Business schools have successfully remade themselves to be more aligned with the modern business climate. The BBA and MBA are entirely different degrees than they were just a few decades ago. But one business school degree—the PhD—has largely escaped these reforms. We want to examine this lack of progress by first looking at the driving factors behind undergraduate and master’s level reform. We then establish how those driving factors don’t operate in doctoral education, and propose alternative levers to facilitate change.

The Success of Business School Reforms

Business schools world-wide have undergone a remarkable and welcome transition over the last few decades. They have revised core curriculums to align with modern economic realities. They have embraced aspirational goals in the form of learning objectives. They have erected permanent structures designed to assure quality. Business schools have updated pedagogies, rationalized content across core course sections, updated technologies, introduced clinical experiences such as practicums, implemented market-sensitive career preparation programs, and better balanced the ages old weights of breadth and depth. Twenty years ago, the MBA degree was a limping academic step-child that had finally got its comeuppance. No more. The MBA not only thrives, but is often the flagship master’s program of colleges and universities.

Many forces operated to affect this change. Internally, there was surely a desire for schools and their denizens to innovate. Professors are dispositionally curious creatures that have always occupied conversion’s forefront. Iconoclastic characters, professors push their schools, students, and themselves. A genuine desire by faculty, deans, and programs directors alike fueled progress.

Business schools were also particularly fortunate to have especially proactive external forces. Constituents are key, and twenty years ago they stentoriously spoke out. Parents and MBA-bound students decried escalating tuition. Employers demanded actionable knowledge, skills, and abilities. The popular press teased the superficiality of the degree. Accrediting bodies insisted upon articulated demonstrable benchmarks. Those that funded the input, certified the transformation, and salaried the output, were discontent. And we—often tumultuously and always contentiously, us collectively responsible for the educational product—rose to the challenge. Business schools are one of the great academic success stories of the 21st century. Other schools would be wise to follow our example.

As noted, business schools are fortunate to be subject to external pressures. It makes us sharp, responsive to the needs of those who we serve, and the broader community in which we reside. But there is one of our programs that have been exempt from these sweeping reforms. It remains blissfully detached from the very forces that have moved us to meaningful change. It has roots so deep that it appears to be subject to nothing but the will of tradition.

Doctoral programs.

Doctoral programs have largely escaped the reformations that have swept business schools these last decades. Given that professors are the deliverers of the curricula we’ve worked so hard to remodel, why isn’t the same microscope trained upon doctoral programs? How have they gone fundamentally unchanged?

The answer lies in the tradition-bound apprentice nature of doctoral education and the lack of the very external dynamics that impelled changes in the MBA.

Examining why Doctoral Programs remain Static

Doctoral programs are the most ancient academia. Cloistered and closely held, they are conservative instruments of society. Rightly so. Ideas should be carefully examined before accepted then implemented. Those charged to indoctrinate the next generation of professors–who, after all, light the flame of knowledge–do so by carefully adhering to time-tested means.

PhD programs are first and foremost apprenticeships. In this respect, an apprentice is a person who works for another in order to learn a trade. Doctoral programs exist, now as always, to pass knowledge, and techniques for accumulating it, from tutor to charge, professor to student.

Poignantly, PhD graduates are reflections of their advisors. Few professors point to an MBA graduate and proudly proclaim “that was my student.” The MBA graduate owes his or her success to twenty some professors. But there is deep investment in, identification of, and symbiosis between, professor and doctoral graduate. From newly minted to retirement, a PhD is always his or her dissertation advisor’s student. They always carry their advisors’ legacy, one generation to the next.

The relationship between faculty and candidate is an intimate one. It involves innumerable hours of one-to-one attention. Instruction is customized according to the candidate’s research interests, thrusting here or there and adapted as judged appropriate by the professor. Unlike other business degrees, where successful teaching methods can be demonstrated and packaged for standardized delivery, PhD instruction requires a surgical approach that defies ready categorization and despises homogenization.

Doctoral programs are modern monasteries where novices learn their craft through the careful ministrations of rectors. This tradition is jealously guarded. It is holy ground that faculty will not easily allow to be tread upon. Change here is gradual and reluctant.

Equally important is that the external factors that were so helpful to MBA reform don’t function to the same extent for doctoral programs.

Let’s begin with the parents and prospective students that galvanized MBA change. Both parties were outraged by high costs, slow placement, and mediocre salaries. They questioned the value proposition. Their funding, in the form of tuition and donations, is absolutely necessary. But this pressure doesn’t operate in doctoral programs. Students don’t pay to get their PhD; they’re paid to get it. Moreover, one doesn’t get a doctorate for the money. Becoming a professor is a calling, not a job. Salary is important, but not so much as for the MBA.

Another critical constituent—recruiters—take on an entirely different form with relation to PhD programs. There are no doctoral job fairs or information sessions or on-campus interviews. Instead, schools post position descriptions in relevant disciplinary publications and await applications. Compared to the MBA, the recruiter is fairly passive. That doesn’t mean that schools don’t beat the bushes for the best, but such operates in subterranean fashion. When a faculty line is approved, professors post it on discussion boards and reach out to colleagues. They also keep their ears open at conferences and their eyes open on academic journals, always scanning for talent. But the route follows networks more than formal programming or support mechanisms. PhD program reputations surely track those of MBA program, but for placement, the advisor’s reputation is more important still.

