The Ph.D. Imperative in Latin America

Ph.D. programs in Latin America are rare and small. It’s time for business schools in the region to improve and upgrade their production of business doctorates.
The Ph.D. Imperative in Latin America

Brazil produces one Ph.D. for every 70,000 inhabitants. In Chile, the ratio is one to every 140,000, and in Colombia, it’s one for every 700,000. Compared to worldwide figures, these numbers are troubling. Among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the average is one Ph.D. for every 5,000 inhabitants.

Four key factors have hindered the creation of doctorate programs in Latin America: inadequate funding, weak management systems, small scale business programs, and the high level of competition in business programs. Yet we believe a significant number of the region’s schools can create good-quality doctorates. Moreover, we believe that, because of the shortage of qualified business professors worldwide and the need for regional solutions to regional business issues and opportunities, it is imperative for business schools in Latin America to expand and upgrade their doctoral business education. But it will take commitment from governments, regulatory institutions, and schools themselves to create a strong, vibrant Ph.D. culture in the region.

To explore ways to achieve this goal, we conducted a survey of Latin American business schools, funded in part by AACSB International and CLADEA, the Latin American Council of Management Schools. Very little reliable information is available on Web sites and other public resources, so we conducted phone interviews and then made field visits to 33 schools in seven countries. Ultimately, we obtained detailed information from 18 schools that have or are about to create Ph.D. programs. We suspect that these schools—and several major Brazilian universities that declined to participate—supply the bulk of Ph.D. graduates in Latin America and will continue to do so in the next ten years.

It is estimated that, in Colombia, only 1.4 percent of faculty have doctoral degrees and only 16 percent have master’s degrees.

The Situation Now

While few studies are available about postgraduate education in Latin America, a 2005 World Bank report from Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, Kristian Thorn, José Joaquin Brunner, and Jorge Balán considered “Regional and International Challenges to Higher Education in Latin America.” That report identified several key challenges, including an overwhelming lack of data, great differences in performance among countries, high dropout rates, high percentages of students going abroad for higher education, and curricula that are of low quality and out of date.

These challenges are made worse by the fact that, except for Brazil, few schools have many faculty with doctoral degrees. In addition, a high percentage of faculty in Latin American schools must hold multiple jobs because their salaries are low compared with jobs in industry, making the staffing of doctoral programs even less of an option.

Latin American schools have little institutional involvement with industrial stakeholders, except in teaching. They rarely follow up with students once they’ve graduated, and they make insufficient efforts to connect academic fields to the job market. They also have low involvement in the R&D being done by private industry, which leaves the universities without much current input or financing.

Of course, these data are sketchy and highly generalized. There are many exceptions, and some Latin American schools have already demonstrated rapid improvement. Among the rest, there is a great deal of potential, creating a situation that is open for change. We believe that more schools would embrace a Ph.D. program if they understood why it is important and how to implement one.

Big Obstacles

Schools that currrently run Ph.D. programs, as well as schools that might like to launch them, face several major obstacles they must overcome to be successful.

Insufficient funding. State funding for research is very limited, except in Brazil, and it is rare that schools receive endowment donations from industry, alumni, or philanthropists. Except in elite schools, where full-time faculty are paid between $50,000 and $60,000 in U.S. dollars, salaries are too low for professors to dedicate their nonteaching time to research, so many faculty focus their efforts on consulting. Because Latin American schools also commonly hire many part-time faculty, even these elite schools can rarely gather enough research-oriented faculty to launch doctoral programs. The Ph.D. programs that do exist tend to be small. 

While Ph.D. programs at the schools we surveyed meet a reasonable standard of quality, library resources are small and scholarships are underfunded. On the other hand, at some schools, the Ph.D. candidates don’t need scholarships—they tend to be senior executives who can pay their own way.

Latin American schools often try to save money by not awarding substantial teaching credits to the individuals who supervise Ph.D. students, but we see this as a false economy. If a school paid for better supervision, it would achieve lower dropout rates and improved results.

Lack of money does not have to be a terminal roadblock. Several schools are already finding ways to improve research and endowment funding. Wealthy individuals have created private universities throughout Latin America. If these individuals are made aware of the importance of Ph.D. education, they are likely to fund doctoral programs as well.

Disorganized management of educational systems. Neither the governments nor the schools themselves devote much effort to managing their national university systems; there is no continual striving for improvement. The leading universities seem comfortable with their current situations and reluctant to institute major changes. At the same time, there is great social status attached to being educated in foreign countries, so professors themselves are not always interested in establishing homegrown programs. The more industrially developed states in Brazil have better standards, funds, and procedures, but even there management is weak.

High level of competition in business programs. In the past 30 years, there has been a boom in private universities that focus on specific markets, like business, where there is high demand and students can afford to pay for education. Thus, undergraduate business education, MBA programs, and executive education programs have become quite popular. However, without strong public or self regulation, quality is uneven, ranging from disgraceful to superb.

The best private schools have a very strong funding base, excellent facilities, and dedicated staff. These are also the schools most likely to lead Ph.D. education in the region. But, like public universities, the weaker private schools simply do not have the resources to establish Ph.D. programs.

Small-scale business schools. Because there are so few Ph.D.s in Latin America, there is little awareness of the degree and its importance. It is estimated that, in Colombia, only 1.4 percent of faculty have doctoral degrees and only 16 percent have master’s degrees. Since neither industry nor society demands advanced knowledge, the small Ph.D. community finds it difficult to gain a constituency.

Ph.D. education in Latin America has the potential to be vibrant, high-quality, and widespread.

