Applying to PhD Programs in Strategy and Management

Do you want to get a Ph.D. in strategy or management?

Having managed two Ph.D. programs and run admissions at Duke University (and strategy) and Stanford University (in organization theory and macro organizational behavior), there are two things to consider in applying.

When admitting Ph.D. students, departments really care about two quantities: quality and fit.

What is quality?

Here, we’re interested in finding students who will excel in the Ph.D. program. The student will be able to do high-quality research, rigorously, and with dedication and devotion. We also want individuals who are creative and curious.

How do we tell who has these qualities?

Let me begin by setting up what the admission process looks like from the inside.

Most departments get 50 (in a bad year) and 150 (in a good year) applications. The number of slots varies across schools, but I have seen (I don’t have detailed admissions data for all universities) that most strategy programs would like an incoming class of 2 to 3 students each year. Many schools, for instance, have a 1:1 faculty-to-student ratio for their Ph.D. programs in a specific area, such as strategy or organizational behavior. So, if there are 10 tenure-track faculty, there will be 10 Ph.D. students in the program across all years. As many programs have now shifted to six years (from five), on average, programs have space for 1 to 2 new students every year. This can be larger if, for instance, a school did not get any students in the previous year.

However, an incoming class size of 2 to 3 students means that schools will often accept double that number expecting a 50% yield. That means for school that anticipates a class size of two will likely admit four students.

Thus, admissions rates for Ph.D. programs can range from 8% (in the case of 50 applicants) to 2.5% in very competitive years.

The first cut of the admissions process — and this depends on the University — students are often sorted into piles. Some universities have what they call the alphabet piles: pile a, pile B, pile C, and pile D. Pile a at top universities usually consists of about 10 students who have great grades, excellent GRE scores, and have attended very good to elite universities. The B pile often consists of either student with okay grades and GREs from elite universities (consider a B student from Harvard) or students with excellent grades from lesser-known schools or with atypical majors, e.g., a philosophy degree (no offense to philosophy majors, I was one.).the B pile usually consists of another 10 to 15 students. The C piles are usually students with significant discrepancies in their records. This can be an extremely low GPA for a meager GRE score. However, these students are often looked at for other qualities that may make them excellent candidates for research careers — some evidence, for instance, having worked previously with a researcher on an important project and having excellent recommendations from them. The D pile usually consists of students who would never be admitted. The deep pile students are easily recognizable as those with incomplete applications, completely irrelevant research statements, or any red flags that would make them unsuitable for the Ph.D. program. For instance, a 2.0 GPA student would likely be in this pile.

After the students are broadly sorted into piles such as these, there evaluated by individual faculty members. Some universities are more formal than others and how they evaluate students; however, the next set of decisions really consists of will this person be a good researcher and whether they will be interested in doing research on topics that are core to the identity of this group. The first criterion is one of quality the second is one of fit. If the pile is 10 people long, most schools can only admit some students. Thus the faculty filter through and find students who have expressed interest in specific research areas that align with faculty interests and credibly demonstrated this — e.g., by conducting research on this topic during a Masters’s degree or having previously written a senior thesis on this topic.

Faculty also pay attention to what students write in their research statements. The more specialized and personalized the statement is to the research topics related to what a department specializes in, the more attention that application will likely get holding constant having good grades and strong GRE scores.

What may be surprising to many applicants is the limited pool of what might be called super-elite candidates. These elite university candidates have excellent grades, perfect GRE scores, and extensive research experience. The students are, for one, unlikely to apply to strategy programs in abundance. Furthermore, they are likely to get into most of the top schools they have applied to if there is some degree of research fit between their interests and those of the faculty.

This also means that a student can only go to one Ph.D. program. So many top students will likely go to their top choice, which means that these are often the name-brand schools like Harvard and Stanford that they will end up attending. But students will be surprised by how often top schools lose their best candidates to other schools in surprising and unexpected ways due to location, fit with faculty, or other factors that are very specific to a given individual.

This means that many top schools can have years where they do not enroll to their capacity. For instance, the school may admit five students for a class size of three but may only enroll one. Students applying are surprised at how often this happens, even in the best schools.

Given this information, how does one increase their chances of getting into the best program?

The advice I would give you would depend on what pile you would like to get sorted into with your current credentials.

Here is the formula:

Admissions = Ability + Fit

Ability: this needs to be signaled convincingly to the faculty to where you’re applying. This is usually done by where you went to college, your grades, your GRE scores, and the difficulty of your curriculum as an undergraduate.

