Doctorates in business administration (DBAs) have very different origins to Doctorates in Philosophy (PhDs), particularly outside the US. While PhDs emerged from education reforms in 19th-century Germany, the DBA is a modern qualification.

The DBA is becoming more relevant as growing numbers of professionals become consultants

Dan Le Clair, AACSB

Harvard Business School launched a DBA in 1953 because only the College of Arts and Sciences could award PhDs. Other US business schools followed suit. In the US, a DBA is not necessarily a practitioner-focused degree. It can be awarded for academic postgraduate research on a management theme.

Practitioner-focused DBAs – geared to senior managers who work – were launched in the UK in the 1990s. These part-time programmes apply management theories to practical workplace problems, with students producing a thesis of some 40,000-80,000 words.

Practical approach to MBAs

Put simply, a PhD develops professional researchers, while a DBA produces researching professionals. DBA graduate Salma al-Derazi, a senior associate at Bahrain Economic Development Board, saw a DBA as a way to apply her experience to practical problems and to develop transferable knowledge and skills.

Al-Derazi’s research looked at e-government and strategic information systems. “My examiner was a professor with a PhD, and when he looked at my work, the difference between PhDs and DBAs was very apparent,” she says. “A DBA takes a systematic practical approach to deliver a theoretical solution.”

“A DBA is philosophically different,” explains Randa Bessiso, Middle East director at Manchester Business School (MBS) in Dubai. “It’s about contributing to a body of knowledge through detailed research, while building on existing knowledge. But the research must have some practical application.”

Today, more than 200 universities and business schools worldwide offer DBA programmes.

“There is a global trend towards professionally focused doctorate courses,” says Dan Le Clair, acting executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a US business school accreditation body. “A DBA [graduate] is more likely to progress in industry than to enter academia …The DBA is becoming more relevant as growing numbers of professionals become consultants or self-employed.”

Few Middle East schools offer DBA programmes at present. Gulf schools that do include Abu Dhabi University’s College of Business Administration, MBS Dubai via the UK, Wollongong University Dubai and the Faculty of Business and Economics at UAE University.

In the wider Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, there is a DBA programme at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport Graduate School of Business in Egypt. French business school Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) offers a DBA at Beirut’s Lebanese-Canadian University. GEM is also launching DBA programmes in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

The University of Wollongong launched a Dubai doctoral programme in September 2010, offering a hybrid doctorate. DBA students take common courses with PhD students for 18 months, then begin supervised research. Of 53 doctoral students currently at the university, 90 per cent plan to pursue a DBA.

The university worked with the UAE’s Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research (Mohesr) to secure national accreditation and to match content to UAE demand, says Abdel Moneim M Baheeg Ahmed, director of postgraduate research at the university.

Career progression

The DBA offered at MBS is the British Financial Times newspaper’s top-ranked DBA programme worldwide. It limits its global annual DBA intake to 30 students. Fifteen current students are from the Middle East.

“Most are business practitioners, although some have come to us from academia,” Bessiso says. “Some are professionals who want to move into consultancy or who work in generating ideas for their employer. Others feel that an advanced degree will help with career progression or a change in direction.”

MBS draws on more than 200 Manchester academics to support the DBA. But while an acclaimed DBA brings prestige to a school, they can be a challenge to deliver. Hull Business School suspended its UK-based DBA in 2004 because it was too expensive.

As higher education becomes more commercially driven, schools allocate resources to courses that make money. For many business schools and universities, a DBA programme simply increases pressure on staff expected to deliver their own research.

“Most universities see their future in research,” says David Bright, MBA distance programme leader for Hull International. “They appoint a senior lecturer on the understanding that that person will publish four high-quality articles in top-ranked learned journals within four years. To then have to fly overseas to teach a DBA may feel like being sidetracked.

“Many MBA students want to go on to study for a doctorate. But a DBA requires resources. It’s expensive and schools must provide a thesis supervisor who holds a doctorate. Perhaps there needs to be another qualification. A DBA programme is hugely demanding.”

Approved courses

Another issue is one of licensing and accreditation. Two years ago, Liverpool School of Business, part of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), transferred its Bahrain DBA programme from Manama to the UK after its local partner failed to secure a licence for the course.

Bahrain’s Higher Education Council has a list of approved courses and agreements with other GCC countries to also approve these courses. But Bahrain’s Qualifications Authority had not licensed Liverpool’s Manama DBA. GCC students enrolled on the Manama DBA feared that their degrees might turn out to be worthless.

“[We] realised that the course would not necessarily be recognised officially unless it was based in the UK,” Al-Derazi says. “I chose the DBA at LJMU because I wanted to be based in Bahrain; there were no other doctorate courses, apart from online courses that were not recognised in Bahrain. [Instead] the workshop programme moved back to the UK.”

