When you conjure up the image of a doctor in your head, you’re far more likely to see white coats than a Wharton, or more likely to think scrubs before Stanford GSB.
But it is possible to become so highly skilled in the business world that you become a PhD in the subject. Academic recognition not even the likes of Tim Cook, Sheryl Sandberg or Shaquille O’Neal can claim (although Shaq has an MBA and a PhD in education and has considered going to law school).
The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is certainly a lesser-known business school program than the ubiquitous MBA. There are only about 275 DBA programs worldwide, despite approximately 13,000 business schools worldwide. And given the relatively small size of the DBA class, usually only a handful of participants, there are only a small number of graduates each year. The three to five years it usually takes to complete the program can be a deterrent – in that time you can get an MBA, an MBA and then an Executive MBA at a fraction of the cost.
For Professor Nora Colton, director of the UCL Global Business School for Health in London, which offers a DBA specifically focused on the healthcare sector, the DBA is less well known partly because of the confusion surrounding it. “A DBA is often confused with a PhD, which many professionals don’t associate with themselves,” she explains. “Many people will get an MBA and then focus on higher education and short courses for lifelong learning instead of going back for a degree like a DBA.”
The UCL DBA Health provides a professional PhD for individuals in health-related fields who want applied research skills to address challenges in the health sector. “This DBA Health is especially needed now more than ever,” insists Nora Colton, “as the health sector undergoes radical change to meet the demand for health services.”
Confusion about what the degree entails is also a problem, says Professor Brecht Cardoen, academic director of the DBA at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. “DBA can be very confusing,” says Professor Cardoen. “Some range between three and five years and may not include a Ph.D. Those like the Vlerick DBA are a blended PhD program with a joint PhD from Ghent University and KU Leuven. But you will develop the skills and knowledge to conduct innovative, ground-breaking and impactful research and gain academic experience in a topic relevant to your organisation.’
A DBA certainly requires commitment. Professor Lloyd Harris, DBA director at Alliance Manchester Business School, believes that often “the very idea of a PhD scares some applicants”. Professor Harris describes the program as one for candidates who need “the tenacity of a bulldog, the driving of a Formula 1 car and a healthy dose of self-reflection” – so maybe questioning your abilities and knowledge before undertaking the DBA is a Good Thing .
Although the majority of DBA programs were launched in the last decade, the demand is growing. The program’s small number of participants is a key reason why it is so impactful, according to Professor Karena Jan, Director of DBA at Durham University Business School. “DBAs are not about cohort growth or revenue generation per se, but rather they are excellent vehicles for working with small groups of senior executives and providing a deep understanding of their research issues and teaching and supervisory activities directed at them” .
As a research degree, the Durham DBA offers the skills and ability to distinguish between management ‘wisdom’ and the results of rigorous and relevant research. “We train our students to engage both through the research philosophy and ethics and through the research methodology workshops,” explains Professor Yang.
The need for DBAs to remain small cohorts, with an emphasis on knowledge generation and an impactful experience for participants, is echoed by Professor Cardoen of the Vlerick Business School, who agrees that although demand is increasing, “we must not relax quality standards and research integrity. Because PhD research has such high criteria, there will obviously be a smaller pool of applicants, but the DBA is not and should not be about volume,” he says.
So, aside from the length of the program, how does the structure of a DBA actually differ from an MBA? In many ways, the DBA is the opposite of all other business school programs—rather than turning knowledge into action, the DBA looks at generating that knowledge through rigorous research.
“The DBA is designed to meet the needs of senior professionals who are looking to improve their critical thinking and research skills while practicing their profession,” says Professor Harris, who says the Alliance Manchester DBA is focused on Applied original thinking. He adds that a DBA requires not only originality in developing a research project that addresses new and important problems in business and management, but also rigorous thinking in its theoretical framework and applying that thinking to current and future practice”.
The professorship of DBA participants is very different to that of other business school programmes, points out Professor Colton of the UCL Global Business School for Health. “DBA candidates will have at least seven years of work experience, many with more, and will usually have already completed an MBA or Masters degree. Most of these individuals will come from senior management having held a leadership role of some type in an organization or entrepreneurs with business experience, possibly in the startup space,” she says.
And their program goals are also different, says Professor Jan from Durham. “DBA participants seek research training with a business orientation and many of them either want to work in academia, consulting and research positions, or are business owners who would like to develop themselves and their business through research . DBA participants may also want to become academic experts in very specific fields or topics.
It was intellectual curiosity that led Sola Sonuga, a director at investment banking firm UBS, to take on the Durham-Emlyon Global DBA program. Sola was intrigued to learn more about how business-related research makes technology a “differentiator” rather than an “enabler” in companies and industry sectors. “I wanted to learn how to develop the capability needed to contribute to the use of business theory and professional practice in a way that can transform firms, business models and ecosystems.”
Sola previously spent 25 years working at blue chip companies including Nissan, Vodafone and Anglo American to address and manage many business challenges. He believes DBA has already influenced his career. “It’s early,” he says, “but my perspective and perspective on what used to seem like ‘impossible business problems’ has changed. The knowledge I learned combined with business experience now makes so-called ‘impossible business problems’ solvable!”
The same can be said for Sari Haavisto, a teacher at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki, who pursued a DBA at Finland’s Aalto University Business School. Sari’s goal was to undertake the DBA to enrich her thinking and strengthen her own abilities both as a leader and in academia. “My goal was to strengthen the skill set I’ve developed over decades during my career in various leadership positions,” she says, “and now I’m extremely happy to teach young people and support their way into the business world.”
Sari believes that having high-quality supervisors is a differentiator for the DBA program and something that opens many doors for her. “I was fortunate to have great supervisors who introduced me to others in the academic world. The strong group of DBA alumni also has a wide range of professionals from different fields – this network is very valuable.”
The DBA is a rigorous program choice – steeped in academic research and focused on turning knowledge into action. A DBA is not for those who simply want to climb the career ladder, increase their income, or gain general business knowledge. Rather, it’s for the curious among us, those who want to become experts in their field, and those who want to contribute and have a real, positive impact on society – perhaps not so different after all from the doctors we see in our hospitals.