Once an exclusive credential that signified C-suite executive material, M.B.A.'s are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, which may dilute their quality, according to some executives.
Robert Lutz, the former vice chairman of General Motors, regarded his own M.B.A. like a sailor's tattoo and wrote, "I got it before I knew any better," according to the business school blog Poets & Quants. And in an article in Canadian Business, Ken Smith, an associate dean at the University of Guelph's College of Management and Economics, wrote that with a "multitude" of M.B.A. programs, there are plenty of M.B.A.'s at most corporations, and the degree is "mature at best," with signs of decline.
Aspiring executives who want to escape M.B.A. inflation may want to consider applying for a doctoral program after completing their graduate degrees. Admission to doctoral programs is very competitive, and many doctoral students and executives recommend that students get practical work experience between graduate school and doctoral applications. Others say doctoral programs aren't necessary, and an M.B.A. is more than sufficient to launch a graduate into a management role.
"An advanced degree, such as an M.B.A. or J.D., will generally give a person the edge. But for nontechnical fields, a Ph.D. may give some employers the impression that the person is an 'academic,' who is all theory and not practical," says Bill Guy, founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based executive recruiting firm Cornerstone International Group. "Conversely, in the technical fields—and in education itself—a Ph.D. is likely to give a person a significant edge in the hiring process."
But students who choose to supplement their graduate work may benefit from an evolving doctoral business field, which increasingly caters to students who want to work in industry rather than academia. Both the business-related Ph.D. and D.B.A, or doctor of business administration, used to be research focused, says John Fernandes, president and chief executive officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Newer D.B.A. programs tend to train practitioners, while Ph.D. and older D.B.A. programs prepare future professors, Fernandes says.
[Understand the value of a graduate degree.]
A new program at Oklahoma State University's Spears School of Business, which the school describes as a Ph.D. in business for executives, seems to be positioning itself as a hybrid of the two types of doctoral models. The program is a "true research-based Ph.D.," according to Larry Crosby, dean of the school, but the inaugural cohort of 19 is made up of executives who want to stay in the corporate world rather than migrate to academia.
Crosby explains that Ph.D.'s like the one his school created are very different from M.B.A. or other graduate programs, because Ph.D. students pioneer research in areas that haven't been studied yet, whereas graduate students learn to apply theories that have already been articulated.
"Business has become so complex [and] an M.B.A. can get you so far. There's a lot more to be understood—theories, concepts, and tools and challenges coming at an accelerated rate. The ability to carve out some time to get on top of that new thinking is really what this degree is all about," he says.
The Spears School cohort is made up of executives in their mid-50s and above, who hold master's degrees and have achieved "substantial success" in their careers, according to Crosby, which puts the program out of reach for business students at the beginning of their careers. But that doesn't mean the program doesn't create opportunities for younger students, too.
Cohort member Richard Guthrie, president of the Denver-based GPB Management Consultants, says undergraduate and M.B.A. students can benefit from interactions with executives who are studying in a Ph.D. program, if their school offers such a program. "We can be a sounding board about some of our practical business experience and how we apply that," he says. "It probably would have impacted my decision about where to get my M.B.A."
Andrew Forte, president of Forte, Inc., which operates the Stroudsmoor Country Inn in Stroudsburg, Pa., similarly recommends a doctorate to aspiring executives. Forte says that whereas M.B.A. programs teach students the tools and methods of how to do things, doctoral programs train students to understand why situations arise in organizations.
"When I finished my M.B.A., I wanted to know more [and get] more perspective," he says. Forte has also been able to leverage his doctorate to land positions on boards of local nonprofits and corporations—something that he says he wouldn't have been able to do with just an M.B.A.
Students who are considering a doctorate can prepare by getting used to heavy academic reading and demanding schedules, and by laying some groundwork in statistics, says Forte, who holds a doctor of professional studies from the Lubin School of Business at Pace University.
[Read about how proliferating online M.B.A.'s remain controversial.]
When William Schulz III, associate dean of the Walden University School of Management, explains why students should consider a D.B.A., he shares a personal anecdote. Schulz took a break from his D.B.A. studies at Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business in the early '80s to get more work experience. When he tried to return four years later, Indiana had dropped the program and replaced it with a Ph.D., which wasn't a degree he wanted to pursue, because he didn't want to teach.
"I was stuck, because at that point the D.B.A. disappeared," he says. "Until relatively recently, the D.B.A. existed only sort of as a legacy program, or because of tradition at some schools, but clearly all the money was put behind the Ph.D. programs."
Today, that has changed, and a D.B.A. can help an employee stand out "in a way that perhaps the M.B.A. just doesn't go deeply enough," he says. "If I was in the business world looking at hiring someone at an executive level to help me move the business forward, I think I would look at a D.B.A. and most likely hire that person at a higher level than an M.B.A."
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