Alexina Portal, a Paris-based, organisational change consultant, was “already at a senior level in business and looking for a new intellectual challenge that would go beyond my practical knowledge” when she decided to study for a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) at Grenoble Ecole de Management.

For Portal, the DBA was “a personal gift, a once-in-a-lifetime chance, an experience and a solution for my career”. By the time she graduated in 2012, after five years of intensive study, the DBA had “changed my vision and approach to deliver concrete results” to her clients.

She adds: “When we perform a DBA, we are not learning theories, we are learning methodological tools necessary to generate knowledge, and if we have to analyse each single hypothesis behind our research topic, we have to prove results, and be ready for opening even more questions.”

Portal is one of a growing number of senior business executives who have turned to the DBA as a means of taking their careers to the next level. Grenoble Ecole de Management alone has over 200 DBA graduates around the world and, says Mark Smith, Director of the Doctoral School and Professor, continues to recruit strongly each year.

“These individuals are seeking something more,” says Smith, “something that makes them stand out and also something that scratches that intellectual itch.”

Generally, they will also have at least one Master’s degree, which could be an MBA. But as Mark Stoddard, Director of Operations at the Association of MBAs (AMBA), points out, the DBA should not be seen as a natural extension of the MBA, if only because its rigorous research focus would only appeal to – and be relevant for – a relatively small number of MBA graduates.

“The DBA aims to bring high level research to bear on solving unique and complex management problems. It is therefore about developing innovators and change agents for a wide variety of organisations,” says Stoddard. “The DBA should enhance a career but is not designed to be a career booster in the same way as the MBA.”

It could be argued that you get an MBA to earn more and a DBA to learn more although AMBA’s website refers to the “continued confusion in the market regarding the definition and value of this [DBA] degree”.

Claire Collins, Director of the DBA Programme at Henley Business School in the UK, admits the DBA is “sometimes still a well-kept secret”. But she adds: “People understand a PhD, and a DBA is just the same, save for two points; it is part-time and it makes a dual contribution, that is to theory and to practice. The DBA is a doctoral qualification with all of the rigour and relevance that that requires.”

At Henley, at least, the secret is out, with “many more applications” than places for the DBA course, which like Grenoble’s is accredited by AMBA. Henley currently has some 140 research associates, from more than 30 countries, each dedicating about 15 hours a week to their studies and each paying £50,000-£60,000 over five to six years. The age range is 35-55 and they have an average of 17 years’ experience. As Collins says, their motivation is somewhat different from that of an MBA.

“The advantages of the DBA are that it develops deep, specialist knowledge in a defined area through research,” she says. “The holder of a DBA becomes a real expert in this area and since contribution to practice is a criterion for success, this knowledge will have an impact on business, organisations and society.

“We have a number of research associates who are working on issues that will fundamentally change the way that their industry works, or are working on policy issues which may change an issue at national or international level,” Collins continues. “So, there is a real benefit to career and employment aspirations, but also the potential to have impact far beyond that.”

In Portal’s case, her research was as specialised as it gets, with a thesis entitled: Specificity and Efficiency of Strategies Developed to Share Emotions When Writing An Email for Business Purposes. “I was interested in management research but it took me time to feel comfortable with my research topic,” she says. “As we are living for all our life with our topic, and we can have a hard time for the five years when we are performing the study, we definitely have to be passionate about our research area. I was looking for a concrete business question, and it definitely changed the way I’m acting in my day-to-day business life.”

As Smith suggests, DBA holders have a legitimacy in both academic and business worlds – “a rare breed”. He adds: “To complete a doctorate in any discipline is an immense personal challenge and will change your life, open up new opportunities and open your eyes to what we know and, importantly, what we don’t know and what is left to find out.”

Douglas Morrison

Formerly city editor of Scotland on Sunday and a city reporter for The Sunday Telegraph

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