PhD training has escaped the attention of the broader business community because they are less proximal, more distal, than MBA programs. Because there aren’t as many professors as MBAs, the general footprint is comparatively smaller. This allows PhD programs to fly below the radar. The intensity of external forces is simply not sufficient to impel reformation.

The Mission of Doctoral Education

Before addressing potential levers for doctoral program reform, we have to establish their mission. Thi is not controversial. Every dean, associate dean, program director, and professor, will agree. We all want doctoral students who can create knowledge, disseminate knowledge, and serve as a responsible citizen to one’s school, the academic community, and the broader society. This triumverant is age-old. There is no disagreement about it.

To create knowledge requires critical thinking and technical skills such as research methodology and statistical analysis. Absolutely no one complains about this. Doctoral students are supremely skilled in this respect. They know the relevant academic literature, know how to gather and treat the data, and how to navigate the vicissitudes of publishing in academic journals. Doctoral program succeed at imparting these skills. They are codified in the curriculum.

To disseminate knowledge requires an aptitude toward expression. Teaching obliges course design and delivery. Instruction is the organized conveyance of compound and often abstruse knowledge to those who have enlisted to practice it. Such is not so different for the practitioner community. Translation of argot to action. As are as any of us can tell, this constellation of skills is not formally treated. It happens, sometimes, depending on school and, more importantly, the advisor.

To be a good school citizen means assisting colleagues, sitting on operative committees, and maybe acting as an administrator of some sort. Service to the academic community means to review submitted journal and conference, serve on editorial boards or as editors, assume leadership roles in associations, and the like. To the practitioner community means lending advice to firms or industries in your field, conducting training or development workshops, and generally interfacing with those that do what you study. Training is effective in this respect.

Reviewing the three intents of doctoral education, it’s obvious that the one that’s given the least attention is teaching. Doctoral programs privilege research over teaching instruction. A recent Journal of Management Education article documented the dirth of instructional training in PhD programs (Marx, Garcia, Butterfield, Kappen, & Baldwin, in press). This makes sense, given that the academic reward system is fundamentally skewed, rewarding knowledge creation over knowledge dissemination (Bailey & Lewicki, 2007). The challenge, then, is reforming doctoral programs in a manner that integrates teaching with research and service in a manner that is mutually productive.

Levers of Change for Doctoral Programs

If doctoral programs are to intentionally and meaningfully change, it must begin with the will of the schools and faculty. Even in the absence of burning external forces, the ambition to change can be identified, nurtured, and supported, by leadership. Through the voices of key faculty and deans, an exciting vision of what is, or what can be, unique about a given program can be put forth and pursued.

Doing so begins with strategic planning, the simultaneously examination of the interplay capabilities and missions.

Internal capabilities include such things as funding, a critical mass of research-active faculty, facilities, and luxury of small class sized. These capabilities have a big impact on what mission is realistic. Thus, schools with doctoral programs must match these resources to their ambitions and orient their curriculum accordingly.

One school may conceive of their mission as providing the academic community with extraordinarily well trained scholars. Their program of study will necessarily emphasize science. That doesn’t mean they ignore teaching, it’s simply not the thrust. Another school may boast a mission to provide outstanding educators to teaching-oriented colleges. Their forte will be teaching instruction. Surely they won’t discount research skills, but it’s simply not their concentration.

What we’re talking about here is differentiation. Differentiation allows programs to clearly align their mission and priorities. This then organizes and directs internal capabilities, allowing doctoral programs to strategically commit financial, physical, and intellectual resources toward the achievement of the mission. A byproduct of differentiation is that it’s equivalent to the formulation of an identity that faculty and students alike can bond to and rally around.

Differentiating has the additional benefit of establishing a distinct identity to communicate to external constituencies. The town in which the school resides now has a clear sense of the school’s purpose. Alumni better understand their alma maters core intents. Funding agencies and potential donors have a purer idea of where their generosity will have an impact.

Differentiating also facilitates recruiting students who are best suited for a given programs character. Not all prospective doctoral students want the same thing. Some have a aptitude toward scholarship, naturally preferring and better matched with research-heavy programs. Other students might be inclined toward an educators’ career, and would prefer a degree which extended and honed relevant skills. A clearly articulated mission—backed by an intentionally designed curriculum—allows interested students to make intelligent choices.

Another primary constitute that would profit from differentiation is the very schools that hire doctoral student graduates. Like prospective students, schools can recruit more specifically for their mission by being better informed of the emphasis and curricula of the programs producing prospective hires.

Finally, there is a clear role for the AACSB here. Using its mission-driven standards approach, the AACSB could evaluate learning objectives as they pertain to a given school’s PhD education. This would necessitate a more thorough examination of resources and mission that would drive curriculum design to offer a more coherent and deliberate educational experience.


That PhD program reform grudgingly and gradually is a given. That they haven’t reformed at all is a great irony. It is ironic because it will be these very same doctoral graduates that are charged with teaching the new curricula that business schools have worked so hard to fashion and integrate over the last few decades. One reason for this is the conservative nature of doctoral instruction. Another reason is the lack of external pressure that so handsomely served to impel BBA and MBA education.

Faced with deeply-rooted tradition and the absence of exterior motivation, the prospect of revising PhD programs seem precarious. However, through leadership of a strategic process that aligns capabilities and mission, doctoral programs can differentiate themselves to better serve students and employers.

For the BizEd version, click here.

James Bailey, Roy J. Lewicki
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