After having earned your MBA you may be thinking of taking your education to the final level. And since the terminal degree for any track in school is the research doctorate, you might be looking at the Doctor of Business Administration program to complete the educational phase of your life.

If you think that deciding to take up an MBA degree was worse than choosing a college course, jumping into the DBA program may be the worst. Other than having the same reasons as the MBA of juggling time, money, career, family, and friends, having to deal with being older can be quite the stumbling block.

I'll admit that taking up medicine or law is tough. However, most people do this right after finishing a four-year college degree, which still puts them at peak of health. This means that students are able to tolerate long study periods with little to no sleep, are able to get by with skipping meals, and are able to rely on a memory that may be at its sharpest.

By contrast, DBA studies in most countries can only be started after earning an MBA degree, which in itself can take four years to finish. Furthermore, not all doctorate students start immediately after getting a master’s degree. This means that the average age of a doctoral student is much older than those of other degrees. Tolerance to late nights tends to be much lower, skipping even a single meal can lead to health issues, and memorizing things for an upcoming exam can be an uphill battle.

With quite a bit going against it, you may still be wondering if the DBA is still worth it. Well, just like my candid look at surviving the MBA program, I will be sharing some thoughts on my DBA studies. But for those wanting to cut to the chase, yes, it was definitely worth all the hardship. But you're not me, so let's revisit my journey so you can decide for yourself.

What’s the Difference Between a DBA and PHDBUS?

Before we jump into my experience at the DBA program, it may be of merit to understand the difference between the DBA and PHDBUS programs as more schools are beginning to offer two types of doctorate degrees in business administration.

The Doctor of Business Administration degree is an applied research doctorate, meaning that it is geared towards solving business problems through research. Being a research doctorate means that one will need to fulfill common requirements such as attending academic classes in the beginning of the program then writing and defending a dissertation towards the end.

By contrast, the Doctor of Philosophy in Business degree is an academic research doctorate geared towards teaching in the academe. And just like other research doctorates, students are also required to attend a set of academic classes then write and defend a dissertation in order to graduate. This course is a relatively new offering as it wasn’t available when I started all those years ago.

[The PHDBUS is offered at De La Salle University and may have a different name at others schools.]

Both degrees require students to have any master’s degree, not necessarily an MBA. However, those from other disciplines will need to take a few extra subjects to bring them in line with the Business Administration track.

With the focus of each degree being different, the only subjects they share in common are the foundation courses, which are also known as the basic subjects. After completing these foundation courses in a year, the two degrees diverge into separate paths for the remaining two years. This means that if students want to shift, they have to do it early on because any major subjects already taken will not be credited by the other program.

If both courses were available at the time I started, I still would have chosen the DBA because it was what I was looking for in a doctorate degree – something I can apply at work. Your needs may be different so I suggest checking out the course descriptions online or, better yet, talking to someone at the school you want to enroll in.

Is the DBA an Extension of the MBA?

If you mean extension to be the next and final step of the Business Administration track, then yes, the DBA is certainly an extension of the MBA program. But if you mean more of the same thing, then the answer is an absolute no!

The DBA is a totally different animal from the MBA. It's like night and day, black and white, or maybe even a cat and a dog. These two degrees cannot be further apart and not knowing this can be a shocking experience.

The backbone of the MBA program is the case study and the heavy reliance on teamwork. For the DBA, it is the research journal which is highly individualistic. So, while the load for both programs was heavy, it was spread around with the use of groups during my MBA studies. For the doctorate level, only a single person will bear the brunt of all the requirements. And since the number of students in a typical DBA class is considerably less than an MBA's, expect to make presentations or engage in discussions more often.

Speaking of journal articles, you will be assigned several readings per meeting for every subject. This may not sound like much if you are taking the regular load of two subjects per term. However, if you will overload by taking as much as four subjects per term, something a classmate of mine did, it can be quite a bit to handle.

Either way, expect a lot of your free time to be devoted to reading plenty of highly academic, tough-to-understand, refereed articles from various publications. To give you a slightly better idea of what you will be facing, majority of journal articles are written vaguely as if the writers don’t want readers to understand what they are saying. Sentences and paragraphs are so long, one would think that periods were in short supply. The jargon used would vary from one discipline to another, with psychology, human resources, statistics, and ethics being but a few.

Overall, I would say that MBA schooling had a good balance of reading and speaking, while the DBA program was heavily skewed towards reading. Having said this, the love for reading is not the only skill needed to survive the doctorate program, the ability to process and apply all that information in a timely fashion is just as important.

It was these differences that made my shifting from an MBA-mindset to the DBA way of thinking difficult for me at the beginning. But once I got the hang of it, I found it to be quite enjoyable as journal articles opened up a whole new world to me.

