How to get into a top ranked marketing PhD program

Who are you and why should I listen to you?

I’m a first year PhD student at Kellogg’s school of management at Northwestern University. I did some things right that helped me get in. I’d like to tell you those things and help you out.

What’s in it for you?

Honestly, I’m selfish with my time, but I really want to see more people do research and get their PhD. I think it’s the best life for nerds like myself. I spent about 15 hours last year helping people write essays, taking phone calls, and explaining the ins and outs of the application process…and I do not want to take that much time out this year. Instead, I’m putting down all my nuggets of wisdom (and probably some nuggets of bs) in this document, so that I can just send people to this link, and I can focus on getting my research published.

Ok. That makes sense. So this advice, will it definitely get me in school?

Short answer: No. Longer Answer: It probably won’t hurt, and it might help a lot. But note, this is not the ONLY way to get it. The following advice is based ONLY on my experience and talking with the other students and admits.

So enough of the preamble, what do I need to do?

Actually, before I do that I need to set the stage, so that people understand what they are getting into when they apply to a PhD program. You need to know, that a PhD is not school. It is more similar to an apprenticeship, with elements of on-the-job training. Yes, you will take classes. But the classes are mostly designed to help make you a better thinker, which should make you a better researcher. It’s the research that matters.

What is this research you keep talking about?

Research is the currency of academia. It’s what academics actually do. It is the creation of knowledge. It is developing theories that explain how the world works. It is providing empirical evidence for abstract constructs and their relationship to each other. It is the wind beneath my wings…

And it’s important?

So very important! This is what PhD admissions is looking for; people with strong research potential. They want to let in people that will do excellent research.

What else are these programs looking for?

Research. That’s it.

That can’t be all…

Ok, if it’s not 100%, its 99%. Think of it this way. If you get into a program, the school and more importantly, the department is promising to invest more than half a million dollars in you. Plus, if you are good at research, and you land a top job, which is good for your school and your department, you have guaranteed that you will be a millionaire. The PhD is the NBA for nerds who can’t jump high.

I’m confused. Half a million dollars?

My department covers my tuition, health care, and computing needs ($70,000 +a year). It pays me a stipend. I have a research budget of and my advisor covers a ton of research expenses and travel to conferences when her name is on the paper ($2000 a year). I have five years of funding. Add that up, and it’s a ton of money. So, departments whose bread and butter is research, are looking for other people that can push the rocks uphill and not be upset when it rolls down. And unlike MBA admissions, PhD admissions cannot afford to “take a flyer” or take on a risky applicant. These programs are incredibly and understandably risk averse. The best way to get admitted it to signal that you are a low risk-high reward candidate.

How do I demonstrate I’m low risk and high reward?

I have a list. Follow it:

1. Get a good GMAT score. If you are over a 700, then programs do not have to be concerned about either your intellect (if you’re a genius like my classmates who took it once) or your dedication (if you’re not a genius, like me, who took 25 practice test to raise my score from a 560 to a 720).

2. In your personal statement, tell them you love research.

3. Show your love of research by actually demonstrating that you have done research.

4. Also, in your personal statement, tell them why you want to do research in their department. This means you should probably pick two to three professors whose work you respect, and mention why you want to work with them.

5. That’s it.

That’s it? Is there anything I should NOT do?

Great question. Don’t do anything that makes you risky. Don’t get too personal in your essays. No one wants to know about your family history or your fight with male pattern baldness. No one really cares about your road trip. Don’t try to be funny, because you’re not.

Is that all?

Sure. Below is the essay I used to get into Kellogg. Feel free to use it as a template. Notice that I follow the above rules. Your essay should NOT be longer than this. No one has time to read five pages of drivel.

Good luck. I hope to see you soon at ACR, AMA or in class with me!

Happy Research!

Where’s that essay?

Here you go:

Marketing research methodology is rapidly expanding into areas that provide real biological evidence such as ovulation levels, hormonal changes, and fMRI. Over the next few decades, I plan to push the boundaries of how marketing researchers study and analyze consumer behavior. In my current research of marketing placebo effects, I have already completed three studies showing that the placebo effect is not a general mass, but can have multiple effects due to the nature of the neuro-processes in the human brain. For example, an expectation that the placebo will lower pain induces the brain to release endogenous opioids, which then actually lowers pain. Further, if a person believes that a placebo will increase strength, the brain releases endogenous dopamine, which does indeed lead to enhanced strength. To broaden my understanding of these neurochemicals, I took a doctoral level class in cognitive neuroscience, and used the curriculum as the basis for another paper on the default mode network.

Developments in neuroimaging intrigue me, but a) my current institution does not have access to an fMRI machine (Northwestern does) and b) even if it did it is incredibly expensive to run studies using this equipment. The former is not a problem I can solve, but the latter forced me to discover lower-cost methodologies. The answer I found: an underused technique known as planned missingness. Researchers use this statistical experimental design to impute measures of constructs by randomly assigning half of all participants to the high cost measurements (like fMRI) and all participants to low cost measurements, then using maximum likelihood or multiple imputation procedures to “fill in” the missing data. To help other marketing researchers benefit from this design, I wrote a paper. To flesh out the explanation of the underlying statistical theory, I invited a respected bio-statistics professor from Emory to join me as a co-author. We plan to submit this work in January to the Journal of Marketing Research, and summer AMA.

These two foregoing vignettes illustrate two reasons why I will be successful if allowed the opportunity to complete my PhD studies at Northwestern:

1) I work and write a lot. I made a promise a few months ago to write at least one page a day on my own research, or readings. In just the last 30 days I have crafted over 95 carefully-edited pages. I am currently on day 62 of an unbroken daily writing streak.

2) When I do not know something, I reach out to experts who do, and learn from them as quickly as possible. This is the main reason I am applying to Northwestern even though I have been very successful in FIU’s PhD program (3.97 GPA, Graduate Student Scholarship Recipient). Dr. Aparna Labroo’s work on firm muscles and willpower inspired some of my current ideas in my placebo studies, and I am even using a cold pressor task as an outcome variable in a study I am conducting this fall. Further, Dr. Derek Rucker is one of the few examples of an academic who crosses over between core consumer behavior work and methodology studies, such as in his work on median splits and response substitution. I want to learn optimal research and writing habits from the best in my industry while I’m still early in my education. To be the best, I must study with the best. I cannot settle for anything less than excellence.

I would be honored to interview with your admissions committee.