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DBA vs. PhD in Business

Posted August 12, 2016 by Lee Davidson - Coordinator, Copywriter/Editor - AACSB International

Among doctoral degrees in business, prospective students can take two different paths: a PhD in business, or a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA). To shed some light on just how common each degree is among AACSB-accredited institutions, out of 251 accredited respondents to our 2014–15 Business School Questionnaire that reported doctoral business programs, 214 schools reported offering only PhDs, while 15 offer only DBAs, and 22 offer at least one of each. That further works out to a total of 883 distinct PhD programs and 54 DBA programs among the participating accredited schools. Clearly the PhD is the dominant doctoral degree type in this case, at about 94 percent.

What’s the Difference?

To gain a bit more perspective on what distinguishes these two degrees, I spoke with Praveen Parboteeah, who holds a PhD and is director of the DBA program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s College of Business and Economics. He says, “The market still sees PhDs as superior, as the level of in-depth specialization is necessary for more research-oriented institutions. However, 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.” He believes that “DBAs will get more popular as programs gain more credibility.”

So if you’re among the ambitious souls seeking to go to the next level but aren’t sure which type of program to pursue, Parboteeah helps to provide an overarching distinction between the degrees by noting that DBAs “tend to typically be more practice oriented,” while PhDs are often more research oriented. Another notable difference, he says, is in the doctoral admissions process, where applicants to a DBA program “are expected to have a minimum number of years of high-level work experience.” At Wisconsin-Whitewater, applicants are required to have at least six years of professional experience, but Parboteeah has found that the average number of years of experience among applicants is actually much higher, at 19 years.

“The market still sees PhDs as superior, as the level of in-depth specialization is necessary for more research-oriented institutions. However, DBAs are satisfying a critical niche.”

This further means that applicants to the DBA have typically been out of school for a while, although some may have earned master’s degrees later in life after some career experience and then transitioned directly into the doctoral program. Those who earn PhDs in business tend to have more of a straight degree path, from bachelor’s to master’s to doctoral (or just bachelor’s to doctoral if a master’s isn’t required), without the professional experience, as their goal is often to teach and produce academic research.

As for the curriculum in each program, Parboteeah says, “Based on my experience with our program and the one at Kennesaw State University,” where he is on faculty as a senior global scholar, “I would say that DBAs are much more varied in nature compared to PhDs. Most PhDs offer a standardized curriculum where students are expected to become a specialist in one of the functional areas such as management, marketing, etc. However, DBAs can have a practical curriculum with the executive in mind.”

Doctoral Research: For What Purpose?

While both degree programs generally require a dissertation at the end of the degree, the research completed for each program can differ in nature. Parboteeah provides a couple examples of student research in his DBA program: “For instance, we have an individual whose expertise is on detection and prevention of money laundering. He is finding that there is a lot that has been done in economics that could be extremely useful for his work. We have another individual who is in healthcare administration and who is validating the patient satisfaction measure widely used in hospitals. These two examples show what DBA students bring to the table.” PhD research, on the other hand, is often more theoretical or conceptual in nature. The ideas that result from this work are studied by other professors and doctoral students.

End Goal: The Teaching Connection

What happens after doctoral students graduate from each degree? Because the PhD specifically prepares students for a career in academia, graduates of those programs often seek tenure-track faculty positions at colleges and universities, but other options include researchers or business consultants. DBA graduates have similar aspirations. According to Parboteeah, many of the practitioner-graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater program “want to have some connection with universities.” That may mean teaching one class per semester, while remaining in the workforce. Parboteeah says that “practitioners see it as a way to give back to their communities.” However, he notes of DBAs, “we also have others who have extensive work experience but want to transition to academia.” He even says that the majority of students in his program want to make that transition.

PhD vs. DBA: Takeaways

  • At the completion of both degrees, you get to put that coveted “Dr.” prefix before your name
  • PhDs are typically research oriented, while DBAs are practice oriented
  • Admission to a DBA program often requires years of professional experience
  • Both degrees generally require a dissertation, though the type of research you do may vary greatly
  • Both degrees can earn you a faculty position

As always, when searching for a business school program, prospective students should seek as much information as possible—especially from the program itself—in order to make the best-informed decision.