An Executive DBA—The Next Step for Senior Leaders

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Monday, October 30, 2023
By Brian Cameron
Photo by iStock/skynesher
At a time when more high-level employees hold master’s degrees, executives can set themselves apart by pursuing doctorates in business administration.
  • Executive DBA programs are intended for working professionals and focus on topics that combine theory with current business issues.
  • At Penn State’s Smeal College, the three-year executive DBA is delivered in a hybrid format and features a curriculum built specifically for this audience.
  • The new Executive DBA builds the school’s brand, supports its research mission, and generates revenue for the school.

For managers in Europe and Asia who want to rise to top positions, the Executive Doctor of Business Administration (Executive DBA) often is viewed as a rite of passage. Now, the Executive DBA is gaining popularity among employees in North America as well.

“Executive doctoral degrees are terminal, doctoral degrees that are designed for working professionals,” according to the Executive DBA Council. “The research approach for an executive doctoral program is the ‘engaged scholarship’ model that focuses on topics at the intersection of theory and contemporary business issues.”

The heightened importance of the Executive DBA might be attributed to the fact that more people are earning MBAs and other master’s degrees—and earning them at younger ages. Therefore, senior managers are seeking other ways to differentiate themselves from their co-workers and improve their opportunities for advancement. While some executives are pursuing specialized master’s programs, others are looking at the Executive DBA as the next logical educational step.

This means that more business schools around the globe see the program as a necessary component of a comprehensive lifelong learning portfolio.

Gathering Support

At Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in University Park, we launched our own Executive DBA program in August 2023. We made the decision only after careful consideration.

We conducted a five-year market study using an external market analysis firm, and we engaged in much internal discussion and debate. The idea of an Executive DBA was controversial with some members of our community, who believed that the only doctoral-level offering should be a PhD program. Their fear was that the Executive DBA could damage our brand.

We also weighed input from Smeal alumni who had been telling us for years that we needed to offer an Executive DBA program. One even provided a multiyear donation to support recruiting efforts. Eventually, the program garnered enough support for us to move forward with the launch.

Creating the Program

Because we designed our Executive DBA to be a part-time program for working professionals, we chose to deliver it over a three-year period. During the first two years, students complete their coursework; during the third year, they develop their capstone research thesis. The program includes several features that we think sets it apart:

A hybrid delivery model. Students come to campus for three and a half days at the beginning of each semester (three times a year). Thereafter, they meet every two weeks through the weConnect live remote synchronous learning environment. The live remote sessions, which are conducted on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, provide highly interactive and engaging learning experiences. Working from specially designed studios, faculty teach as they would in a live face-to-face class.

More people are earning MBAs and other master’s degrees—and earning them at younger ages. Therefore, senior managers are earning Executive DBAs to differentiate themselves from their co-workers.

Targeted student advising. Rather than assembling a small pool of advisors who meet with all DBA students, we match each student with a primary advisor from throughout the Penn State system. These individuals not only consult with students on their research methods, but also advise them on their research subject areas.

To ensure we have a faculty advisor knowledgeable in the student’s research area, we identify these matches and secure the commitment from the faculty advisor before the student enters the program. Our team has built a database of interested faculty from across many Penn State colleges and campuses. For example, one of our current Executive DBA primary advisors comes from the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

A curriculum created solely for the Executive DBA student. We believed that if we merely repurposed DBA courses from our master’s programs, the new degree would look like a modified MBA and not serve this audience well. Unlike MBA courses, which provide a general business education—and PhD courses, which provide a grounding in research for candidates who want to pursue academic careers—Executive DBA courses focus on how theoretical knowledge can be applied to real-world business problems. Therefore, we built the curriculum from the ground up to suit the needs of the practitioner researcher.

Except for two elective concentration courses, all courses are unique to the Executive DBA program. For these elective concentrations, students can choose two classes from our large online portfolio of graduate certificates, which cover topics such as business analytics, strategic leadership, negotiation and influence, business sustainability strategy, and management consulting. Students can choose from among 16 different concentration areas.

A global immersion option. In our new one-year MBA program, we require students to participate in a weeklong global immersion at one of several selected locations. The experience is optional for other students taking courses from Smeal’s professional graduate portfolio. Participants in the new DBA program can choose to participate in one or more of these global opportunities.

Reviewing Initial Results

While we believed the Smeal Executive DBA program offered an attractive educational experience that would perform well in the marketplace, we knew we couldn’t be certain until it was launched. Our goal was to enroll 25 students in the first iteration of the program, though some of our team thought that was too ambitious.

But by mid-spring, we had filled all 25 slots and started a waiting list. When several students deferred enrollment to the following year, we were able to pull names from our waiting list. Ultimately, we ended up with 24 students in our inaugural class.

Over time, the program will support our research mission, because senior-level executives already have been providing our faculty and PhD students with access to data.

The members of this class are very senior executives with an average of 22 years of work experience. They represent corporate and public organizations from a wide variety of industries, and they hail from 10 U.S. states and five countries. About one-third are women, 20 percent are veterans or active military personnel, and 45 percent are Penn State alumni. We reached many of these candidates through internal marketing to our alumni, and word-of-mouth advertising has also helped us spread the word.

For the future, our enrollment goal is 30 students per class, and we expect to achieve that number in the coming year.

Recognizing the Benefits

While we believe more benefits will become obvious over time, three have emerged very quickly:

  • The new program appears to have resonated with students, who have provided early feedback indicating a high level of satisfaction with its hybrid format. Although the program is in its first year, it also has been viewed positively by the larger market—we recently scored the No. 1 spot in an online DBA ranking.
  • Over time, the program will support our research mission, because senior-level executives already have been providing our faculty and PhD students with access to data.
  • Because participants pay 130,000 USD for the program, it generates revenue that can be used to strengthen our PhD programs and research efforts. By contrast, most residential PhD students receive full scholarships and stipends, so the programs often are a net cost to the institution.

As more schools begin to offer their own Executive DBA programs, we know that we will need to continually innovate to make sure our program remains an attractive choice—for our alumni and other executives looking to take the next educational step to enhance their careers.

Brian Cameron
Associate Dean, Professional Graduate Programs and Executive Education, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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