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Opportunities for Accountants in Academia

By Kari Olsen, Ph.D., CMA, CPA; Sheldon Smith, Ph.D., CMA, CPA; and Kevin Smith, Ph.D., CPA
May 1, 2022

From teaching a single course to striving for a tenure-track position to teach and conduct research, there are a number of opportunities for accounting and finance practitioners to join academia.

 

Are you an accounting or finance professional who has wondered what it might be like to teach accounting at a university or college? Do you have a natural curiosity about business practices or market responses that leads you to ask questions about how or why? Whether you have interest in only teaching or in accounting research as well, there are a number of options for you as an accounting practitioner. You might just find that an academic position is the perfect path to a flexible, stable, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding career.

 

As accounting academics with doctoral degrees, we invite you to consider the many ways you can make teaching accounting a part of your life. From pursuing a doctoral degree, such as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and a full-time tenure-track position to keeping your current job and teaching a single class, there’s truly something for everyone who wants to teach accounting. Regardless of the path that best fits your individual preferences and situation, you can be an important addition to the success of accounting departments preparing students for the future.

 

TEACHING WITHOUT A DOCTORATE

 

Whether your goal is to teach part-time concurrent with your life as a professional accountant or full-time subsequent to your years in the profession, understanding the options that may be available can help you plan for your future. For some, the idea of going back to school for a few years and pursuing a doctorate might be appealing, but it’s probably a very daunting thought to most. The good news is that there are many opportunities to teach that don’t require additional years of school.

 

There are various paths to teaching at the university level. The titles and descriptions of the faculty positions we describe may differ from institution to institution. As such, the explanations may vary somewhat, depending on the specific college or university where you want to teach. The following categories relate to most colleges and universities with four-year accounting programs, some of which will also have master’s programs in accounting or even Ph.D. programs.

 

Adjunct faculty. Many colleges and universities hire adjunct faculty to teach classes that aren’t covered by the available full-time faculty. Adjunct faculty usually teach on a part-time basis, perhaps one or more classes each semester. Many adjunct teachers continue with a full-time accounting position and teach in the morning, the evening, or perhaps on weekends to work around their professional schedules. Adjunct teachers can also teach online courses, which provides even greater flexibility to integrate a teaching opportunity into a professional schedule.

 

These positions aren’t permanent teaching positions but can often be renewed, depending on how well you do and the ongoing need for your services. While the role provides some flexibility for someone who isn’t ready to leave the business world, the pay isn’t always great. Adjuncts are often paid on a per-class basis and usually don’t qualify for normal employee benefits such as health insurance or retirement benefits. Many adjuncts are willing to teach for the love of teaching and for a desire to help students learn about a profession they’re passionate about. If they already have an adequate salary and employee benefits from their “day job,” they may be quite comfortable teaching a class or two without a large financial compensation.

 

Adjunct faculty usually don’t interact with other faculty much, perhaps with the exception of a faculty member who oversees the instruction for a particular course. They also typically aren’t involved in department decisions such as curriculum changes. They probably aren’t expected to be involved with student organizations or other university service assignments in the way permanent faculty are.

 

Lecturer/instructor. A lecturer position is likely a full-time position with a salary and benefits, but it’s unlikely to be a permanent position and the salary may be significantly less than that for tenure-track faculty. There’s a potential that the position could be long term if the teacher performs well in the class and the need for the role continues.

 

The teaching load for a lecturer will be higher than that of a permanent faculty member because a lecturer isn’t required to conduct research. Depending on the department, a lecturer may be involved in department faculty meetings and have input on departmental decisions, including curriculum issues. Lecturers may also be involved with student organizations or have other department-related service assignments to help improve the program or interface with the profession. Some current or past professional experience may also be helpful in landing this type of job. Professional certifications can also help distinguish a candidate for an instructor position.

 

Clinical/professional faculty. A clinical (or professional) faculty member is typically someone who has risen to a significant position in the accounting profession and can bring an important professional perspective to the classroom. These positions may be filled by either those who are still working in the profession but want to focus more on teaching or by those who have retired from the accounting profession to switch career paths to teaching. Clinical faculty often don’t have a doctoral degree, but some do. Occasionally, a faculty member with a doctoral degree might take a clinical faculty position to focus on teaching and professional engagement rather than be required to pursue typical research activities.

 

Clinical faculty positions are often on a full-time basis, but they could also be part-time. These positions generally aren’t permanent positions, but they may involve a long-term association and may be renewable. A clinical faculty role is usually salaried and can include full-time employment benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. There are also cases where an individual who has successfully provided for future retirement may agree to work for no salary (or perhaps just health insurance and retirement benefits) as a way of “giving back” to the profession by helping to train the next generation of accounting professionals.

