I agree with BCB. You gotta be pretty masochist to start a PhD, and then start everything all over again.
And, as we often say here, we should only apply to schools that we would be happy with, safety or not (assuming there is such a thing as a safety school for PhDs). It doesn't make sense to start a PhD already unhappy or thinking about leaving the program.
If you don't want to do a PhD at some school, please don't take that opportunity from someone else, don't make the school invest a lot of money on you, don't waste the time and effort of professors, etc. Of course there is the risk of burning bridges if you do something like that.
About doing a predoc or something like that, first you gotta think about why the top schools didn't accept you, and if doing a predoc would fix that issue for you. Otherwise, it can be the right solution for the wrong problem.
I'm not saying that it does not increase your chance. But whether that increase is from 0% to 1%, or from 2% to 10%, for example, should matter, and should depend on what is preventing the applicant from getting into the top schools targeted.
If the problem is just that the research interests are not refined enough (then harming research fit), as you mentioned, doing a predoc just for that seems like overkill to me.
If the problem is not having much research experience, I agree that a predoc can help. But first it's better to know if the problem is lack of research experience. Understanding the problem is important to get the solution.
To be honest, looking at the pre-docs, I'm worried I won't get in, and I might not hear back from them in time for the April 15th decision deadline. And I think it's rare for an applicant to know exactly what they're lacking. But surely a Master's (or a pre-doc) can help with the main things like research experience and letters of recommendation. If one has a low GRE score or something quantifiable, then that should be the focus.
Yeah, predoc will probably help IF what you're lacking research experience and letters of recommendation. But IF you already have strong research experience and letters of recommendation, then it doesn't make much sense. Again, the solution depends on the problem.
Although we don't know exactly what we are lacking, asking around can give us a pretty good idea. I was very aware of my strengths and weaknesses when I applied.
I am going to add something that I have not seen anyone mention yet.
Business PhD programs, depending on rank and field typically matriculate only 2-6 students per year in any given field (and sometimes as few as 1) as opposed to programs housed in Schools of Arts and Sciences which often matriculate 20+. A lot more effort is put into both the admissions process and advising students once they are in the program. Even one student transferring can mess up a program for an entire year. Transferring because you are following an advisor who is moving is considered perfectly fine, and transferring because you found the program to be a poor fit for you, as long as the feeling is mutual is OK. Otherwise you risk angering or annoying the faculty at your current school. Academia in business fields is much smaller than in social sciences or humanities, and networks are much more interconnected. Ticking someone off early in your career is not how you want to start your life in academia.
I personally know someone who withdrew from a top 20 finance program late in the summer right before their first year, a few years later got into a top 5 program, and eventually got tenure at a top 50 school, yet the individual still faces professional ramifications of their late withdrawal from the top 20 program over 30 years ago. I can't give any further details, but I heard the story directly from the individual in question as warning for young academics at the beginning of their career.
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