How Research-Focused Doctoral Programs Can Enhance Business Education

By delivering research-focused nontraditional doctoral programs with flexible formats, business schools can boost the relevance of their research, connect their classrooms with practice, and address the ongoing shortage of doctorally qualified faculty.

BUSINESS SCHOOLS continue to struggle with an imbalance between supply and demand of doctorally qualified faculty, especially in the accounting discipline. Traditional PhD programs have become an increasingly less effective solution to this problem, as many prospective qualified students view traditional PhD programs as too costly and time-consuming.

We believe the solution for business schools is simple: Place greater emphasis on research-focused nontraditional doctoral programs, such as doctorate of business administration (DBA) programs, executive PhDs, and other nontraditional doctorates. Like traditional PhD programs, many nontraditional programs train students to produce portfolios of empirical research.

But nontraditional programs offer two advantages that traditional PhD programs do not. First, nontraditional programs attract students with significant professional experience, which they can leverage to impact practice through their teaching and research. This follows a central recommendation of the Pathways Commission report, “Charting a National Strategy for the Next Generation of Accountants.” In it, the American Accounting Association (AAA) and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) call for practitioners and academics to more closely collaborate for enhanced accounting education and research. AACSB International makes a similar recommendation in its “2018 Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Accounting Accreditation,” where it calls for accounting programs “to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education.”

Second, nontraditional programs address the shortage of doctorally-qualified faculty in the U.S. by attracting more practitioners to academic careers. The shortage has persisted for decades. George Krull, a co-author on this article, and his colleagues R. David Plumlee, Steven Kachelmeier, Silvia Madeo, and Jamie Pratt explored the topic in their 2006 article “Assessing the Shortage of Accounting Faculty” in Issues in Accounting Education. The shortage was still a concern eight years later, as we see in the 2014 article in the same publication, “Lessons Not Learned: Why Is There Still a Crisis-Level Shortage of Accounting Ph.D.s?” by Plumlee and Philip Reckers.

Because nontraditional programs are delivered in a flexible format, they can appeal to a larger number of practitioners. While traditional PhD programs require students to be on campus year-round, nontraditional program students need to be on campus only eight to 12 times a year for multi-day residencies. And while PhD programs at top-tier business schools often prepare graduates for faculty positions at other top-tier schools, research-focused nontraditional programs more often produce graduates who will take positions at a wide range of regional universities and private colleges.     

In our experience, nontraditional program graduates are successful in the classroom and produce practice-relevant research, including papers that appear in prominent academic and practice-oriented journals. These graduates are highly valuable to AACSB-accredited institutions with missions that prioritize teaching and practice relevance.

However, in a review of publicly available information provided on program websites, we found fewer than 20 AACSB-accredited research-focused nontraditional doctoral programs in the United States, with even fewer focused on accounting. If these graduates are so valuable, why are there still so few AACSB-accredited, research-focused nontraditional doctoral programs?

Below we look into the most common questions about research-focused nontraditional programs and how those questions have been answered by past research. We also explore how schools can overcome the challenges that come with attracting experienced practitioners to academic careers, so that they can add more nontraditional program graduates to the pipeline of doctorally qualified faculty.

Are Nontraditional Doctoral Programs Feasible?

To determine whether graduating more students from nontraditional doctoral programs could help to address the doctoral shortage, we must investigate three questions:

1. Are enough practitioners interested in transitioning into academic careers to make a difference? Four accounting researchers address this question in “The Accounting Doctorate Shortage: Opportunities for Practitioners,” a 2013 article in Strategic Finance. In a survey of accounting professionals, Douglas Boyle (a co-author here), and colleagues Brian Carpenter, Dana Hermanson (a co-author here), and Michael Mensah found that practitioners view academic careers favorably. Respondents appreciated the “flexibility in work schedule, satisfaction from helping students, [participation] in developing the profession through educating young professionals, student interaction in academia, and high quality of life in academia.”

NONTRADITIONAL PROGRAM GRADUATES ARE HIGHLY VALUABLE TO AACSB-ACCREDITED INSTITUTIONS WITH MISSIONS THAT PRIORITIZE TEACHING AND PRACTICE RELEVANCE.

The practitioners surveyed were less attracted by “the time associated with pursuing a doctoral degree, the financial cost associated with pursing a doctoral degree, and concerns about differences in compensation between industry and academia.” However, nontraditional doctoral programs address the “time and cost” objections by enabling practitioners to work while pursuing the doctorate.