Fit: can be signaled in various ways, having worked with the faculty on actual research, taking relevant classes, etc.

Be honest with yourself; what pile will you get slotted into with your current credentials?

A pile: elite private or public, solid grades (3.75 or above), strong GREs— above the 90th percentile in math, 80 or 85th percentile and verbal, and a five or above in writing. Some research experience relevant to the Ph.D. program you are applying to.

B pile: either public or elite private: if elite private, good grades 3.25 or with good GREs 80th percentile or above on either math and verbal, a four or above in writing. If, nonelite private or public: strong grades, 3.5 or above GPA, with strong GREs. Usually, more research experience is needed.

C / D pile: Weak grades from any institution, mediocre GREs, and little to no research experience. The C end of the pile is what I call redeemable, where there is a likelihood that getting a Masters degree and some research experience can push the candidate to the B pile, whereas the D pile, often because of a variety of issues – especially fit with the program its research goals, there’s no way the person is likely to be in the B pile or higher.

I would ask students to think about these thresholds and how to get over them.

For students who are already starting in the A pile. I have little advice. The only thing that can get you rejected from a school is not providing enough information about fit with the program and the research interests of the faculty.

If you are in the B pile, getting into the A pile is straightforward: work with relevant faculty either at the University you are applying to or work with faculty and adjacent areas at other elite schools. Faculty trust recommendations from their peers whom they respect.

The most interesting advice is to people in the C pile. Many excellent Ph.D. students fall into the C category and may make tremendous researchers. How does a C-pile student get to a top school?

Some things will be impossible to change, for instance, where you went to your undergraduate college. Honestly speaking, this can be a hindrance. It was for me coming out of a large public university that only sent a few students to elite social sciences and business graduate schools. In fact, in my 15 years as a graduate student and now as a faculty member, I’ve only met one student from the same undergraduate University – Rutgers New Brunswick, with tens of thousands of students graduating every year as me. This person was also not in my field.

If you are coming from one of these colleges, with solid education perhaps, but no storied history of getting into elite or excellent graduate programs in the social sciences, I would recommend the following:

You will not be in the A pile at a top school. The students with undergraduates from places like Harvard, University of Chicago, Princeton, and the like with solid grades, say about 3.75 GPA, are the ones that are going to be in the A pile. Students from strong public universities, like the University of Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan, will also likely appear in the A pile if they have solid grades and completed relevant or rigorous majors.

You will, at best, be in the B pile. This is if you have solid grades and good GRE scores. The challenge for such a student is to get into the A pile. You will likely get into the A pile if you do research with relevant faculty and get strong letters of recommendation.

For the C pile student, my strategy would be the following. Indeed, this was my own strategy as a C piler. I had OK grades and not-so-relevant majors from a good but not a top-ranked public University.

I knew that I would not be able to get into a top Ph.D. program right from undergrad. I decided to do a Masters degree at a good university — Carnegie Mellon. At the end of my first semester, I applied to CMU’s public policy Ph.D. program and was rejected.

There was a lot of uncertainty about me as a candidate. Can I handle the rigorous Ph.D. classes? Could I be a researcher who made meaningful contributions to the literature? Could I get placed?

My pathway to getting into a Ph.D. program was to reduce this uncertainty in the minds of admissions committees. I took Ph.D.-level classes and tried my best to get A’s. I researched and wrote a conference paper accepted into the proceedings. I made sure to impress the professors I worked with who would fight for me in the admissions process. The following year, I applied to many more Ph.D. programs. I was admitted to most of them, including the Carnegie Mellon program I was rejected from the previous year. I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon but had options at other great schools.

The essence of my advice would be: Reduce the uncertainty of the faculty committee. If you can get a Masters degree and use it as a way to take challenging classes to make up for whatever deficiencies may be present in your application — e.g., a lackluster GPA in undergrad, not enough difficult classes, uncertainty about the rigor of the classes given the University you attended, week GRE scores, the lack of research experience, etc. Use your Masters degree to make up for these deficiencies. The admissions committee will weigh the information from your most recent degree. It could overcome many of your deficiencies. It is unlikely that this will move you from the C pile to the A pile, but it could move you from the C pile to the B pile. And now you will be part of the conversation. Suppose you have built a good relationship with the professor in the department who is research active. In that case, this may be enough to make you get admitted over a much more credentialed competitor.