In nearly 25 years of encouraging business professionals to switch careers and become business professors, I have often heard successful people in business say: “I loved college, I loved getting my MBA. How about a Ph.D. next?”
My first reply is usually: “Stop!”
You have to do it for the right reasons and know what a Ph.D. is and isn’t. Then, if it’s right for you… “Go!”
First, a Ph.D. is not a “super-MBA.” It is not more of the same of what you learned and did in MBA school. A Ph.D. in business is a wonderful, powerful credential—but very different than an MBA.
In business, the Ph.D. is a “terminal degree”:
You don’t typically go back to corporate life after earning it.
You remain in academe, as a scholar and a professor.
It emphasizes learning to do research.
As a doctorally qualified professor, generally you will advance and be evaluated based on the original research you conduct and publish.
A Business Ph.D. Degree Leads to a Career in Academia
One successful alumnus of the organization I head, The PhD Project, like many others, left a career in business to become a business professor. Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, of Rutgers University, explains the difference between an MBA and a PhD this way: “In an MBA program, you’re taught something, and your reaction might be, ‘That’s great to know. I’m going to use that back at work.’”
Show that same topic to a Ph.D. student and the reaction might be: “Well, I’m not sure that’s right and I’m not sure I agree with it. So I’m going to do my own study and look into it for myself. Maybe I will come up with a competing theory.”
Or, as Dr. Robinson puts it, the Ph.D. is the person who writes the articles and the books that MBA students study. In other words…
Research is the Main Focus of a Doctorate
As a doctoral student, you will spend the first part of the five- or six-year program taking courses. But after that, you will focus on creating your doctoral dissertation. This is a piece of original research you will conduct and write after you decide on a research topic and a research question. (That decision and choice, like every major step of your dissertation, is guided by and ultimately approved by a dissertation committee of scholars at your institution.)
You may also be expected to serve as a teaching assistant or research assistant, or have other academic duties. So, for most people, certainly in the business discipline, earning a Ph.D. is a full-time job.
Doctoral Programs Are Not One-Size-Fits-All
There is another significant difference between an MBA and a PhD. MBA students most often select a school based on such practical considerations as:
Perceived “value” and “reputation”—often as influenced by published “rankings.”
For a doctoral program, another factor becomes critical: the strength or quality, and the emphasis, of the department to which you’ll apply.
Quality: Academicians tend to evaluate each other by department rather than on a university-wide basis. One business school’s management department may be considered first-rate, while that same school’s marketing department may be viewed by its peers as just average. Because you will ultimately be hired as a professor by academics likely to have a clear opinion about the department that granted your Ph.D., it is helpful to attend the most well-regarded department that meets your practical considerations.
Emphasis: The business disciplines form an extensive, complex universe with countless sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines. Any given business school will emphasize some of these more than others. Even within those disciplines, different departments often emphasize a particular point of view or approach. If you are interested in supply chain management or social media marketing, consider a department where the faculty has strength in that area—and with a point of view that aligns with yours.
If you are in a doctoral program where no one shares your interest or point of view, you will have a difficult time achieving the high level of scholarly guidance, supervision and collaboration needed to succeed.
That said, being a college professor is an excellent quality of life, as most of the nearly 1,400 individuals who The PhD Project has encouraged and supported will attest.
But no, a Ph.D. is not a turbo-charged MBA. It is a ticket to a new career path that many find highly satisfying and rewarding.
WATCH 3 SHORT VIDEOS ABOUT THE LIFE OF A DOCTORAL STUDENT OR PROFESSOR.