The Case for Doctoral Reform

Why it’s time for business schools to radically reconsider their PhD model.
The Case for Doctoral Reform

THE BBA AND MBA ARE remarkably different degrees than they were just a few decades ago. The reason? Business schools have made a deliberate and collective effort to revise core curricula, set learning objectives, and update their technology and pedagogy to suit the modern business climate. As a result, the MBA is now the flagship master’s program at many colleges and universities, and the BBA continues to flourish. But the PhD in business has largely escaped these reforms. Why?

Historically, we can see pressures at work at the undergraduate and graduate level that have been noticeably absent in doctoral programs. For example, employers have demanded that graduates of BBA and master’s-level programs have actionable skills and abilities. Parents and prospective students have questioned the high cost and value proposition of the degrees. The public has criticized the MBA for being too superficial. Donors have asked business schools to show evidence that their programs produce transformative effects. Accrediting bodies now insist that business schools meet articulated and demonstrable benchmarks. Such external forces have moved business schools to make their BBA and MBA programs smarter, more responsive to market needs, and of more service to their communities.

Business doctoral programs have faced no such pressures. Students, for instance, don’t question the price of tuition, because we pay them to enroll in our programs. They aren’t as concerned about their salaries post-graduation, because they view becoming a professor as a calling, not a job. Rather than reflecting the needs of modern academia, new PhDs are unique to their fields of study and carry the legacies of their advisors. Their future employers are the same business schools that educate them, which creates a persistently closed system. In short, our tradition-bound, apprenticeship-based doctoral programs remain blissfully detached from forces that would compel them to change.

But just because our doctoral programs have largely escaped scrutiny doesn’t mean that their content meets the needs of the academic market. As the landscape for teaching and research evolves, doctoral programs in business are in sore need of reform. If external pressures to evolve are absent, we must generate internal reasons to make significant and meaningful changes.

Few b-school administrators would disagree on the three intents of doctoral education. We want to produce PhDs who can create knowledge through their research; disseminate knowledge through their teaching; and be responsible citizens to their schools, academia, and society. However, while schools are preparing PhD students to conduct research and do service, they offer very little training in teaching.

A group of researchers point this out in their article “Isn’t it time we did something about the lack of teaching preparation in business doctoral programs?” published in the Journal of Management Education last November. Of the 50 programs they surveyed, only 34 percent included meaningful training related to classroom instruction in their curricula—even though roughly 50 percent of a business professor’s work is devoted to teaching.

We make a similar point in “The Scientist and the Sage,” an article that appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of BizEd. We noted that research alone cannot create a good teacher, just as good teaching skills do not lead to great research. But our PhD programs have yet to acknowledge this fact.

Business doctoral programs continue their enormous emphasis on research in spite of factors that should encourage them to re-evaluate their models. For example, they now admit a number of candidates whose ambitions favor teaching or collaborating with industry—ambitions that do not align perfectly with traditional tenure-track faculty roles. And while the job market for PhD graduates has remained strong around the world, the number of Research I institutions and top-quality academic journals remains largely static. Thus, today’s PhD graduates are more likely to be hired at institutions that will require greater teaching responsibilities and offer fewer opportunities and less support for sustained research productivity.

Furthermore, over the last two decades, schools are recruiting more international applicants, many of whom return to their home countries having received little teaching training. This trend has had an unfortunate side effect: It means that the pattern of producing faculty who emphasize research over teaching now has a global impact.

The challenge, then, is this: How can business schools integrate teaching, research, and service in ways that suit our academic environment? If doctoral programs are to change in meaningful ways, business schools and their faculty must identify where to make the necessary adjustments—and then commit their resources accordingly.

Given the state of PhD education vis-à-vis teaching preparation, dramatic measures seem justified. These might include a required series of teaching courses and workshops spread across the curriculum; a weekly seminar series drawing from faculty and external experts; or even a dedicated teaching center. A business school might even leverage the teaching courses at the university’s school of education.

These measures would have the desired effect, but we realize many schools would view them as too ambitious or expensive. Others might struggle with how to fit courses and modules on teaching into an already packed course schedule. And, of course, some faculty might chafe at activities that distract from what they view as students’ only priority: research.

For these reasons, we advocate a more modest, inexpensive approach: a single three-credit graded required course, offered over the fall and spring semesters during the program’s second year. This approach would distribute students’ workloads and minimize distractions. And by scheduling the course during the second year, business schools would give first-year students time to acclimate to their programs and help second-year students prepare to serve as teaching assistants during their third and fourth years of doctoral training.

The course we have in mind would systematically explore the demands, rigors, and roles of the professoriate in society. Students and faculty could discuss how to translate scholarship into content that students and practitioners can access more easily. Such discussion would offer doctoral students an opportunity to reflect on how their identities as scholars and educators connect.

Feedback mechanisms such as papers, presentations, and simulations should be built in, each one customized for subject content and pedagogy. This course would be more about the development of students as professors than about traditional mastery of course material.


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We’ve created a syllabus that outlines the discussion topics, assignments, and sample readings that we believe would be important in such a doctoral-level course. We have included those we have in mind for the seminar’s teaching module in “Our Sample Seminar” above.

Adopting these steps, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, just as doctoral study should not be a one-size-fits-all experience. Differentiation would allow schools to set clear priorities for their PhD programs. For instance, business schools with missions based on producing well-trained scholars can prioritize research, while those with missions based on producing outstanding educators can prioritize teaching instruction. While no school should ignore research or teaching skills entirely, all doctoral degree-granting business schools should clearly align their programs with their missions. Such differentiation would make it easier for prospective students to choose where they want to study—after all, some doctoral students are drawn to academia because they want to make their marks as educators, not necessarily as scholars.

Just as important, when doctoral programs are differentiated, business schools will know the curricular emphasis at other institutions and so be better positioned to recruit faculty whose aspirations suit their missions. Such a virtuous cycle could improve management education across the board.

The need for differentiation could be an internal pressure that drives schools to adopt doctoral program reform. But that change won’t happen without the will of schools and faculty. School leaders must support change by creating an exciting vision of what can be unique about their programs, beginning with a close examination of the program’s mission and capabilities. Then, as administrators determine the internal capabilities of their own programs—as they consider everything from funding to class size to their mix of research- and teaching-focused faculty—they must analyze whether their resources match their ambitions and orient their curricula accordingly.

Once a business school aligns a clearly articulated mission with well-defined capabilities, it not only can better recruit students who are more likely to thrive in its doctoral program, but also will send a clearer message to its community and donors. It can formulate a clear identity that its faculty and students can embody and that other schools can consider when seeking out new faculty hires.

Through the mission-driven approach in its accreditation standards, AACSB International also can play a role in doctoral reform, by evaluating the learning objectives that schools set for their PhD programs. That process would further encourage b-schools to examine their approaches more thoroughly.

Given that PhD programs are so deeply rooted in tradition, it makes sense that they would embrace reform grudgingly and gradually. But there is great irony in the fact that they haven’t reformed at all. It is ironic because the very same doctoral graduates that business schools produce will be charged with teaching the innovative, transformative new curricula that business schools are working so hard to adopt.

Our agenda for doctoral program reform is clear, but unfortunately the will to change is not well-defined. Our challenge for business schools is to plot a path forward—and then follow it.


James Bailey is professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at George Washington University’s School of Business in Washington, D.C. Roy Lewicki is the Irving Abramowitz Memorial Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business in Columbus. Both have been editors of Academy of Management Learning & Education.