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From Brazil to the U.S.: A PhD Dream

Tuesday | January 30, 2018 | by William Shibuya

PhD in the U.S.

Leaving Brazil to do a PhD abroad was not a goal I had established, but rather something that started to make more and more sense until it became the logical next step in my life. Approximately 10 years ago, I left an industry career to become a professor. Brazil is a great country, but low-quality education and administration are major stumbling blocks for its growth. So, teaching people about what I learned and experienced was my way to have a positive impact in my country.

I started to teach and felt the need to study to become a better professor. I already had a bachelor’s degree in business administration and an MBA, so I decided to go for a master’s degree. Through a master’s program, I also saw the opportunity to do some research to try to find answers to questions that had been bothering me since my industry career. From my experience in corporate finance, I knew how hard it was to understand the interface between finance and marketing—specifically, how to measure the financial results of marketing investments.

My master’s thesis was about how profitability is impacted by the way companies answer complaints from consumers. A commentary from my advisors became the seed for my intentions to do a PhD in the U.S. They said that I was doing research about issues that are relevant to marketing, but people who do that kind of research are not in Brazil. And they were right—if you look at the references I used for my thesis, there are very few Brazilian authors. So, to learn more about the marketing-finance interface and continue my research, I left Brazil for the U.S.

Based on my experience, here are my tips for international students interested in pursuing a PhD in the U.S.

Start as Soon as Possible

The application process is very complex. Instructions and requirements are often vague and can be very different from school to school. There is a lot to do and the applications can take a long time to complete. Deadlines are usually from December to January each year for fall admissions. Many applicants start preparing at least one year in advance. Although my experience is with marketing PhD program applications, the applications for other business-related PhD programs, such as finance and supply chain, are similar.

These are a few things that schools usually require or want to see in a PhD application:

  • At least a bachelor’s degree. This does not necessarily need to be in business; most applicants also have a master’s degree.
  • Diplomas, transcripts, and your GPA. Translations are typically required if the documents are not in English.
  • Experience. Research experience is the most important, but teaching and work experience can help too.
  • Letters of recommendation. You usually need three letters of recommendation and preference is given to letters from professors who can attest to the applicant’s potential to become a researcher.
  • Statement of purpose. This is a letter where applicants explain why they want to do a PhD at the selected school.
  • High scores on standardized exams. Most business schools accept the GMAT and the GRE.
  • High scores in English proficiency exams (if you are not from an English-speaking country). The TOEFL is usually the exam required for programs in the U.S.

The process may not seem so complex at first. You just have to fill out an online application with the requirements from the list above. But do not underestimate the process. You are competing with many applicants who are often some of the best students from their countries, and schools accept very few of them. Each marketing PhD program usually accepts only two or three new students a year.

One of the requirements that can take a long time is the GMAT or GRE. These exams measure quantitative and verbal skills. This means Mathematics and English. However, even if you are great in both Mathematics and English, the GMAT can be a real challenge. The GMAT has questions that are structured very differently from other exams. Learning strategies to take the GMAT is as important as knowing Mathematics and English. You do not want to still be struggling to get a good GMAT score close to the application deadlines.

Applicants can also feel completely lost with the large selection of schools the can apply to. How many schools should I apply to? Which ones? It is incredibly hard to answer these questions. There are no reliable rankings for PhD programs. There are too many excellent PhD programs in the U.S. You can find some of the best business schools in the world ranked 100th, for example. It is not realistic to apply to 100 schools. People usually apply to approximately 15 schools, but it is hard to narrow the list down to those 15 schools.

Investigate Each School’s Faculty and Their Research Specialties

You have to do your research on each school and the kind of research produced by the faculty. Try to find those professors who do the kind of research you want. Because, no matter how good you are, a school will not accept you if your research interests do not fit with the school’s faculty.

After you submit your application, schools may invite the best applicants for an interview. The interview is often online, but they may also ask applicants to fly to the school. Decisions are usually released from January to March for fall admissions.

My Experience in the U.S.

I am doing my PhD in the city of Houston, Texas. It is not so different from the city where I lived in Brazil, São Paulo. São Paulo is bigger, but Houston is still one of the biggest cities in the U.S. The weather is sometimes more extreme in Houston (Hurricane Harvey hit Houston during the first week of my PhD program, and I’ve seen a little snow in the winter), but often, it is similar to São Paulo. The cost of living is very different and renting an apartment is very expensive. However, the stipend the university pays to PhD students is more than enough for one person.

Final Thoughts

A PhD is extremely demanding, often overwhelming. There are many subjects to study, many papers to read, and some very difficult homework and projects to do. But that means you learn a lot in a short time. I have completed one semester so far, and it is amazing the amount of knowledge I have gained. The professors in the marketing department are incredible. They are some of the smartest people I have ever met, but also very nice and hard working. Plus, the other PhD students are from many different countries, so it is a great environment for international students. If you want to challenge yourself and become a great researcher, you will find that kind of opportunity by pursuing a PhD in the U.S.

William Shibuya is a Marketing Ph.D. student at the C. T. Bauer College of Business, University of Houston.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).