At the same time, these practitioners significantly underestimated the average compensation an assistant accounting professor receives. All in all, “the number of practitioners interested in transitioning into academia may be large enough to significantly reduce the shortage,” the co-authors conclude. “The provision of flexible doctoral programs will likely be a key enabler for interested individuals.”

2. Do academics value the participation of practitioners educated in nontraditional AACSB-accredited doctoral programs? Boyle, Carpenter, and Hermanson explore this question in their 2015 Accounting Horizons article, “The Accounting Faculty Shortage: Causes and Contemporary Solutions.” The accounting faculty and administrators they surveyed were supportive of practitioners entering academia, and they were moderately supportive of part-time, accredited doctoral programs.

In addition, their survey participants from nondoctoral schools and smaller schools were more likely to favor attracting practitioners, support nontraditional programs, and trust the quality of nontraditional part-time programs. Smaller, nondoctoral institutions also appear more likely to hire graduates of research-focused nontraditional programs.

This issue was further explored in “Transitioning into Academia: A New Pathway for Practitioners,” a 2016 article in the Journal of Accountancy by Carol Bishop and co-authors Boyle, Carpenter, and Hermanson. They cite their own observations that not only do most graduates of nontraditional programs find tenure-track positions at AACSB-accredited regional universities, but some find positions as visiting or clinical faculty at more research-focused schools.

According to a 2014 Pathways Commission survey of accounting graduates of nontraditional doctoral programs, “An Examination of Non-Traditional Doctoral Education,” most respondents were working full-time as tenure-track assistant or associate professors. Overall, the academic community appears to accept research-focused nontraditional programs and their graduates.

3. Do professional organizations and accrediting bodies support nontraditional doctoral programs that enable such career transitions? This question, too, has been addressed. In fact, in Recommendation 2 of its jointly sponsored Pathways Commission report, the AAA and AICPA call on academia to “develop mechanisms to meet future demand for faculty by unlocking doctoral education via flexible pedagogies in existing programs and by exploring alternative pathways to terminal degrees that align with institutional missions and accounting educational research goals.”

AMONG THE VARIETY OF ACTIVITIES UNDERTAKEN BY BUSINESS SCHOOLS, INNOVATION IN DOCTORAL EDUCATION SEEMS SLOW TO UNFOLD.

In its 2013 report, “The Promise of Business Doctoral Education,” the AACSB International Doctoral Educational Task Force states that “innovation among individual programs is important for the reasons of sustainability, capacity, access, and relevance. Yet among the variety of activities undertaken by business schools, innovation in doctoral education seems slow to unfold.” The report provides several innovations that schools should consider, including the more flexible formats and tuition models that many DBA programs provide.

What Are the Challenges?

While research-focused nontraditional programs offer many advantages, several challenges exist in their delivery. In its 2014 survey mentioned above, a Pathways Commission task force points out that it can take several years from the time a program is proposed to its launch. Business schools also can face difficulties when it comes to raising market awareness, building a brand, managing program content and size, and garnering internal support from administration and faculty.

Recruiting qualified students to nontraditional programs can be a special challenge. First, schools marketing nontraditional programs must overcome practitioners’ concerns by providing clear insights into what academic careers involve and what compensation participants might expect. Next, schools must demonstrate the rigor of their programs, while also recognizing the extensive experience that practitioners bring. Third, they should emphasize the part-time nature of the nontraditional program format. Fourth, they should highlight the fact that the strengths that practitioners typically have—organizational skills, self-motivation, and a focus on results—will serve them well in academic careers.

Recruiting faculty can be even more difficult. The task force notes that nontraditional programs are subject to the very shortage they seek to address, and many struggle to find research-focused advisors and faculty “who are willing to work during weekend residencies and be responsive to executive-level students.” That’s a point raised by Bishop, Boyle, Clune, and Hermanson in “A Different Model for Doctoral Education in Accounting and Auditing: Student and Faculty Reflections,” published in 2012 in Current Issues in Auditing.

Even so, to be successful, research-focused nontraditional programs must have motivated and research-active faculty who understand and can effectively interact with experienced practitioners. These faculty should be able to accommodate students’ time limitations in order to enable their success. Schools that have research-active faculty with experience in industry should tout this fact to prospective students. It is an advantage in the market.

How Can Challenges Be Addressed?