What is Knowledge you Acquire Versus Knowledge you Create?

As I mentioned in my address for the De La Salle University Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business Graduate Studies Recognition Rites entitled My Educational Journey Part 1 and Part 2, the MBA program's objective is to make you master cutting-edge knowledge while the DBA program is tasked with the creation of all that cutting-edge knowledge.

When I first started, the concept of creating knowledge was rather vague. Initially, I understood it to be learning what others knew then applying it in my own company or life. Since I would adapt the information I learned in different situations, I thought it satisfied the concept of creating knowledge.

Well, I was wrong.

As I progressed through the program, I began to understand that it wasn't just about the knowledge that I lacked, learned, and applied. It was all about the knowledge that no one else possessed. It was about inventing new processes or advancing old ones; it was about crafting new questionnaires or revising old ones; it was about adding new views or turning old ones upside down; it was about testing existing theories in different situations to see if the results would remain the same. And it was about questioning and explaining why the results were similar or varied.

[In Star Trek, it was to go where no man has gone before.]

And once I got my head wrapped around this concept, the process of writing my dissertation became a little less difficult.

Why do you Want a DBA?

Some people think that earning a doctorate degree is all only about being smart. This is a misconception because quite a number of brilliant students do not complete the program. And while being smart certainly helps, the reason or reasons why you want to do it may be more important because this will fuel the stamina needed for this somewhat long endeavor.

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what the ideal reason is because that is something deeply personal for each person. However, I would hazard to guess that taking up the DBA program because you have nothing better to do or because someone cajoled you into doing so may not be enough.

That’s not to say that these are terrible reasons because based on what I’ve seen, they were effective at getting people to enter the program. However, it wasn’t enough for them to exit it via graduation. Students either adopted additional reasons or dug deep inside themselves to find the one compelling thing to motivate them to finish. Without either one of these actions taking place, majority ended up dropping out of the program.

I have listed some of the more common reasons people take up DBA studies below. Perhaps you will find one or more that will apply to you.

For career advancement

As I mentioned in my candid journey through my own master's program, only an MBA graduate will hire an MBA graduate. The same rule applies to the doctorate level, as only a doctorate degree holder will hire a doctorate degree holder. This means that the DBA presents a mixed bag when it comes to affecting one's career.

On the positive side, it will be quite a big help in the academe. Holding a doctorate degree will allow people to occupy the highest positions in colleges and universities. Graduating from a top-tier university will certainly help as many educational institutions put a premium on a school's reputation.

Outside of the academe, I expect that consultants will benefit from a doctorate more than any other position. This belief stems from the premise that companies, especially competitive ones, prefer to hire the best external consultants in order to outflank their competitors.

Compared to consultants, people in top management positions who hold DBA degrees appear to be less in number. These include being a member of the board, CEO, president, or owner of a company based in the Philippines. This is in contrast to other counties such as Germany, Japan, and even Taiwan, where doctorate degree holders seem to be highly sought after.

On the negative side, anything below top management will make one overqualified. Chances are slim that people below the top level will have a doctorate degree, so having something higher than one’s immediate superior may pose a problem.

If you found yourself overqualified with your MBA at work, then having a DBA degree will take things to an entirely different level. Recruiters will set aside your application, interviewers will not schedule any appointments, and just about everyone else will be intimidated. Even when you are fortunate enough to have made it through the door for an interview, it will most likely be due to interviewers overlooking your doctorate degree. So, when they notice it right before your interview, expect the interaction to be a short one. Oh, and don’t believe any promises of anyone getting back to you. They’re just being polite in rejecting your application.

For the pursuit of knowledge

The pursuit of knowledge is probably the best reason to seek out a DBA degree. There is so much to learn in the program and I will say that nothing else compares to it. One of the best things about it is that it touches upon a variety of fields.

However, going through different topics does not end with the completion of the academic portion because when it comes to writing a dissertation, students typically go beyond what was taught to them in class.

During the course of my own writing, one of the fields I researched involved medicine. This included the causes, prevention, and treatment of selected cancers; the way the circadian rhythm affects people; the effects of sleep deprivation on the mind and body; and how psychological stress can result in biological problems, to name a few.

So, if the pursuit of knowledge is your reason for joining the DBA program, or any other doctorate degree for that matter, then you will be rewarded with a rich treasure trove.

For the title of “Doctor”

Curiously, no one talked about this in the classroom. However, the truth of the matter is that the desire for the title can be quite strong, especially during the start of the program. I say that it is strongest at the beginning because the desire can fade when the reality of all the hard work needed hits students.

