The Doctoral Difference Sets Executives Apart

Article Icon Article
Tuesday, September 5, 2023
By Susan Mangiero
Photo by iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen
Doctoral education prepares global managers to strategize, balance theory with practice, and lead organizations through complex times.
  • Executives pursue terminal business degrees because they want to stand apart from their peers, learn how to better manage their companies, and achieve personal growth.
  • Working professionals seek doctoral programs that provide them with flexible scheduling and allow them to customize their studies to satisfy their job requirements.
  • Business schools should request input from both recent graduates and corporate partners to design programs that meet the needs of executives and employers.

Challenging times call for innovative solutions. As mid-career managers begin looking for new ways to solve today’s problems, many are enrolling in PhD programs or Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) programs where they can learn how to make a difference in the business world.

Because they tend to offer flexible schedules and combine academic rigor with a focus on practicality, DBA programs are especially attractive to executives. Anca Micu, senior associate dean at Fairfield University’s Charles F. Dolan School of Business in Connecticut, offers three more reasons that DBA programs appeal to working professionals.

“First, MBAs are ubiquitous. The DBA is a differentiator for a mid-level careerist seeking to advance,” she says. “Second, the DBA is a terminal degree and hence qualifies holders for a permanent university teaching position should they decide to leave their industry jobs. Third, low-residency DBA programs can be finished in three years with a combination of weekend meetings, assignments that immediately contribute to dissertations, and industry brainstorming intensives that feature prominent experts.”

Individuals who recently earned their DBA credentials cite additional reasons why they decided to pursue their degrees. For Jenny Hite, a partner with Madison Street Wealth Advisors of Raymond James in Huntsville, Alabama, taking classes at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield offered her a chance to follow her passion for learning. “I wanted to be uncomfortable in my career, to stretch myself,” Hite explains. Now she uses knowledge acquired through her DBA program to help clients realize their dreams, whether it’s retiring comfortably, buying a house, or funding tuition for their children.

“MBAs are ubiquitous. The DBA is a differentiator for a mid-level careerist seeking to advance.”—Anca Micu, Fairfield University

Jeffrey Palma, head of Multi-Asset Solutions for investment firm Cohen & Steers in New York City, credits his studies at Sacred Heart University with giving him a much deeper understanding of financial markets. He adds, “The doctorate degree is so much more than the MBA if your goal, like mine, is personal and professional edification.”

“I like to learn, and I wanted to be reintroduced to the research process and improve my critical thinking skills,” says Marcia Layton Turner, head of the Association of Ghostwriters in Rochester, New York. She received her DBA degree from Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia.

But DBA programs do much more than satisfy an individual’s desire to learn and grow. They also serve a broader societal purpose, according to Lily Bi, the new president and CEO of AACSB International. By bringing together businesspeople and academics, Bi emphasizes, these programs create leaders who have “the problem-solving skills to reinvent business, help economies thrive, and ensure the well-being of society.”

Seeking a Career Boost

Newly minted DBAs and PhDs say there’s another advantage to attending doctoral programs in business: Individuals who earned terminal degrees tend to command more respect from bosses and colleagues.

For instance, Tiffany Gherlone, head of U.S. real estate asset management at a large global finance firm, believes that her DBA finance degree from Sacred Heart gives her added authority when she talks to media outlets or speaks at conferences. When she applied for a promotion to become a managing director, “it set me apart from other candidates who had stopped their education at the MBA level.”

“The doctorate degree is so much more than the MBA if your goal, like mine, is personal and professional edification.”—Jeffrey Palma, Cohen & Steers

Because she knows how much work goes into earning a terminal degree, Gherlone gives it extra weight when she is hiring for her own team, serving as an angel investor, or advising other executives.

“It’s difficult to get a sense of a person’s potential during a short interview, but if I know interviewees have completed or are in the process of completing a DBA or PhD, I know they have a natural inclination to dig deeper with their research,” Gherlone says. “I know they understand how a formula or financial theory came about and can critically evaluate the appropriateness of its use.”

That ability to think critically is an “incredible skill” candidates possess once they graduate from doctoral programs, says Arun Muralidhar. He is co-founder of Mcube Investment Technologies LLC, which is headquartered in Plano, Texas, and has a technology unit in Bengaluru, India; and AlphaEngine Global Investment Solutions LLC, also in Plano.

“If I know interviewees have completed a DBA or PhD, I know they have a natural inclination to dig deeper with their research.”—Tiffany Gherlone, real estate asset manager

“To write your thesis, you must come up with a novel thought or idea to research and test,” says Muralidhar, who earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “You can only get there by questioning the status quo or uncovering something that has not been addressed before.”

After months of hard work, he adds, candidates must “present their new or innovative idea to a group of people who question them and force a persuasive defense.”

Communicating With Industry

Even so, not all employers automatically recognize the value of terminal degrees. For that reason, it’s important for college and university board members, advisors, alumni, and donors to become cheerleaders for DBA and PhD programs.