Before the Kania School of Management at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania launched its own research-focused DBA program in accounting in 2017, its faculty referenced several studies conducted by faculty or graduates from the University of Scranton and Kennesaw State University (both AACSB-accredited institutions). These studies provided empirical support for the program model, established credibility of the research-focused DBA model, and offered insight into the market. In addition, several accounting faculty at the university had transitioned into academia from senior roles in practice—the school highlighted their experience when it introduced the program to the market. 

The Kania School also has been very strategic in addressing each of the challenges to DBA program delivery that we mention above:

Finding faculty. The school recruits faculty to serve as what it calls Global Scholars, research-active non-Scranton accounting faculty who assist with the DBA program. These faculty complement the full-time Scranton faculty by serving on the program’s advisory board and on dissertation committees. Each Global Scholar qualifies as a Scholarly Academic for AACSB accreditation. This sets it apart from practice-based DBA programs taught primarily by faculty who qualify as Scholarly Practitioners and Practice Academics.

Garnering internal support. The program’s founder and director worked with the dean to communicate the merits and rigor of the program to the college and broader university. They held several discussions with the college and university curriculum committees, as well as with the faculty senate, before addressing questions at a campuswide faculty forum. These steps were crucial, because the nontraditional format of the program was not consistent with the way many faculty on campus had earned their terminal degrees. It was important to make a compelling case that not only defended the program’s merit, rigor, and format, but also explained how the program would advance the mission of the university.

Developing market awareness and credibility. The university recruited nationally recognized scholars and practitioners to serve on its program advisory board and as Global Scholars.

Recruiting students. The Kania School has attracted qualified students to its DBA in a variety of ways. For instance, it has sponsored an information booth at the annual conference of the American Accounting Association, and it publishes research on doctoral education in both academic and practice-oriented journals such as Accounting Horizons, the Journal of Accounting Education, the Journal of Accountancy, Strategic Finance, and Management Accounting Quarterly. It also reaches out to deans and accounting department chairs at AACSB-accredited institutions, who connect the program with prospective students. As a result, the first three cohorts of the Kania School’s DBA have enrolled 37 students in total, with the first cohort expected to graduate in 2020.

Preparing practitioners. Practitioners typically want to address “real-world” problems, so the school makes sure to leverage its DBA candidates’ professional experience. Each candidate is asked to identify research questions that are relevant to practice. Each student also is required not only to complete an empirical dissertation supported by literature, theory, data, and appropriate methods, but also to co-author a manuscript with a faculty member and submit that manuscript to a nationally recognized practice-oriented journal in the second year of the program. Candidates in the first cohort have co-authored 12 such published articles with Scranton faculty.

Kennesaw State University’s research-focused DBA was formed more than ten years ago. Since then, the program has transitioned from a DBA into a nontraditional PhD program, with a continued focus on offering a flexible structure to prepare experienced practitioners for academic careers—often as tenure-track faculty. The transition was made to convey the program’s strong research orientation, distinguishing it from DBA programs that prepare candidates for tenure-track positions at institutions focused on teaching or those that prepare practitioners to advance in industry. The Kennesaw State program offers specializations in accounting, information systems, management, and marketing. Since its inception, it has produced more than 100 graduates. In fact, two accounting faculty members at the University of Scranton are graduates of the Kennesaw State program.

Notably, AACSB has recognized among its Innovations That Inspire the nontraditional doctoral programs at Kennesaw State University (in 2016) and the University of Scranton (in 2018–2019).

Doctoral Education Needs Innovation

Doctoral education has changed very little in the last century, and that is apparent in its decreasing enrollments. Many potential students who might be interested in academia simply do not make the leap, either because they don’t want to sacrifice the time and cost involved to complete traditional PhD programs or because they don’t fully understand the nature of an academic career.

That’s why we must be willing to adopt more innovative approaches in our doctoral programs, whether by designing nontraditional formats, timing, and delivery, or by engaging in better outreach to prospective qualified students. Such innovations won’t just help us curtail the doctoral shortage—they’ll also greatly enhance business and accounting education and practice.

Douglas M. Boyle is associate professor, chair of the accounting department, and director of the doctor of business administration (DBA) program at the Kania School of Management at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Dana R. Hermanson is the Dinos Eminent Scholar Chair of Private Enterprise and professor of accounting at the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. George W. Krull Jr. is global strategic advisor for the DBA program at the Kania School.

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