An entrepreneur studies the business literature

DBA degree

Many successful business executives reach a point where they begin to look outside their current careers for new challenges. Some turn to philanthropic or non-profit work. Others pursue high adventure challenges, such as triathlons or alpine climbing. Some turn to the classroom and lecture as an adjunct professor. For a small group, though, that is not enough. They decide that they want to pursue the challenge of obtaining a doctorate degree–whether the goal is to later transition into a full-time professorship, to add research skills to their current resume, or to enjoy knowing they’ve earned the highest academic degree in their field.

In this article, I’ll briefly discuss the two doctoral degrees commonly offered by business schools and give some insight into how they differ. Then I’ll discuss the DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) in more detail.

Doctoral Degrees

Broadly, doctorate degrees can be classified into two categories, professional and research, with the distinctions being that a professional degree both prepares students for an industry career and, unlike a research degree, doesn’t usually require original research, such as a dissertation project. Common professional doctorates include the Juris Doctor (JD) and the Doctor of Medicine (MD), but there are many professional doctorates available (e.g. EngD, DO, and PharmD).

Unlike a professional degree, research degrees focus on training students for a life in academia, teaching and conducting original research. The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is the preeminent research doctorate, but not the only one available (e.g. DA, DMA, and Th.D.). 

The DBA is a both a professional and a research degree, meaning that it both prepares students for higher-level work in industry and it also often requires independent research leading to a contribution to scholarly knowledge, typically through a dissertation project.

Both the DBA and the better-known PhD in business are terminal degrees, meaning they are the highest degree obtainable in their academic field. According to , worldwide in 2014-15 there were 883 distinct PhD programs but only 54 DBA programs among AACSB-accredited business schools.

Whereas PhD programs aim to train future academics in how to conduct theoretical research, publish in academic journals, and teach, the typical DBA program “is an alternative pathway to doctoral research for practicing managers. Hence, their thesis is necessarily based on and informed by professional practice” . The typical DBA student intends to remain in industry after graduation, but with the additional option to pursue some form of academic involvement, whether that be as a part-time adjunct professor or as a “second career” professor or administrator. “DBAs are satisfying a critical niche whereby strong practitioners are trained in the rigors of scientific method and bring both practice and scholarly research to the university” .

Without a doubt, the PhD is the preferred degree for someone intent on obtaining a tenure-track academic position at a major research university. “The market still sees PhDs as superior, as the level of in-depth specialization is necessary for more research-oriented institutions” . Business school PhD programs are not without criticism, though. “Many PhD students don’t have significant management experience and lack access to non-public data or insight into practical problems in industry. Partly because of this, PhD candidates often focus on more theoretical or conceptual research than DBA candidates or have to use publicly available data” contends that common failings in business schools include an “emphasis on theory rather than problem solving, narrow disciplinary focus, paradigmatic tendencies that favor theory validation rather than usefulness, problems of communication and incommensurability of ideas and concepts.”

DBA History

The DBA degree is still little known in the U.S. (though more common is Europe and Australia) and, as we saw earlier, is dwarfed by the various business school PhD programs. This was not always the case, as “the DBA degree program began before 1952. At its peak of popularity, more than 100 universities and colleges conferred DBA degrees. Over time, though, most of those institutions migrated away from the DBA degree label, replacing it with a PhD label

I had a conversation on the history of the DBA with the faculty director of a DBA program and, according to him, around the 1960s business schools began recruiting PhD faculty from disciplines such as economics, mathematics, sociology, and psychology in an attempt to bring more scientific rigor to their faculty. In addition, rebranding their degrees from DBA to PhD helped the schools leverage the latter’s more scholarly connotation.


It’s important to dispel a common misconception. The DBA is not an advanced MBA (Master of Business Administration). In an MBA program, students learn how to solve managerial problems using accepted tools of the trade (e.g. SWOT analysis, portfolio modeling, or financial analysis). An MBA is professional training for the management profession. “In an MBA program, you are building up knowledge that is already there – and you receive that knowledge through books, lectures, case studies, or interaction with professors, classmates or businesses” .

In a DBA program, you explore the scientific underpinnings of those subject areas covered in an MBA. “The DBA is a research program where you read academic journals. You become trained not in solving managerial problems but in becoming a researcher who is able to publish in academic journals” . DBA students master statistics and quantitative and qualitative research methods and then use those tools to conduct research projects that answer business questions. Whereas MBA students read and analyze case studies, DBA students research and write case studies.

Because typical DBAs also have a business background, they are referred to as a scholar-practitioner (alternatively scientist-practitioner), which is someone “who is dedicated to generating new knowledge that is useful to practitioners”  . “Executive-level scholar-practitioners move between the worlds of higher education and business in pursuit of breakthrough management knowledge and effective practice,” .

DBA Curricula

In an effort to find a program for myself, I surveyed 30 U.S.-based DBA programs in 2016. All of the programs I surveyed were residency-based, meaning a significant portion of the curriculum was delivered on campus instead of via distance learning. Most of the programs I surveyed were three years in length and based on cohorts–meaning students worked through their programs in lock-step as a cohesive group instead of on individual tracks–though there were variations in both the lengths of the programs and their scheduling formats. All the curricula I looked at, to varying degrees, centered around coursework in

  • statistics,
  • research methods, and
  • business disciplines (accounting, finance, marketing, management, etc.).
In addition to the coursework mentioned above, which typically filled the first two years of study, most of the programs required some significant dissertation project that became the focus of the program after the coursework phase was completed. The requirements of these dissertation projects varied considerably based on the focus of the program (i.e. whether the program was focused on training students for industry or academic careers).

Many of the programs required a traditional dissertation based on original research that contributes to existing scholarly knowledge–equivalent to a PhD dissertation. Other programs used a series of three published academic journal articles as the dissertation project (positioning graduates for tenure-track academic positions). Still other programs allowed much greater flexibility, including, for example, writing a practitioner-focused book or completing an internal research project at the student’s organization. One thing is clear, though, since DBA candidates usually bring significant professional experience to their programs, the “DBA candidates have access to, often confidential, business data through their organizations and contacts. This also leads to more practice focused research than a PhD,” .

In order to better understand the differences between an industry- and academy-focused program, it might help to look at a few concrete examples. Of the 30 programs I reviewed, the following three are fairly representative. (I am not necessarily endorsing any of the programs mentioned.) Creighton University is an example of an academy-focused program . On the other end of the spectrum, the Rollins College program is clearly industry focused, going so far as to  call the program an “Executive DBA.” Finally, the University of South Florida offers a very flexible program that could conceivably be tailored to meet either industry or academic career goals.


The landscape of doctoral business education is changing as DBA programs multiply to meet the demands for both business school faculty and business professionals who understand data.  According to the AACSB, there simply are not enough qualified faculty to fill open positions in business schools. In the 2015-2016 school year, the AACSB reported 1,386 doctoral positions that were funded but unfilled, with a further 1,273 positions planned for the following year .

In industry, data is exploding. Storing and analyzing petabytes of customer data is becoming routine. DBAs are trained to generate, understand and explain business data and these skills will continue to grow in demand as data collection proliferates.