These stakeholders can help get the word out about why and how companies can benefit from recruiting graduates with doctorates. They can make it clear that—by virtue of completing coursework, conducting research, and interacting with experts—graduates have proved they can manage the complex situations that characterize the modern commercial landscape.

Schools can promote the value of doctoral degrees by holding information sessions aimed at HR executives, recruiters, and senior managers looking to hire the best talent to drive long-term corporate growth.

“To write your thesis, you must come up with a novel thought or idea to research and test. You can only get there by questioning the status quo.”—Arun Muralidhar, Mcube Investment Technologies

Just as important, business schools can seek feedback from potential employers to make sure their doctoral programs suit the needs of industry. For instance, before Fairfield University greenlit its own DBA program, it talked extensively with members of its business school advisory board, many of whom work at well-known multinational firms. School leaders then shaped the curriculum with their input.

As a result of this collaborative program design, Fairfield requires DBA students to immediately start work on their dissertations. This enables candidates to apply their new knowledge to their current jobs right away. Such a consideration is particularly important for candidates whose tuition has been underwritten by their employers, who want to see a positive return on their investments in employee training.

Seeking Feedback From Graduates

Business schools that want to turbocharge their doctoral programs should do more than consult with potential employers. They also should survey DBA and PhD graduates. After all, candidates will spend three to five years of their lives in such programs. They’ll be missing out on time with family and friends so they can attend rigorous symposiums, crunch data, and experience lonely hours with their laptops.

How can schools make certain their programs are worth the tradeoffs? Recent doctoral students offer advice:

Make sure everyone involved knows the pertinent facts. If all professors and administrators are aware of deadlines and requirements, frustrated students won’t waste time or miss deadlines. Says Layton Turner, “A failure to communicate clearly and consistently about expectations runs contrary to the concepts of efficiency and team building. It unnecessarily adds to already high stress levels.”

“You need to get all students on the same level in terms of writing quality and research documentation.” —Marcia Layton Turner, Association of Ghostwriters

Add mandatory writing and editing courses. This is necessary, Layton Turner believes, so every candidate in the cohort has the skills to deliver “an understandable dissertation for eventual publication.” While Layton Turner is a writer, her colleagues in the DBA program were engineers, lawyers, liberal arts majors, and business managers. “You need to get all students on the same level in terms of writing quality and research documentation,” she adds.

Add a required finance class. Palma was the only one in his cohort who had been a practitioner in investment management, and he observed his peers struggling with concepts that linked economics and financial markets. He asks, “Why not mandate a preparatory course that helps incoming candidates familiarize themselves with definitions, formulas, and financial market fundamentals?”

Make sure candidates have the necessary skills in statistical software programs. “A required orientation workshop about quantitative evaluation tools will do wonders to ensure students’ productivity from the outset,” suggests Hite. “Mature candidates are accustomed to using technology for work, but we are not technical experts. I literally downloaded product manuals and asked tons of questions.”

Provide opportunities for participants to meet with outside speakers. “Networking is so critical to business success,” says Gherlone. She advocates for schools to offer these opportunities either as components of courses or as special events for alumni and current students. She adds, “I loved meeting new people during my DBA studies. I still attend as many events as my calendar allows.”

Furthermore, such events help working professionals understand new knowledge that may have originated in academic research—and that helps them find and retain jobs. “This topic of relevancy comes up in board searches,” Gherlone says. “We want applicants who are actively practicing the best of what research has to offer.”

“A required orientation workshop about quantitative evaluation tools will do wonders to ensure students’ productivity from the outset.”—Jenny Hite, Madison Street Wealth Advisors

Be receptive to new ideas. Muralidhar notes that doctoral students may have difficulty getting gatekeepers to appreciate their research. He points out that journals have opaque selection criteria that determine what submissions are published or rejected, and academic conferences sometimes stubbornly resist allowing open discussions on what might be characterized as unorthodox research. More openness would encourage candidates to pursue promising ideas.

Focus on students. When Muralidhar was working on his PhD, he did a stint as an EMBA teaching assistant, and he witnessed professors who were obsessed with doing consulting. He says, “Some professors treat the students as secondary to lucrative corporate work. It’s paramount to put students first.”

Looking Toward a Promising Future

Academic leaders can ensure their doctoral programs flourish by observing successful curricular structures at other schools, asking companies what skills they need, offering flexibility and customization to their doctoral students, and listening to what their own candidates have in mind for their personal and professional objectives.

Executives who are considering doctoral education can start by determining their own goals. For example, would they prefer the more academic focus and immersive nature of a PhD program or the flexibility and practical approach of a DBA? Are they looking for programs delivered primarily in-person or at least partially online? Have they identified which schools offer programs in their preferred areas of research? Prospective students might start by reading about the experiences of doctoral graduates, exploring lists of institutions with DBA programs, and seeking out accredited programs.

By focusing on these elements, colleges and universities will play a large part in training individuals with a passion for business excellence. Schools will have a chance to welcome cohorts of doctoral students who will arrive on campus, says Micu, “brimming with energy and purpose.”

Susan Mangiero
Financial Writer and Researcher
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.