Interestingly, it is only towards the end of the program that one begins to fully comprehend the strong emotional connection to the title. And if there is one thing that I have learned it is that research doctorate holders do not want to be confused with a medical doctor, dentist, or veterinarian. One reason for this is that every DBA graduate went through hell and back just to earn the title so being mistaken for something else can be annoying for some.

[This is the same for other degrees, where graduates want to be acknowledged for their own hard work.]

How Can I Stay Motivated?

Knowing what motivated you to earn a DBA degree is one thing but staying motivated is entirely different. One major problem is that some of these reasons are only effective at certain stages of the program.

Take the case of wanting the title of “Doctor,” wherein it is great at motivating people early on. But as I mentioned, once students get exposed to the rigors of the program, some begin to question whether earning the title is worth it.

In another example, the desire for career advancement may figure heavily in one’s motivation to take up DBA studies. But when students realize that it may be more effective in the academe or when one is a consultant, the desire to go through three years of just the academics before writing a long dissertation can come crashing down.

The strategy I used was to keep switching motivations during different times of the program. If the prospect of using the title of “Doctor” is strong for you at the beginning, then use that to drive you. But if you find yourself slowing down, switch motivations. For instance, if you are still in the academic stage, then use the desire for knowledge to drive you forward. And when you finally get to the dissertation-writing stage, think about how your career can improve after graduation.

I also identified several more reasons that were deeply personal to me. This gave me a large base to mix and match in order to carry me through the different stages of the program.

Is a Dissertation Required?

We have been talking about writing a dissertation for quite a while now. But then you may have come across a handful of schools abroad that advertise DBAs without the need to undergo a dissertation. These tend to be extremely rare exceptions as majority of the schools around the world, including the Philippines, adhere to a standard that requires students to write and defend one.

A non-teaching staff member at my school summed it up by saying that it wouldn’t be a research doctorate without a dissertation. So, consider it to be a rite of passage.

Will the Topic I Start with be the One I End With?

When asked what the hardest part of the doctorate program is, many prospective students point to either the research or writing part of their dissertation. In my own experience, the hardest part was actually selecting a topic. Its absence had the effect of bouncing me from one field to another.

To give you an idea of what I went through, my initial topic was about health in the call center sector, which had me looking at the medical field. When I did not find a gap in the knowledge, I shifted to age bias. Still not finding a topic that appealed to me, I looked at burnout, which again had me pursue different paths in psychological journals. After going through half a dozen more areas, including culture, I eventually settled on turnover in call centers.

I had to go through so many journal articles that by the end of the program, my desk was literally filled with reams of printouts. In addition to the hard copies, I had tons of soft copies crammed into my computer and phone. These did not see print because they were over 100 pages long.

The good news is that not everyone has trouble finding the right topic. I have heard of stories of students lucky enough to have found their topics early on in their research. Then there are others who already come into the program after having conducted some initial research.

[This is the ideal scenario but isn’t very common as the topics evolve over time.]

Another bit of good news is that the school I attended fostered an environment geared towards helping students find a topic. Assigned journals would cover a broad array of fields, some even outside of the typical business environment. Our professors also encouraged us to look more deeply at our own companies to see what problems can be solved through heavily structured research. Students were invited to attend colloquiums and research presentations for free, provided one registered for a slot.

Do I Need to Conduct a Survey?

I came across the legend of one DBA doctoral graduate who never conducted a survey for his dissertation. This was supposedly decades ago and I have never heard of anyone else doing the same thing during my stay.

Apart from running a survey for my dissertation, classmates that I have spoken to ran their own as well. Every single one of my teachers, including my adviser and panel members, conducted their own surveys as part of their papers. I even spoke to people from other local schools and they too ran their own surveys for their dissertations. So, I am pretty confident in saying that you will need to conduct a survey for your own dissertation as well.

When the time comes for you to undertake your own survey, I advise trying to administer it yourself to save time and money.

However, doing it yourself is easier said than done. Getting the right respondents to actually answer your survey is not as simple as it sounds because very few people are amenable to filling out a questionnaire now a days. Then there are also the organizations that do not want their employees sharing information about their operations, even if it is for purely academic purposes and can help them.

If running it yourself isn’t possible, I suggest talking to your adviser about it. He or she should be able to refer a professor whose practice involves administering surveys. And while contracting someone to run it will cost you financially, it relieves you of a heavy burden and allows you to allot more time to writing your paper.

Final Thoughts

Well, that's it for now. Due to the length of this essay, I’m afraid that I had to cut it in half and end the first part at this point. I’ll be finalizing it in A Candid Look at Surviving the DBA Program, Part 2 so check it out when you have time!


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