From MBA to DBA: Taking your (lifelong) learning to a new dimension

Could life-long learning no longer be just the preserve of those who pay for their education? And could the DBA ultimately benefit mainstream academic thinking at doctoral level and bring it closer to the realities of business practice? Stephen Platt finds out

The very first thing going through your mind after an MBA is unlikely to be the options for pursuing your studies, and especially on a doctoral programme that will take four to six years to complete.

For many MBA graduates, the knowledge and the high-level business and management skills acquired during their programme of study will be sufficient from a professional perspective. And from a personal point of view, most graduates will quite rightly also see this demanding and hard-earned qualification as the culmination in their learning journey through higher education.

But for an increasing number of MBA-qualified business practitioners, there will come a point when they feel the need to take their learning to a new dimension. This may come sooner or later in a career, and for a variety of reasons that will be very different from those that motivated them to do an MBA.

Whereas the motivation to undertake an MBA was likely to have been primarily professional, the managers we talk to applying to join a DBA programme mention a much wider range of reasons for pursuing their studies, including both personal and professional motivations.

In his 2017 book How to successfully complete your DBA?, Michel Kalika sums up some of these as follows.

Motivations for enrolling on a DBA programme

Taken from How to successfully complete your DBA? By Michel Kalika (2017)

More recently we have been seeing a recurring trend emerging from discussions with our participants and graduates about the impact of DBA studies on their lives, who very often underline the importance of developing the ability to stand back from their practice and a deeper understanding of their work. We therefore decided to carry out an in-house survey to better understand this phenomenon, which resulted in the following model.

A model for describing the impact of DBA studies Business Science Institute

Business Science institute (2020)

The model suggest that those managers enrolled on or having recently completed a DBA decided to join the programme to develop skills that go beyond the learning and application of course content that is the focus of an MBA. This is almost certainly linked to the profile of DBA participants, who given their seniority and management responsibilities are likely to be on the frontline of their organisations in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) market.

It also means that in terms of (lifelong) learning a doctoral-level programme is probably the only real option for a formal, structured approach that will enable them to develop over time the sort of deep learning and critical thinking skills required to face the wicked challenges frequently encountered in modern-day business contexts at senior management level.

In our experience, applicants who arrive at this point in their thinking in terms of personal and professional development, are often tempted to compare the DBA with a traditional PhD programme. Under the influence of mainstream academic thinking, they perceive the DBA as an inferior model of the PhD, whereas these two forms of doctoral-level studies have been designed with very different purposes in mind and for a very different type of student. Such questions during the admissions procedure are a regular occurrence, and a certain number of the websites of the 11 DBA programmes accredited by AMBA have been careful to provide guidance on this point. For example, Henley Business School offers applicants a short but effective explanation of the difference between the DBA and the PhD:

DBA and PhDs – equal but different: The DBA has both rigour and relevance as it contributes to theory and practice in business and management. The DBA typically focuses on research ‘in’ organisations rather than research ‘on’ organisations. It involves cross-disciplinary work and mixed methods and contribute to developing your own practice and development.

It is partly due to mainstream academic thinking that the perceived gulf between academic thought and business practice still exists, whereas a DBA programme brings together thought and reality for the benefit of the participant, their organisation and ultimately society by generating impact through the thesis writing process. This is an important consideration for an MBA graduate in a senior management position now looking to pursue their learning in answer to the question ‘what am I going to get out of it?’.

On a DBA, beyond the taught components delivered at the start of the programme designed to enable participants to develop comprehensive knowledge about research methods, the manager will then be allocated an academic supervisor for the remaining phases of the programme to assist them with work on a thesis topic specifically chosen because of its relevance to their practice.

This structured encounter between experts with very different ways of approaching and understanding the same topic is in fact the driving force behind a DBA programme. Indeed, at Business Science Institute, one of the key motivations of faculty on our DBA programme is the opportunity to confront their academic rigour and knowledge of a particular domain with the real-world expertise of executives, managers, and leaders.

This quasi peer-to-peer and mutually reinforcing learning experience, which aims to create knowledge and generate recommendations with real-world managerial impact, is very different to what can be offered by an MBA programme or other Executive Education course.

What VUCA really means for you

Taken from a 2014 article in Harvard Business Review by  Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine

The DBA involves a process of transforming practical experience into a scientific format through individual critical thinking that is guided over a period of several years through a form of dialogue between practitioner and academic expert (according to academics Florence Laval and Aurélie Dudézert in the 2019 book Entrepreneur à l’université).

The Business Science Institute model for describing the impact of DBA studies shows that this has the effect of reshaping participants’ management practice, enabling them to better understand their own work and ultimately that of other experts with whom they interact.

For example, questioning how they use the knowledge at their disposal, and questioning how they know what they think they know, is a form of self-reflection that is fundamental in helping managers gain perspective on their day-to-day operations and in developing into continually reflective practitioners capable of not only taking a step back from their work, but also thinking out of the box and going the extra mile to improve their performance.  

Looking at the Harvard Business Review guide above for ‘identifying, getting ready for, and responding to events in each of the four VUCA categories’, it therefore becomes easy to understand how the encounter between academic rigour and practical experience offered by a DBA programme can help managers meet their everyday business demands.

Challenges and opportunities

The DBA is a game changer for higher education, attracting in a new category of participants with deep business experience who are simultaneously peers and students to the academics who teach and supervise them. Whilst this is potentially a win-win situation for all concerned if the opportunity is seized properly, supervisors find themselves in new roles and new academic spaces, requiring a different set of skills.

Could life-long learning no longer be just the preserve of those who pay for their education? And could the DBA ultimately benefit mainstream academic thinking at doctoral level and bring it closer to the realities of business practice?

At Business Science Institute, those at the origin of the programme in 2013 see the DBA as the ‘new MBA’, in other words as the new benchmark qualification for senior managers. As demand therefore continues to increase, the difficulty for those institutions providing DBA programmes will be in finding enough supervisors with the appropriate skills and teams who are able to cover the diversity of ‘in’ business topics chosen by practitioners. Finally, it is our belief that online DBA provision in conjunction with residential-type physical sessions will become increasingly prevalent now that institutions, staff, and participants have experienced new technologies in practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Born in England, Stephen Platt has an MBA in Higher Education Management from UCL. He has been in the French education system for more than 30 years and worked at Groupe ESC Pau from 1998 to 2017 where he held a variety of management positions.

His company, The Academic Translator, works with French Higher Education Institutions to boost their international brand image, translating, copy-editing, and writing documents in English.

Stephen is also Expert Associé at HEADway People recruitment consultancy, and Quality and Accreditation Manager for the Business Science Institute in Luxembourg where he has been involved in the design and delivery of the AMBA-accredited Executive DBA programme since 2018.

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