been out of school for a while but it really helps build credibility with academics who can be a pretty insular bunch. If you are using managers try and get them to emphasize more than just your work abilities. Remember if the manager can say something about your massive intellect this has to help.
Who To Work With?
Schools will ask you who you want to work with. This may seem like an add on question: How can you possibly know without spending time with the professors? Even if you have read all their papers and love their work perhaps professor XYZ’s personality is a nightmare. It may seem like a question you can defer till after acceptance but it is arguably the most important answer you will give. If you suggest someone who is not taking on students this can damn you. If you choose a research inactive professor this can be fatal. If the professor is only publishing op eds they may be semi-retired and so they are the wrong choice. The key thing is to look for professors who have published in the serious marketing journals in the last couple of years.
You may be safe suggesting you want to work with some relatively junior professors who haven’t published much but seem to have related interests to yours. They are probably trying to publish and may be flattered by your interest and therefore support your application. Still I’d advise trying to ensure that you have at least one mid-career research active professor who can champion your application. Whoever you choose make sure you have read their work. This is an absolute must and the easiest way to improve your application. You can’t change your undergraduate GPA but you can signal your interest by reading people’s research. (You may not totally understand everything but try and ensure you have some idea what they are saying.)
You may feel it is “cheating” to contact the people that you are applying to work with. It may seem “unfair” to try and influence the process. If you feel this change your mind, now. You must have communicated with, ideally spoken to, several of the professors to maximize your chances of success. You can even ask whether the professor is interested in taking on students. When you nominate a professor as your favored supervisor it is so much better if they already know you and want to support you. It is possible that the person you nominate will actually decide on your application — they will almost certainly have a disproportional say — so getting them on board is highly recommended. Sell yourself to them long before the application drops on their desk.
For background all schools have a range of professors of different levels of seniority. Generally the stereotype is that senior professors will give you benign neglect. They have tenure and are often pretty relaxed about life. They have the knowledge but won’t necessarily need the hassle of working with students. They don’t need you so you’ll have to explain what you offer them. The stereotype of being a junior professor’s student is that the professor needs support. They may be stressed about the tenure clock so they can use you but they may work you to death. Junior professors may have less influence on recruiting but are more likely to want to agree to your application as a good potential co-author is generally a positive for them. Of course individual professors have their own personalities but bear in mind what the professor is looking for. If you can help them with their research that is a strong feature of your application.
Statement Of Purpose
It is hard to overestimate how important this is. Unlike your GPA you can improve the statement of purpose at time of application. Do this. Time spent here is rarely wasted. First read, reread and reread the letter. No typos or language errors should sneak into this. Obviously avoid sloppy cutting and pasting. No school wants to be told that a rival school is a perfect fit for you because you used the same statement for all schools and failed to change the school name.
How specific should your interests be? This is a tough one. Specific is good. It shows you understand research. Too specific however and professors looking at your application might think: “this applicant looks great but we don’t have the knowledge to help them pursue their very narrow research interests so we won’t admit them”. My advice is to show you know the research by saying some relatively specific interests while emphasizing you have broader interests and potential. Everyone knows your interests will change so don’t worry too much about being “trapped” by what you say. The aim in the statement is to show you have given it some thought not that you already have your dissertation topic.
To be clear you also need to ensure that you mention academic research articles. “I’m interested in some topic from my undergraduate textbook which involves arrows and pretty pictures” is a fatal error.
Any evidence of research authorship is great but probably you won’t have much. If you have it don’t be shy about drawing attention to it.
Evidence of research reading is necessary and easily achievable. Note your reading interests in your application. This shows you know what you are getting in to and are committed to learning. If you want to reference articles try to mention the top marketing journals, the “A journals”. These are often seen as: the Journal of Marketing, Marketing Science, the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Consumer Research and (sometimes) the Journal of Consumer Psychology. This is not an exhaustive list. For instance if you want to specialize in retail talking about research in the Journal of Retailing is great. Mentioning your MBA or undergraduate textbook is never a good idea.
Also try and come across as focused on achievement and not just learning in your statement. In some ways the worst people to admit are undeniably clever students who therefore don’t fail out but their lack of focus on output means they hang around and can’t seem to finish their degrees. You want to make sure you aren’t seen as a potential one of these.
English As A Second Language
You may feel you deserve a waiver from any English language test. You may be right. Be careful about asking for one however. Schools are worried that students with language challenges will find it hard to keep up with the excessive amount of technical reading involved in a PhD program. The schools also worry that you won’t be able to write up your research and no publications means no kudos for the school. Finally, although teaching is not the most important thing in academic life you will still need good English skills to get a job in North American business schools. (And this is where the schools you are applying to mostly want you to end up). English language skills matter hugely. An application where it merely looks like the person probably has good English language skills is not as strong as the same application where the person has already aced an English language test. My advice, if in doubt just take any suggested English language test and do great at it. It is hard to emphasize how important language skills are. Note this is another reason to try and speak to potential sponsoring professors on the phone. You can show off your English language skills and allay that concern from the outset.
If you are going to the effort and expense of applying to PhD programs it is best to do it right. Hope that helps.
Here is a link to the University of Georgia, Terry College’s Ph.D.
If you are interested in a Ph.D. studying the marketing/accounting interface, marketing metrics, or one of the other topics my research covers drop me a line.
For Further Reading
Check out Scott Cowley’s excellent advice here
and a list from the American Marketing Association here. (Not sure if fully updated but a good place to start).