 

The salary for a clinical faculty member will likely be less than the salary for permanent faculty, as these faculty members aren’t expected to have the academic research skills. Yet it’s possible that a very high-profile professional, such as a former member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), a former managing partner of a Big 4 accounting firm, or an executive at a major corporation, could receive a higher salary due to the individual’s name recognition and the exposure this individual brings to the school. Because of the professional expertise these individuals bring to a department, clinical faculty may be very involved in curriculum discussions and decisions. They may also be involved in student organizations, especially as the students interact with the profession. They can be very helpful as a liaison with external advisory groups from the profession and in mentoring students and helping with job placement.

 

Community colleges. Four-year institutions aren’t the only options available for teaching accounting. Community colleges also hire accounting faculty with similar abilities and backgrounds as those already described. They may hire permanent faculty without a doctorate, as there won’t be a requirement to do research. Without that requirement, the teaching load will be higher, usually with lower pay than for permanent positions at institutions that offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Yet the permanent faculty at a community college can be heavily involved in curriculum decisions and in other service assignments for the school, including working with student organizations.

 

A community college may be an ideal place for a good teacher who doesn’t want to earn a doctorate or conduct academic research. It’s important to recognize, however, that there may be a smaller variety of classes or subjects to teach since community colleges don’t offer as many upper-level accounting classes. That said, an excellent accounting teacher at a community college can provide a great foundation to students who want to transfer to a university.

 

Getting started. What should you do if you want to teach without a doctorate? Professional certification will be helpful for both your professional life and for landing a teaching job, so go ahead and pursue one or more appropriate certifications. Though the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) designation has historically been the familiar choice in academia, other certifications such as the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) are increasingly being recognized and sought after for distinction when applying for teaching positions.

 

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Very few institutions will hire teachers with just a bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree such as a Master of Accounting (MAcc), Master of Taxation (MTax), or Master of Business Administration (MBA) will help you in both the profession and your teaching qualifications. Whatever you can do to signal professional competencies and specialized knowledge will help you stand out in job applications for these teaching positions. Ask the faculty at your alma mater or at nearby colleges and universities about their career paths, especially those without doctorates. Find out about the path they took. Get their advice and opinions.

 

Historically, classes were taught face-to-face on a brick-and-mortar campus. In recent years, online and hybrid classes have been increasing in popularity, especially for those who are geographically bound in areas without a college or university. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased, at least temporarily, the need for the ability to teach in online environments, either synchronous (where students attend at a set time) or asynchronous (where students complete assignments and study without specific class meetings). Being familiar with learning management systems (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) and remote learning and collaboration environments (Zoom, Teams, etc.) will be helpful.

 

In addition, textbook publishers have moved away from a strictly hard-copy format to an e-book format with online publisher resources and homework software. It would be helpful to have some familiarity with these different products, recognizing that anything in an online environment is subject to significant change over time, and competition in this environment brings new companies and drives out old companies.

 

Take advantage of any opportunities you have to develop and hone your teaching skills. As you do so, there will likely be a place for you to help train the next generation of accounting professionals.

 

TEACHING WITH A DOCTORATE

 

If you’re interested in a full-time, permanent (tenured) position at a university or in conducting accounting research as well as teaching, then you might consider earning a doctorate prior to seeking an academic position. Several doctorate degrees exist, including Ph.D., Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), and Juris Doctor (J.D.). Since the Ph.D. is the most widely accepted research-oriented degree and offers the most job placement opportunities, the following discussion will be based on obtaining a Ph.D.

 

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Most people who pursue an accounting Ph.D. do so because they want to teach. For most accounting professors, teaching is indeed the most rewarding aspect of the job. But a Ph.D. program doesn’t train you to teach. Nor is the emphasis really on learning practical accounting. Rather, the focus is on training you to be a data scientist and scholar—on learning the nuts and bolts of how to conduct academic research. Statistics, mathematics, and econometrics all become an integral part of your training. You may also study theories from economics, psychology, sociology, and more.

 

One of the most common questions we get as accounting professors is “What do you research in accounting?” There’s more to it than you might think. Accounting research isn’t just about balancing out debits and credits. For example, weather patterns, distracted driving laws, narcissists, avatars, fraud, and politics are just a few topics that you’ll find accounting professors are researching. It’s a world filled with attitudes, personalities, information processing, managerial judgments, deception, and partisan interests.

 

Accounting research explores such a wide variety of topics because accounting is the language of business. It affects the information used by managers and employees within a company. It also informs the decisions and opinions of many market participants, such as investors, creditors, and government regulators. As the informational foundation for the business world, accounting plays a significant role in many settings and situations. This is where accounting researchers come in and ask questions to examine how accounting influences behavior and decision making.

 

Conducting research. Research in accounting is done using numerous scientific approaches. For example, experimental research can be used to evaluate how auditors might evaluate an organization’s fraud risk differently or to examine how employees react to different incentive structures. Researchers are able to experimentally manipulate conditions and observe if different conditions, or treatments, have an effect.

 

In other settings, researchers use archival data, including existing data sets from places like company financial statements or stock market information. With this data, researchers can study questions about how investors make trades based on accounting information or how executives make strategic decisions.

