One of the questions most frequently asked by students considering a doctoral program in business and management is: What is the difference between a PhD in Management and a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA)? And then: which one for me?
In this post, the Scientific Director of the Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) Doctoral School and one of the founders of the Grenoble DBA, Professor Jean-Jacques Chanaron, discusses the key differences between these two doctoral degrees.
Two sides of the same coin
In many ways, a PhD program and a top-tier research-based DBA have more similarities than they do differences. Both rigorous degrees require a thesis, high-levels of expertise in a subject and an academic contribution. In each case, these programs aim for scientifically-established contributions to knowledge. These contributions are based on full-length dissertations and are evaluated according to an international standardized process, which include independent reviews and a public oral defense in front of a qualified academic panel.
The possibility for a publication-based DBA thesis, for example as at Grenoble, also underlines the similarities and scope for scientific contribution from a DBA that resonates with many PhD programs. Indeed a publication-based approach has been an option for PhD programs for some time although there remains some resistance in some university contexts. The level of the publication for PhD programs may be higher and the thesis scope is often broader.
The philosophy of the DBA has been to offer part-time research-based open program for top managers and executives seeking an academic qualification that would allow them to enter an internationally-accredited business school on a part-time or full-time basis. This qualification is normally achieved through an applied research project that often draws upon their own experience and privileged access to an organization or research terrain.
The drive to promote a greater academic contribution from DBAs reflects the rising standards for all forms of doctoral education in top business schools but there also remains a need to stay true to the guiding principle of a clear managerial contribution. At Grenoble there have been over 200 graduates from the DBA program with many publishing their work and teaching as faculty in business schools across the world, while retaining a focus on professional practice.
A PhD program is usually full-time with active participation in a research team at the host institution. These collaborations sometimes include requirements to work with a research team or faculty
member on specific projects.
For example, during their first training phase dedicated to learning research methods and techniques, PhD students at Grenoble attend more than 250 hours of training compared to approximately 140 hours of workshops for the DBA students (in Grenoble and at partner institutions worldwide).
Managerial experience is not a requirement for PhD students (although most PhD students have some, or even significant, managerial experience). DBA students, however, must have at least five years of executive experience according to the AMBA accreditation requirements. Instead PhD programs require demonstration of high intellectual abilities, an aptitude for research and a drive for an academic career.
Top PhD programs continue to push the standards in terms of publications and intellectual contributions from their students as the expectations of recruiting schools and the job market for faculty become more demanding.
The defining difference
There is a key characteristic that makes the DBA quite unique among the various doctoral options: DBA theses are required to present managerial and practical recommendations as part of their conclusions. This fundamental distinction is highlighted in the learning outcomes of each program. For example, the Assurance of Learning (AoL) for both DBA and PhD programs at Grenoble ensure quality student outcomes that are in line with AACSB requirements.
Objectives and Impact
While we observe many overlaps between the AoL for both PhD and DBA programs, the practical managerial impact of the DBA is its defining characteristic. DBAs make important contributions to what is sometimes called the “relevance gap” in academic management research. In other words, DBAs provide relevant and feasible recommendations to overcome real-life organizational challenges. In contrast, the AoL for PhD programs is focused on achieving advanced mastery of a wide range of research methodologies and management theories as well as developing pedagogical ability.
Two complementary doctoral options
In the end, there can be relatively little difference between a DBA and PhD dissertations when both are guided by a commitment to quality, scientific validity and managerial relevance. DBA and PhD programs are complementary parts of a business school portfolio since they meet the needs of two different types of candidates and two groups of stakeholders. DBAs provide academic qualification for experienced managers while PhDs provide motivated individuals with the opportunity for excellent scholarly achievements and the means to join business research faculty at higher education institutions.
The choice is yours.