finance phd advice?

I go a 760m/710v/4w on the GRE in December. The percentiles were around 85/98/40 respectively. I did well, but I didn’t break the bank. I had a 3.9 undergrad GPA.

I’m looking to get a phd in finance, which is basically the math half of econ. I’d be using a lot of SAS, Matlab, econometrics and so on. There would be some differential equations and stochastic calculus in there as well.

Where can I get in? I’m working on Wall Street now and have no concept of what my credentials are worth. From what I’ve heard, admissions aren’t like most phd programs where you need to find faculty to study under whos research aligns with your interests. You apply more for brand name and rigor, take you comprehensive exams, then look for a problem to solve. I’ve also heard my work experience don’t count for anything.

Am I likely to get into top 10? Top 25? Top 50? One professor I had during undergrad told me that my scores weren’t good enough, and that I should start over take the GMAT instead and try to get over 700 by any means necessary? Is this even true?

The first question you need to answer is: What is your purpose of earning a PhD in finance? Are you interested in being a professor of finance (need top credentials) or working overseas (need good credentials) or going to industry (need good gredentials)? Are you interested in a life long career in basic research (need research level training => top school) or are you interested in trading (any good quant program will do, many are available even some not in finance)?

Depending on your answers to the above, you will take different routes. For academia, your real world experience can be seen as a hindrance by many who feel academic thinking needs to exist in the abstract, away from the daily noise and small details of real life. Academia is looking for the large universal truths. In spite of this view by some in academia, there are many in academia who do not adhere to it. In any case, this is something you cannot change, so you should not worry about it. Only worry about what you can control.

The top people in the world are trying to get into the top 10 USA B-schools. Even for someone with a perfect record, there is a large element of luck involved to get an acceptance. Hundreds of qualified people are applying for each open position at a top PhD finance program. You can apply if you have the money for the application fees… no one can stop you. It does not hurt to apply if you can handle some rejection.

You state you have a 3.9 GPA. However, everyone knows there has been grade inflation over time. A 3.9 in 1984 means a lot more than a 3.9 in 2004. This is unfortunate, but true. There are also some 3.5 GPAs that are superior to many 3.9 GPAs. It depends on the major you chose and the courses you took. A 3.5 GPA in a quantitative field and many advanced masters or PhD courses on their undergraduate transcripts is going to get a lot more attention than a 3.9 GPA in a weak discipline, like business. At this point, only you know what kind of undergraduate degree you earned.

Let’s assume you have a quantitative background and that you did not shy away from taking the hard courses. That is, we are going on the assumption that you got an undergraduate degree that means something and has value.

The most important score on any standardized test is the quantitative score. Your quant score was OK, but definitely not a top 10 school score. You have a chance for a top 50 program. If you can take the GMAT and improve your quant score, that will help your prospects some.

Personally, I think that the GPA and standardized scores get you through the first cut. Personal statements and reference letters that really say something and come across as being non-standardized make the final cut. So it is important for you to write an excellent proposal for research and statement of purpose. It is also important to get referee reports from people who can really say something that makes you stand out. Most people make the mistake of asking the most famous people they know. The problem is here is that these people do not find many other people exceptional and don’t necessarily write the type of report that will get you an acceptance.

Finally, if you do not have a strong background in real analysis, probability, matrix algebra, econometrics, and microeconomics… your chances of being accepted are reduced and if accepted your chances of finishing are reduced. Take some courses and strengthen these vital areas.

In any case, the final scenario is that you have to apply to get in. Nothing anyone says will change the results once the final decisions are made.

Good luck

steveseoul {at} {yahoo} {dot} {com}

If you are interested in Asia, then there are only a few top research oriented universities in finance. KAIST GSM, is one of the few that places its PhD students across Asia and is successful in both industry and academic placements. HKUST is a top research school as is University of Singapore, but I am not familiar with their placement records.

KAIST is unique in that they get the very best Korean students. The reason for this is that military service is mandatory for Koreans… and a KAIST PhD can be substituted for military service. So any Korean KAIST accepts can get a PhD and satisfy their military service requirement or stand guard for 4 years at the DMZ.

KAIST has a strong quantitative program, which is highly sought after by industry. KAIST is probably the leader in Asia this respect. Here is the finance course offering: … ngFlag=eng

Given KAIST has the best students and the strongest quant finance program in Asia, it should not be surprising that industry is eager to interview its graduates.

KAIST has full scholarships for qualified applicants to pursue a PhD and it actively recruits foreign students into both the MBA and PhD programs. Many classes are taught in English and if a foreign joins a class it should be taught in English (albiet this is not always the case). Anyway, it is possible to do the program in English.

You can get the information about the PhD Program in KAIST Business School below the KAIST Web site for foreign applicants.


  1. You should enter your passport number and make up a password that you will remember.
  2. Pick graduate (not undergrad) before signing in.
  3. To apply for a finance or accounting PhD, choose KAIST Graduate School of Management
  4. Choose "Management Engineering: (the PhD program)
  • note: Do not choose “Finance” as your concentration. That is strictly a masters level course.

If you need more information, please contact the Admissions Management Team below:

Admissions Management Team at KAIST
335 Science Road, Yuseong-gu Daejeon 305-701 Republic of Korea
Phone: (+82-42) 350-2143
Fax : (+82-42) 350-2420
e-mail :

Best of luck with your pursuits.

Warmest regards,