 

Other common research techniques include using surveys to gauge people’s opinions or document their experiences and using field studies where researchers work closely inside a company to observe and learn from practice.

 

Regardless of the research technique, accounting researchers use the scientific method to gain knowledge about accounting and its role in organizations, society, and individuals’ lives. The scientific method is a key part of the scholarly process because it ensures that the conclusions drawn from the research are valid.

 

In short, the process begins by developing an understanding of what’s already known and has been studied. From that, questions are raised and explored about what we don’t know or about how to solve a practical problem. Theoretical reasoning is used to develop hypotheses, or expectations, about correlations and causes. Finally, data is analyzed to test a hypothesis.

 

The findings from this process are published in academic journals. These journals require anonymous peer review wherein other researchers and journal editors evaluate and comment on a study’s methodology and findings. It’s an iterative process as reviewers provide feedback and then authors engage in a revision process to address reviewer comments. While this process can be lengthy and tedious, it’s critical to ensure that conclusions are valid.

 

Where to begin. The most significant hurdle that prevents people from pursuing a tenure-track career in academia is the prospect of getting their Ph.D. A Ph.D. in accounting generally requires at least four years to complete and can take up to six years. After five to six years in college to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the prospect of completing and paying for another four to six years can be quite intimidating.

 

Yet there are silver linings. First, contrary to what you might think, earning a Ph.D. can be financially affordable. Most schools will waive your Ph.D. tuition, provide you a small living stipend, and cover health benefits in exchange for your fulfilling various research assistant or teaching assignments throughout the program. Second, only the first two years or so of a Ph.D. program consist of coursework. The remainder of the time is spent developing and writing your dissertation.

 

While the job market is currently very strong for accounting professors and there are jobs for almost every seeker, there are a limited number of universities in each city, state, or country.

 

Therefore, while you may be assured a job, you may find the universities in your preferred location currently aren’t hiring faculty in your area of teaching expertise. As such, you’ll likely find yourself working in a different location than you had anticipated. But there’s enough opportunity to move to other universities that most faculty end up finding a place where they’re happy.

 

BENEFITS OF WORKING IN ACADEMIA

 

Whether you go the route of teaching without a doctorate or decide to go all in with a Ph.D., there are many benefits from joining accounting academia.

 

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Teaching. As noted already, many people get involved because they want to teach. We each completed our doctoral degrees for one primary reason—to teach at the university level. The thought often crosses our minds of just how lucky we are to get paid to do what we love. Who could ask for more? Each semester we have the opportunity to interact with another group of the leaders and professionals of tomorrow. We have the opportunity to play a small, yet important, role in developing students into who they will become. Having a front-row seat to the transformation that occurs in students from the beginning of the semester to the end is one of the great privileges of our jobs.

 

Flexibility. Do you enjoy the 9-to-5 office grind, “clocking in” and “clocking out” each workday and making sure to log your hours each week? Academia is almost exclusively output-based, not input-based. While a lot of input is required to generate a high-quality output of teaching, research, and university service, the timing and intensity of that input is almost completely up to each individual faculty member. Other than scheduled classes, office hours, and the occasional faculty meeting, everything else can be done at any time on any day.

 

Job security. Obtaining tenure isn’t easy, and the output level required to obtain it varies by university. Once obtained, however, tenure provides one of the most stable job situations available. As long as faculty members continue to perform their jobs at an appropriate level, they’ll retain their jobs for as long as they desire. Situations where tenure can be revoked are rare.

 

Compensation. Generally, when people think about going into teaching, they believe they’re signing onto a career that’s highly rewarding, but not financially. While accounting professors don’t make as much as CFOs or partners in a large accounting firm, compensation can be quite competitive. In a recent survey of 499 of the largest universities by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the average annual salaries for accounting faculty were $87,290 for instructors (nontenured positions), $147,440 for assistant professors, $151,170 for associate professors, and $183,220 for full professors. Academic contracts are typically for the nine-month academic calendar (covering fall and spring semesters). Compensation for summer teaching and/or research contracts would be in addition to that annual salary.

 

IS TEACHING FOR YOU?

 

If anything we’ve shared in this article has made you think that a career in academia could be for you, the best thing you can do is to get more information. You likely already know several individuals who will be able to share firsthand experiences with you. Talk to current accounting educators and ask them why they got into teaching, what path they took to get into the profession, and what advice they would give to someone who’s considering the same career.

 

We’ll be among the first to admit that academia isn’t the career path for everyone, but it might be worth looking a little deeper. It just might be the best path for you.

 

Kari Olsen, Ph.D., CMA, CPA, is an associate professor at Utah Valley University and a member of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter. He can be reached at kari.olsen@uvu.edu.
Sheldon Smith, Ph.D., CMA, CPA, is a professor at Utah Valley University and a member of IMA’s Salt Lake Area Chapter. You can reach him at smithsh@uvu.edu.
Kevin Smith, Ph.D., CPA, is a professor at Utah Valley University. He can be reached at ksmith@uvu.edu.
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