My Path to PhD: Transitioning From a 20-Year Corporate Career to Higher Education

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Thursday, October 31, 2019
By Heather Read
Photo by iStock
After 20 years in the corporate world, Heather Read shares why she made the decision to transition into doctoral education.

Shortly before I finished my MBA, I remember being contacted by my graduate school about matriculating into a doctoral business degree. I had just spent three years in a part-time MBA program balancing a demanding job and family, and amassing a sizable student loan debt. I was focused on my planned corporate career. My only goal was to be an executive. I thought at the time that an MBA was the only ticket to success I’d ever need.

That was 12 years ago, which now seems like a lifetime.

My MBA did exactly what it was supposed to do in terms of opening doors into more advanced positions at bigger companies. It also gave me the tools to lead and build multimillion-dollar products at venture-funded startups. But at the end of 20 years in corporate life, despite racking up accomplishments on a resume, to say I felt unfulfilled would be an understatement.

The only thing that had really sparked my passion was being a leader and seeing my team develop personally and professionally based on the career plans and training that we established together. I realized that the moment when my team took flight on their own was when I felt the most energized. This began my thoughts about joining academia.

The universe aligned when I left my corporate role at the same time an administrative and teaching position opened at Coastal Carolina University, which is home to an AACSB-accredited business school. This concurrence cemented my commitment to transition fully to academia and search for a PhD program that would allow me to translate my existing education and industry knowledge to both teaching others and adding to research in the field.

I began my search exhaustively, visiting websites of nearly every school I could find in the United States as well as many in Europe, which advertise online programs . I was thankful for advice from my colleagues who had already been through the academic hiring process. They coached me on important questions in seeking a program that I otherwise would not have known about. First, they advised, make sure you enroll in an AACSB-accredited program; otherwise it will be difficult to obtain a tenure-track position at an accredited business school. Second, make sure that the program contains enough coursework in your discipline to meet accreditation standards . Third, make sure the curriculum in your chosen program shows rigor in your research training.

This advice helped me evaluate what I was seeing on business school websites and the never-ending stream of Facebook or Google ads about online PhDs from non-AACSB-accredited schools. I began narrowing my search by checking accreditation standards and examining credit requirements between coursework, research methods, and dissertation hours. Most of the accredited PhD programs I found were full-time, which was not an option I could entertain. Unlike a metropolitan area, in South Carolina the options of business schools with PhD programs are limited. None have distance-learning options. Other potential solutions I found were executive DBA programs with low residency requirements that I potentially could still do while working full-time, but that would be very expensive. My concern beyond cost was that several of these programs where I might be able to complete the residency were geared at executives as a general degree and did not pose the depth of coursework I needed as a future professor.

Then, early in 2019, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) announced an innovative new program. They had just been approved for the first AACSB-accredited distance PhD program in business administration. This program upheld the rigor of AACSB standards that I sought: it included with a demanding set of foundational theory courses and specializations as well as a very robust set of research coursework. The program was designed to accommodate working professionals while at the same time taught by leading academics in the field. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was the actions by the state of North Carolina that have recently approved reduced tuition rates for online students, making the overall financial investment very affordable.

I am now deep into my first semester as a PhD student at UNCG, and I have even greater appreciation for the work that went into creating this program and the selection process of the first cohort of students. Our cohort is impressive, to say the least, with many of us already serving as administrators or existing college instructors who are now seeking terminal degrees for tenure-track positions.

I hope that our experience in this ground-breaking program is just the first step of many to better allow a path to professorship for those transitioning mid-career. As we see the changing career paths around us for other industries, it should not be a surprise that the path to academia is also changing. Growing commitments to diversity and inclusion in higher education should also signal a focus on embracing ways we can bring rigorous academic training to more populations that can’t access in-person programs due to time, distance, and cost.

We can learn from pioneering programs like this new PhD program at UNCG. I suppose the proof will be in the contribution our cohort is able to make as professors and researchers. My fear, however, is that our results won’t be seen until four, five, or maybe 10 years from now, and meanwhile non-accredited schools will continue to push online doctoral programs with tenacity in sophisticated digital and social media ads . I see the risk here as producing a generation of new PhD or DBAs that are unemployable by accredited-business schools, forcing a further divide between in-person and online education.

We may not see a tidal wave of new doctoral students today justifying dozens of new PhD or DBA programs. But we know the education market can change drastically in a decade, as we have seen the pressure that MBA programs are facing today, we know that postsecondary enrollment has declined for the eighth straight year and we know that the number of high school graduates is declining . If we can embrace innovation now, we can be better assured that our institutions can adapt for what additional market changes are to come.

Heather Read
Graduate Program Manager, E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration, Coastal Carolina University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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