French business school GEM could face similar issues. Its DBA has accreditation from the AACSB, Association of MBAs and Equis, but needs local recognition. Its Beirut course is recognised by the Ministry of Higher Education and it is a partner in the UAE with the Higher Colleges of Technology. The school now needs Saudi Arabia to recognise its Jeddah course.

More programmes may launch, however. Wollongong’s Ahmed says “two or three” other business schools, both local and international, are negotiating with the UAE’s Mohesr to license new DBA programmes.

Cass Business School has completed studies into market demand for DBAs in London and Dubai and is weighing up its options.

“Our research suggests that there is regional demand for a less intensively research-oriented doctoral programme,” says Roy Batchelor, Dubai director for the Cass Executive MBA programme. “If we do enter this market, it will probably be through a programme out of London. Cass has 20 top-flight academics who would be suitable as PhD supervisors.

“But it is very difficult to supervise doctoral candidates long-distance. We would also want to ensure we get the right level of candidates. A DBA has to be a serious undertaking, with the right calibre of supervision … We don’t want to promise more than we can deliver. There is no decision yet.”

Other top schools including Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Insead do not intend to launch DBA programmes any time soon. “We are considering several opportunities for phase two of our presence in Abu Dhabi,” says Peter Zemsky, deputy dean at Insead. “But we are not yet convinced that it would be right for us to enter that space.”

Instead, some overseas business schools, including Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and London Business School, have launched post-experience master’s degrees. These target experienced managers who continue to work while studying and researching a dissertation.

“We make a distinction between our master’s programmes and our doctorate,” says Diane Morgan, LBS associate dean of degree programmes. “We offer nine master’s degrees in London – one for pre-experience students and eight for experienced managers. Our PhD programme is geared to those who plan to move into academia.”

Building partnerships

Issues of cost and access to qualified supervisors will slow growth in home-grown DBA programmes in Mena universities and business schools. But there is clear demand within the region for doctoral programmes and research.

The future, Le Clair believes, lies in partnerships between academic bodies in the Middle East and beyond. “Not every school can support doctoral programmes. What may happen more in future, as with MBAs, is that schools collaborate. A small Middle Eastern school may benefit from working with a larger school [overseas].”

Already, partnerships are emerging, such as GEM’s links with Beirut’s Lebanese-Canadian University, Jeddah’s College of Business Administration and Abu Dhabi’s Higher Colleges of Technology.

“We send a professor out to Beirut, Jeddah or Abu Dhabi to teach the classes on research methodology,” says Benoit Aubert, GEM marketing professor and associate director for doctoral programmes. “Our Middle East students fly to Grenoble four times a year … The supervisors are based in Grenoble and they maintain contact by Skype or video conference.”

As to where a DBA leads, Al-Derazi already finds herself in growing demand as a conference speaker. “I don’t think it will be obvious immediately how the DBA will affect my career. It will bear fruit in time. But it has helped me to integrate disciplines that might seem to be unrelated.”

Student experience

Name: Youhan Doctor

Course: MBA, Middlesex University in Dubai.

Year completed: 2011

Background

Youhan Doctor is a certified master mariner. He spent 14 years at sea, working for vessel owner Seaspan Container Lines until 2006. Doctor now works for DP World’s commercial department, negotiating shipping lines’ annual contracts at the Jebel Ali container terminal.

Why did you choose this particular MBA?

I came ashore with my master mariner licence only to find that everyone had the same qualifications. My plan was to get into the business side of shipping and so I wanted to set myself apart from the rest by improving my qualifications. That was where the MBA came in. I researched the choices, but I knew that I wanted to study in Dubai and, having studied to become a master mariner in the UK, favoured a British education. The Middlesex MBA appealed as it was a general course that allowed me to focus on strategy. I chose the course because it had a Dubai-based faculty and offered an international field trip.

How do you feel the course has shaped you, your career and your prospects?

The MBA has made me look at work differently. I feel it has made me more analytical and helped me to pay better attention to detail when it comes to doing business. I am also much more confident to accept new challenges and to apply theory to practice.

What impact has it had on your pay?

It is too early to say what impact the MBA has had. But the fact that I was studying for an MBA played an important part in applying for and getting the job at DP World.

What impact has it had on your skills, knowledge and business practice?

Many times lately, I realise after the event that I have applied MBA theory to some practical problem at work. It is a way of looking at issues, of doing more to get to the bottom of the subject – and I now do that subconsciously.

What is the most important thing you have taken away from the course?

The Middlesex MBA has boosted my self-confidence and professional outlook.