The proliferation of schools means that most are very small. They could overcome the scale problem by joining in consortia, but many schools are competing so fiercely for students and faculty that they are unwilling to form partnerships. Instead, Latin American schools are more likely to send students to partner schools in developed countries. Schools that are willing to collaborate are limited by lack of both information and funding.

The Decision to Launch

Our survey shows that, despite the obstacles, deans and administrators at Latin American business schools believe that Ph.D. programs would have a positive effect on their schools in three areas: research, teaching, and overall competitiveness. The initiative to establish Ph.D. programs most commonly comes from faculty—at least that was the case for half of the 18 schools running such programs. At six schools, management instituted the Ph.D. programs; at two schools, owners did. At only one school did the government push for the program.

Before a university invests in a Ph.D. program, we believe administrators should first ask three questions. Does it fit with our strategic mission? Do we have the resources required? Will the school environment support our efforts?

Mission. We found that the most striking difference between Ph.D. and non-Ph.D. schools is that those with doctoral programs are more likely to promote national development. It seems that socially oriented schools with an outward-looking mindset are more likely to have the faculty and resources to mount complex and costly initiatives like a Ph.D. program. Non-Ph.D. schools tend to be more regional in nature and focus heavily on master’s programs.

Ph.D. schools are concerned with quality of teaching, upgrading faculty, and achieving academic status. Compared to non-Ph.D. schools, they are slightly more oriented toward research and knowledge, slightly less committed to teaching, consulting, and service to the community. And schools with Ph.D. programs operate more by the tenure system: these schools average about 27 faculty with formal tenure, compared to only two faculty members with tenure in non-Ph.D. schools.

Resources. Running a Ph.D. program is expensive, and schools with those programs simply have more resources, in terms of reputational capital, faculty with doctoral degrees, students, and salaries. Managing a Ph.D. program takes an annual average of 2.7 person years of work.

There’s also a sharp difference between the kinds of research each type of school generates. Interestly, from our data, non-Ph.D. schools claim a higher number of appearances in high-quality publications, but Ph.D. schools appear far more often in standard publications. Schools without Ph.D. programs also appear more often in media articles and interviews.

Environment. Non-Ph.D. schools are quicker to encourage faculty to experiment with new courses and programs, but these same schools find it more than twice as hard to recruit new faculty.

Clearly, if more Latin American schools are going to launch Ph.D. programs, they will need to ensure that they meet the following criteria:

  • They must be able to obtain the increased financial resources to support salaries, scholarships, managers, and libraries.
  • Their missions must support longer range, more socially constructive activities.
  • Their internal cultures must allow the creation of tenure, more research time, and less emphasis on undergraduate teaching.

The differences between the two types of schools are not that great, so with proper encouragement—and enough funding—we think it’s likely that more schools will develop Ph.D. programs.

Ripe for Change

We see many positive signs that Latin American schools are ready to boost their Ph.D. programs. For instance, media rankings of MBA programs have created a strong regional marketplace where leading schools compete for reputation, students, and qualified faculty. This high degree of competition signals great potential for change.

In addition, many schools are experiencing a building boom, and financial resources are flowing in to support new infrastructure. Schools are experimenting with and pouring money into new programs. Countries such as Colombia and Chile are investing more in graduate and doctoral education while tightening up management systems. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Ph.D. system is highly elaborated, with some state-of-the-art elements. If these elements could be exported to other Latin American schools, existing doctoral programs would immediately gain in quality, efficiency, and impact, while new ones would start out at a high level.

We also believe that many Latin American schools could create executive doctorate programs. Instead of focusing on theory and academia, executive doctorates would emphasize problem-oriented research linked with industry. Such programs, which are within the reach of quite a few schools, could be a crucial complement to the Latin American school system.

As Latin American universities push to expand their Ph.D. programs, a few institutions could play key roles:

  • The media. Despite the flaws inherent in media rankings, deans always list them among their top three concerns—and Ph.D. rankings could have a powerful and immediate impact on Latin American institutions. MBA rankings already have helped certain Latin American schools gain regional reputations for excellence. We believe rankings also can create pressure for continuous improvement, which could be achieved in part by hiring doctorally trained faculty. Because many of those faculty would be hired from outside the region, they would raise awareness of Latin American schools and increase the opportunities for collaboration.

  • Accreditation agencies. Organizations like AACSB and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) could promote doctoral education, providing guidance on quality design and management processes. One approach would be to link a requirement for a Ph.D. program to the MBA program. Another approach would be for accrediting agencies to develop explicit, separate standards and requirements for Ph.D. programs.

Equally important, accrediting agencies could take a more active role in gathering and analyzing information about doctoral programs, since these tasks are beyond the scope of regional universities. Current information on Ph.D. programs in Latin America is hard to find and often inaccurate. A much bigger sample of schools is required to extract more meaning than our initial study—but this deeper data pool probably will not be created unless an outside agency includes aspects of Ph.D. programs in its indices.

  • Regulatory bodies. Ministries of education could make philanthropic donations to universities much more attractive—and regulate such donations so they are made honestly—which would greatly increase the funding from private sources. They also could promote collaboration among schools to create critical mass. In addition, they could promote joint ventures and collaboration among universities to overcome problems of small scale. Offering seed funds for such consortia would promote their rapid growth.


Ph.D. education in Latin America has the potential to be vibrant, high-quality, and widespread. Establishing solid programs across a range of universities will require the dedication and determination of many individuals and institutions. Yet we believe such cooperation is essential for the continued economic success of the region—and we believe the time is now.

Scott Tiffin is a Fellow at the Centre for Innovation Studies at the University of Calgary in Canada. Martin H. Kunc is assistant professor of strategic management at the School of Business of Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago, Chile.