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As the deadlines for Ph.D. applications draw near, the concern and panic of doctoral program coordinators like me are beginning to grow. The concern is over the number of qualified applications our programs will receive. The panic is that we will once again be scrambling to fill next year’s cohort on April 15, the Council of Graduate Schools deadline for acceptance.

Although this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has garnered most of the attention regarding graduate school applications, another pressing concern facing American business schools is the decrease in qualified applications to Ph.D. programs, particularly from students in the United States. Data from the National Science Foundation reveal that although the number of earned doctorates in business over the last 10 years has held relatively steady, the percentage of U.S. citizens or permanent residents earning a doctoral degree in business has declined. In fact, among non–science and engineering disciplines, business is the only discipline with temporary visa holders earning more doctoral degrees.

While helpful in increasing the global diversity of faculty members in American business schools, the numbers suggest that, over time, the missing population in the faculty ranks of business schools in this country could very well be professors from the United States, regardless of race or gender. Thus, the nation will lose an edge in creating innovation through research and the teaching of best practices in business.

Application data from surveys of members of the Consortium of Business Doctoral Programs, or DOCNET, from 2018 to 2022 reveal that the steady decline of students in the United States earning business doctorates is likely to continue with the average very high research activity universities receiving more than 70 percent of their Ph.D. applications from outside the country. Although indicative that American business schools are still seen globally as among the best at training future professors, what is particularly concerning is that in order to keep the current 50-50 balance between doctorates earned by people from the United States and those outside it, business schools will probably have to dip lower into their applicant pools to recruit American students.

One challenge is that business schools are built mostly to educate the next generation of business leaders, not so much business professors. In the other sciences, the notion of research and graduate degrees is a more common conversation with undergraduates. Indeed, the NSF data show that almost 60 percent of science and engineering doctoral degrees in 2022 were earned by American citizens, compared to 46 percent of doctoral degrees in business. That’s not particularly surprising, as undergraduate business students can have a very successful career in Fortune 500 companies without the need for a graduate degree, and many of our master’s degree recipients return to industry after finishing their studies. But perhaps in our conversations with business students about careers in Fortune 500 corporations, we should also be discussing a career as a business school professor in order to keep some of the best and brightest students for ourselves.

A Call to Action

We can lament the situation and let the concern and panic continue to grow, or we can start taking some action. Here are a few strategies that can help.

  • Identify top students. Many business school students will say they chose their major or career because someone identified them as being particularly good at certain things—such as numbers, creative solutions or building relationships—which led them to a career in accounting, finance, marketing or sales. As faculty members, we also need to identify those students whom we think would be great professors. At the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, where I serve as coordinator of the management Ph.D. program, we recently engaged in an initiative to identify the top students in our management classes and invited them to lunch. Our email to them was simple: “Professor Smith thinks you would be a great management professor. Come learn more at this lunch.” Surprisingly, 30 students showed up.
  • Consider a “pre-Ph.D.” track for students. Brigham Young University, California State University and New York University are a few of the good examples of universities that offer Ph.D. prep programs. The tension lies in balancing faculty time; it must be split between undergraduates interested in a Ph.D. and current Ph.D. students, whom we must mentor and support so they’ll obtain strong job placements. We’ve begun experimenting here at Iowa on a much smaller scale to develop a pre-Ph.D. program.

In the lunch with our top undergraduate students, we also offer them two opportunities: to work with faculty members as research assistants or to join our pre-Ph.D. program, in which they attend some doctoral seminars and research talks and prepare an application for Ph.D. programs. Out of the 30 that came to the lunch, about nine were interested, and the next semester we had two in our pre-Ph.D. program and two as research assistants. Perhaps another avenue is for universities to consider adding a pre-Ph.D. designation along with prelaw and premed.

  • Look beyond high-research-activity universities. Your university does not have to be such an institution for you to play a role in solving the talent pipeline program for American business schools—and it doesn’t always mean introducing a Ph.D. program. For many institutions, time may be better spent working with undergraduates on research and preparing them for a doctoral program elsewhere. We need universities of all classifications to join in recruiting their brightest students to pursue a Ph.D.
  • Engage with professional associations and corporations. The onus is not entirely on business schools to tackle this issue. Certain consortia and programs, such as the Ph.D. Project and DOCNET, are helpful in solving the talent pipeline problem. We also need professional associations such as the Academy of Management, the American Marketing Association, the Financial Management Association International and the American Accounting Association to join in. And just like the Ph.D. Project, which was started with the help of the KPMB Foundation and Citi, we need the support of corporations in this endeavor.

As a coordinator of a Ph.D. program at a major research university, I remain committed to the recruitment and development of doctoral students. But it’s not an easy task, and it is one that needs our focus before we hit an enrollment cliff in not only undergraduate but doctoral education as well.

Jennifer Nahrgang is Palmer Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship and director of graduate studies, management and entrepreneurship, at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.

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