When you conjure up the image of a doctor in your head, you’re much more likely to see white coats than you are Wharton, or more likely think of scrubs before Stanford GSB.
But it is possible to become so highly qualified in the world of business that you can become a Doctor in the subject. An academic accolade even the likes of Tim Cook, Sheryl Sandberg or Shaquille O’Neal can’t claim (though Shaq does have an MBA and a doctorate degree in Education, and has considered going to law school).
The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is certainly a lesser-known business school program compared to the ubiquitous MBA. There are only around 275 DBA programs globally, despite an estimated 13,000 business schools around the world. And given the relatively small class size of a DBA, typically with only a handful of participants, there are only a small number of graduates each year. The three to five years usually required to complete the program might be dissuasive – in that time you could do a Masters in Management, an MBA and then an Executive MBA, and at a small fraction of the cost.
For Professor Nora Colton, Director of UCL Global Business School for Health in London, which offers a DBA specifically focused on the health sector, the DBA is less well known in part because of the confusion surrounding it. “The DBA is often confused with a PhD, which many professionals don’t associate with themselves,” she explains. “Many individuals will get an MBA and then focus on executive education and short courses for life-long learning rather than return for a degree such as a DBA.”
The UCL DBA Health provides a professional doctorate degree for individuals in health-related fields who want applied research skills to address health sector challenges. “This DBA Health is particularly needed, now more than ever before,” insists Nora Colton, “as the health sector is undergoing radical change to meet the demand for healthcare services.”
Confusion about what the degree entails is also an issue, Professor Brecht Cardoen, Academic Director of the DBA at Vlerick Business School in Belgium. “The DBA can be very confusing,” Professor Cardoen says. “Some vary between three and five years, and may not include a PhD. Those like the Vlerick DBA are a blended doctoral program with a Joint PhD degree from Ghent University and KU Leuven. But you’ll be developing the skills and knowledge to carry out innovative, ground-breaking and impactful research, and gain academic expertise in a topic relevant to your organisation.”
The DBA certainly requires commitment. Professor Lloyd Harris, Director of the Alliance Manchester Business School DBA, believes that often “just the very idea of doing of doctorate intimidates some candidates”. Professor Harris describes the program as one for candidates who need “the tenaciousness of a bulldog, the drive of a Formula 1 car, and a healthy dose of self-reflection” – so perhaps questioning your abilities and knowledge before taking on a DBA is a good thing.
Though the majority of DBA programs were launched in the last decade, demand is growing. The small number of participants on the program is a key reason why they are so impactful, according to Professor Because Yan, Director of the DBA at Durham University Business School. “DBAs are not about cohort growth or income generation per se, but rather they are excellent vehicles through which to work with small groups of senior executives, and provide an in-depth understanding on their research problems and teaching and supervision activities addressing them”.
As a research degree, the Durham DBA offers skills and capabilities to discriminate between managerial ‘wisdom’ and the results of rigorous, and relevant research. “We educate our students to engage both through the research philosophy and ethics, and the research methodology workshops,” explains Professor Yan.
The need for DBAs to stay as small cohorts, with emphasis on knowledge generation and an impactful experience for the participants is echoed by Professor Cardoen at Vlerick Business School, who agrees that though demand is increasing, “we should not loosen the standards of quality and research integrity. Because doctoral research has such high criteria, obviously there will be a smaller pool of candidates, but the DBA is not and should not be about volume,” he says.
So, bar the length of the program, how does the structure of the DBA actually differ from MBA? In many ways the DBA is the inverse of all other business school programs – instead of 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 seek to improve their critical thinking and research skills whilst also pursuing their profession,” says Professor Harris, who states that the Alliance Manchester DBA is focused on Original Thinking Applied. He adds that the 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 application of this thinking to present and future practice”.
The background of DBA participants is very different to those of other business school programmes, points out Professor Colton at UCL Global Business School for Health. “DBA candidates will have at least seven years of work experience, many with more, and will have usually already completed an MBA or MSc degree. Most of these individuals will come from senior management backgrounds, having been in a leadership role of some type within an organization, or entrepreneurs with business experience, possibly in the start-up space,” she says.
And their goals from the program are also different, says Professor Yan at Durham. “DBA participants seek training in research with a business orientation, and many 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 highly specific areas or topics.”
It was intellectual curiosity that led Sola Sonuga, a director at investment banking company UBS, to take on the Durham-Emlyon Global DBA program. Sola was intrigued to know more about how business-related research makes technology a ‘differentiator’ as opposed to an ‘enabler’ in companies and industry sectors. “I wanted to learn how to develop the capability required to contribute to the use of business theory and professional practice in a manner that could transform firms, business models and ecosystems.”
Sola had previously spent 25 years working in blue-chip companies including Nissan, Vodafone and Anglo American to address and manage many business-related challenges. He believes that the DBA has already impacted his career. “It’s early days”, he says, “but my outlook and perspective on what previously looked like ‘impossible business problems’ has changed. The knowledge I learned, combined with business experience is now making the 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 School of Business. Sari’s objective was to take on the DBA to enrich her thinking and strengthen her own capabilities both as a leader and in the field of academia. “My aim was to strengthen the skillset I have spent decades developing during my career in various leadership roles”, she says, “and now I am extremely fortunate to teach youngsters and support their path into the business world.”
Sari believes that having high-quality supervisors is a differential for the DBA program, and something that opened many doors for her. “I was fortunate enough to have superb supervisors, who introduced me to others in the academic world. The strong DBA alumni group 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 the action. The DBA is not for those looking simply looking to step up the career ladder, boost their earnings or gain general knowledge on business. Rather, it is for the curious among us, the ones who want to become experts in their dedicated field, and those who want to contribute and have a real, positive impact on society – perhaps not so different in the end to the Doctors we see in our hospital.