Ideas & Innovation

PhD Programs for Executives Gain Traction


Business schools are seeking to take executive education to the next level, with a growing number offering niche doctoral programs aimed at senior-level managers either looking to shift to academia or to bring high-level research skills into the workplace.

Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business in Atlanta introduced a new Executive Doctorate in Business program in 2009 aimed at chief executives and other high-ranking corporate managers, while neighboring Kennesaw State University's Coles College of Business in Kennesaw, Ga., created a Doctorate of Business Administration program in 2008. Oklahoma State University's Spears School of Business in Stillwater is planning to launch a management doctoral program in the next 12 months, the school said.

Less than a dozen accredited business schools offer these types of business professional doctorates in the U.S., according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), one of the leading accreditation agencies for business schools, which tracks doctoral degrees programs. In the past few years, interest in programs like these has grown as high-level managers seek a more rigorous academic experience than the typical executive education classes or executive roundtables offered at business schools, says Andy Policano, chairman of AACSB's board and dean of the University of California-Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business.

"The main reason these programs are springing up in the U.S. is there seems to be a market," Policano says. "There are more and more executives willing to pay a fairly high tuition to take this kind of program on, so now it becomes a legitimate business model for schools to offer."

For Experienced Senior Execs

Most of these professional doctoral programs differ from traditional PhD programs in that they are part-time, can usually be completed in three years, and are aimed at working senior executives with advanced degrees and at least 15 years of work experience, Policano says. Typically, he adds, they encourage research that executives can apply directly back to the business world.

At Georgia State, students in the school's new executive doctoral program, which costs about $100,000 for three years, are required to come to the school's Atlanta campus for a three-day residency at the school, says Maury Kalnitz, the program's director. He reports that so far the school has been able to attract executives from IBM (IBM), Google (GOOG), and Citigroup (C) who are, on average, 45 years old and have 16 years of management experience. The program has about 38 students enrolled so far, Kalnitz says.

Students take classes that teach them how to conduct formal academic research, and later the school pairs them with a faculty adviser who works with students on their 100-page dissertation, which they are expected to submit to an academic journal for publication. Unlike typical doctoral programs, where students look for jobs in academia after graduating, almost all of the participants in the Robinson program plan to go back into the business world, says Lars Mathiassen, the program's academic director.

"The primary purpose of the program is to develop better executives," Mathiassen says. "It hits the sweet spot between business schools and the business world."

As a Kind of "Personal Quest"

The program has attracted such students as Jeanette Miller, 43, of Marietta, Ga., an executive with 17 years' experience who is a consultant with 360°td, an international consulting firm that works in emerging markets in Central Asia and Southeast Europe. She started the program last fall and now spends 30 to 40 hours a week reviewing academic papers, working on research projects with classmates, and planning her dissertation, which she says will examine sustainability and corporate social responsibility at multinational companies. She says she hopes eventually to translate her research findings to her job and implement change in her field.

"People don't go into a program like this at 45 or 50 years old to make another $100,000 on their base salary. It seems like we're all doing this more for a personal quest and the desire to make a difference somehow in the world at large," says Miller, who is paying for the program herself. "I feel like the doctorate gives you entrée into a realm where you can actually do that."

Kennesaw State's business school is seeking to attract a different type of student than Georgia State, primarily executives who want to have a second career as a professor at the university level, says Joe Hair, executive director of the school's Doctorate of Business Administration program.

Kennesaw's program, which costs $83,475 for three years, has strict admission standards; to apply, students must first attend a research workshop and later complete and submit a research proposal. Students who are admitted attend weekend residencies on campus, learning about research methods and academic theory, and eventually they produce a dissertation. Forty-two students are currently enrolled, and the school is in the process of recruiting its third cohort of students, Hair says.

An Avenue into Teaching

About one-third of the executives, who average around 50 years old, are already teaching at business schools, and many others plan to shift into academia after graduation or later in their careers, he said. Students are attracted to the program because it will allow them to become "academically qualified," a designation by the AACSB that will allow them to land better-paying and more secure jobs at universities when they graduate, says Hair.

"There is a huge demand for this program because it is a step beyond executive education," Hair explains, noting that more than 250 students have showed up at the program's information sessions in each of the past two years.

Jerry Kudlats, 59, joined Kennesaw as a student last fall. He was ready for a second career as a university professor but was unable to commit to a full-time PhD program, he says. He has been working for 35 years and has owned his own business, JK Consulting Services, for the past 16 years. The Kennesaw program was an ideal fit for him, Kudlats says, because it was close to his home and he could do it part-time. "The traditional PhD program just wasn't going to work, because I couldn't afford to stop working and go to school full-time," he says. "When the Kennesaw program came out, it was the perfect match for me."

Catching on Elsewhere

Professional doctoral programs are more prevalent in Europe and Australia than in the U.S., says T. Grandon Gill, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Business in Tampa. The U.K. has at least 16 doctorate of business administration programs, and at least 20 such programs were created in Australia from 1993 to 2005, says Gill, who co-wrote a journal article on the programs last year. The programs are also popular in Germany, where an estimated 58.5 percent of executives hold doctoral degrees, compared with just 5.6 percent of CEOs in the U.S., according to a study cited in Gill's article.

The programs have not caught on to the same extent in the U.S. because of widespread faculty resistance to starting these programs. Many worry that starting an alternative professional doctoral program would taint the reputation of their traditional PhD programs, Gill says. That could be starting to change, he adds, especially as financially strapped business schools look for additional sources of revenue in the next few years.

Says Gill: "Schools may find these to be very attractive types of programs because they can be real revenue generators."

More U.S. Schools Join the Trend

Oklahoma State University's Spears School of Business plans on launching a professional doctorate of management program for executives, which should be up and running within the next 12 months, says Larry Crosby, the school's dean. The program would have two tracks, one for students interested in becoming professors and another for those who want to remain in the business world, he says.

"There is a very strong groundswell of interest in starting such a program at our school," says Crosby, who has formed a committee at his school to design the program. "I think this is one of those areas that is still in the early stages in management education. Schools that get on this bandwagon in the next two to three years will be the innovators in this field, and we intend to be on that trajectory."

Schools in the U.S. and abroad are trying to capitalize on the growing interest in executive doctorates by starting an association of business schools that offer these programs, says Georgia State's Mathiassen. Founding members include Georgia State, Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management, Paris-Dauphine University in France, the Cranfield School of Management in Britain, and Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. The group plans to organize an annual conference for schools that run these programs, as well as serve as a resource for students, Mathiassen says.

"We see this as a growing trend," he says, "so we want to help develop the brand and increase the quality of the programs, as well as get more schools involved."

Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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