DBA vs PhD Differences: Doctor of Business Administration

Published: 3 January 2020 | by Thomas Graf

Both, the PhD in Management and the DBA, are doctoral degrees and as such have similarities. Nevertheless there are important differences that can be captured by:

  1. Target groups
  2. Motivation
  3. Access to data
  4. Qualification and career goals
  5. Knowledge creation
  6. Teaching mode
  7. Financing
  8. Recognition

1. Doctorate of Business Administration target groups: young graduates vs. senior professionals

PhD in Management and DBA programs address different target groups. Although there may be exceptions, the general rule is: People study a PhD program when they aim at a career in social sciences and eventually want to become a fulltime professor at a business school. Their goal is to become an academic and do research. These people often come directly from the university and start the PhD after graduating. Accordingly, they often are still in their 20s and do not have much work experience.

In contrast, people do a DBA when they are already successful in business for many years and look for a new intellectual challenge. These people often have an MBA already and want to further distinguish themselves from others by doing a doctoral degree. At the same time, they are interested in management research and may have a practical research question in mind - a specific problem from their work environment for instance - that they can approach in their dissertation and that provides benefits to their companies at the same time.

Hence, these people usually are older than PhD students, some of them in their 30s, some in their 40s, some even older. They have many years of work experience, good positions, a decent salary, and tons of ambition and motivation.

2. Motivation: career perspective vs. personal challenge

A difference between PhD in Management and DBA program is often the motivation behind the studies. For PhD students the PhD is the path to a career as an academic. Their degree qualifies them as scholars and the overall goal is to start a career as a fulltime professor at a business school.

DBAs in contrast are driven primarily by the search for a personal challenge. They already have achieved a lot in their business career and some of them have an MBA. The DBA provides them with a new challenge that goes beyond the practical knowledge that they learnt in business or in the MBA. It challenges them as potential researchers.

3. Access to data: having or not having

Central for any research is the data. Data is what analyze to find support for or against your hypotheses - whether qualitative data or quantitative data. Every scholar needs to work with data over time (unless he or she only wants to publish theoretical papers) and having access to or having built up a unique database can be an important advantage when it comes to publishing in top journals.

One of the greatest advantages of many DBA students is their access to data in their own businesses. This data often is unique and sometimes can only be used for their dissertation under serious confidentiality clauses. PhD students, in contrast, often need to build up their database from the scratch, for instance by an online survey or by collecting, coding, and processing publicly available data.

4. PhD and DBA qualification and career Goals: fulltime vs. part-time academic

PhD in Management students aim at a career in academia. They apply for positions as fulltime professors after graduating or go for a Postdoc for some years. Their key activity is doing research, publishing in academic journals or books, and teaching. And this is what PhD in Management students become qualified for – at least at top schools.

In contrast, DBA graduates usually stay working professionals in their companies and want to stay in the business world even after their graduation. However, their doctoral degree qualifies them for doing research as well. They may teach as guest professors, invited or adjunct faculty occasionally and publish in practitioner or academic journals. Also, the doctor title may open some doors for them in their company's hierarchy.

5. Knowledge creation: Differences among doctoral programs in management

Another difference may be that PhD students primarily aim at developing new theory, particularly if they want to publish in top management journals. The starting point of their research often are existing theories and their knowledge gaps – those phenomena that our existing theory does not explain so far.

  • The core idea here is: PhD in Management students work on research questions that are considered as important gaps by the academic community.

DBA students, on the other hand, are less required to extend existing theory. Instead, their great contribution is rather the combination of research with concrete business problems. Their starting point, for example, may be a business problem from their companies and the DBA dissertation may generate a theoretical model that explains that specific problem and at the same time abstracts from it so that the model can be applied in other contexts as well. Hence, the DBA dissertation uses often a case-study approach rather than an empirical research approach.

  • The core idea here is: In the center of a DBA dissertation is a practical problem from the business world that is considered as relevant from both sides, business managers and scholars.

6. Teaching mode: fulltime vs. part-time

Although some business schools offer PhD programs also on a part-time base and although some DBA programs can be studied fulltime, the general rule is: PhD programs are fulltime programs and DBA programs can be studied part-time.

Since DBA students do not want to give up their work during the program, doctorate of business administration (DBA) programs are often organized as so-called blended programs and mix distance or online learning with residential periods. By this, the students can communicate online with professors and their peer group and only have to come together for some weeks per year. In general, DBA programs offer their students a lot of flexibility and once the coursework is over it is up to the advisor how often the DBA student needs to show up physically.

7. Financing your Doctorate in Business Administration

PhD in Management students, particularly at top schools, often get financial support during the studies, either by a scholarship or through a position as research assistant. DBA students on the other hand often pay for their education even though some schools may provide scholarships for them as well.

This makes a lot of sense given that PhD students do not work in business and hence depend on a solid financing plan. DBA students, in contrast, keep on earning money and may have some savings by which they can pay the tuition fees. They may also be able to tax-deduct their DBA expenses and most likely increase their salary once they have achieved their doctoral degree by gaining better positions. Some companies even fund DBA students, especially when they use data from their employers and when their research is relevant for their companies.

PhDs on the other hand are sponsored by their universities because the university has an interest in them. More precisely it has an interest in their future publication. If the PhD student finally becomes a fulltime professor at a renowned business school and publishes in top journals, the university's reputation increases. Hence, the investment pays off for the university in that case.

8. Recognition: established degree vs. gaining recognition

Clearly, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is a worldwide recognized academic degree. It is the traditional qualification for a researcher and it is accepted internationally. In contrast, the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is a relatively young degree and may not be, yet, as much known and recognized as the PhD.

It is very likely though that the value of the degree depends on the reputation of the institution where it has been achieved. If the DBA comes from an established and renowned institution also the DBA degree itself may gain acceptance and the respective person may profit from a higher recognition than if the degree was obtained from a no-name school. In general, the DBA seems to gain recognition and DBA programs can be considered as an emerging market for business schools.

Further links and information on professional doctorates in management

By Thomas Graf