DBA Vs. PhD: Top Programs In Business


Oh, there is so much for you to know. 🙂 At first glance, it might seem that there are very little difference between a Doctor in Business Administration (depending on the business school, this is also called an executive DBA) and a PhD in Business Administration. They are both doctorates, right? This is true, but the differences have a lot of contrast, especially once you start breaking it down.

Before I go any further, I thought I would summarize the differences between a DBA and a PhD in Business Administration For You. There are differences in:

  1. Outcomes (The DBA is for practicing managers).
  2. Process (The DBA is shorter and less uncertain).
  3. Moving (You are more likely to move with a PhD).
  4. Duration (A PhD will likely take longer).
  5. Competition (The PhD is likely more competitive).

If you want a more in-depth understanding of the differences between a PhD and a DBA, you should also watch this video:

Full disclosure – I am currently an Assistant Professor in Strategy, where I study innovation and entrepreneurship. This is part of my r3ciprocity proofreading software project. The goal with the software is to create as good in the world as possible by paying my gratitude to others forward. I had a lot of people help me over the years, from my advisors, other academics in the field, and of course, my immediate family (I have a wonderful wife and two kiddos). I also wanted to have a software platform that solved a problem that I had – finding people that are willing to give me honest peer feedback on my writing. So, I thought I would create a system that helped others. (I have another goal to help organizational science, but you can read about this goal to help science here.) One way that I can help people is to provide as much helpful information about doing a PhD in Business Administration so others can read and have full disclosure to make their own choices going forward.

By the way, all of this stuff is just personal observations from twenty years of higher education (whew. Its been that long?!)

More Than Differences In Business Doctorate Names

From what I can tell, there are three kinds of doctorates in business.

  1. Honorary Doctorate. This is reserved for people that have done extraordinary things in society. Maybe they created an important business, a not for profit, or made an important scientific discovery. This is generally ‘gifted’ to people, rather than earned through the traditional university system. In other words, for most people, you don’t have to worry about it.
  2. Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) and Executive Doctorate in Business. This are similar, although, the executive doctorate might be targeting more senior people in their career. The DBA is generally for those that are interested in learning about what researchers do in academic research, but do not want to actually do research. There goal is to go back into industry or teach other executives or MBAs.
  3. PhD in Business Administration. A PhD in Business Administration is a research degree. Think of a PhD in Business Administration as being akin to a PhD in rocket science (really!?), a PhD in theoretical physics, or a PhD in Economics. While the type, topic, and scope of research can vary a lot between researchers, the main goal of the PhD in Business Administration is to generate new ideas and test existing ideas.

Similarities Between The DBA And PhD In Business Administration.

Now, that I got the generic definition of these kinds of degrees down, let’s get down to the brass-tax of both programs. What are the similarities between a DBA and a PhD in Business? There are many.

Doctorate Admissions.


Both will require a GMAT or GRE scores. Each program varies in what scores they are looking for, but generally, higher scores are better than lower scores. Most admissions offices will also have some cut-off at which they look at applicants. However, because this is a very specialized degree, there might often room to make accommodations if you look outstanding in other ways. This varies between schools, so you will just have to check. This is up to you.

2. Appropriate Prerequisite Education.

You will have to have the appropriate prereqs for your chosen subdomain. Most often, people will require an MBA in an appropriate subdomain, like an MBA in finance, MBA with an accounting focus, or MBA in strategy. From my own experience, you will really need to get a strong understanding in mathematics to do a PhD in the harder fields (ie. Finance or Accounting). There is a small group of people that do behavioral experiments in these fields, however, you will need to know mathematics to be able to read their journals. If you plan to go that route, just be aware that the doctorate in these fields is much more difficult than the MBA or undergrad degree. Indeed, it is common to see people from mathematics and engineering go into these fields.

Doctorate Of Business Process And Outcomes.

1. Length Of Program.

The length both the program will be quite similar. Roughly, you could theoretically complete both programs within 3 to 4 years of dedicated schooling. The DBA and the executive DBA will probably err on the 3-4 year side, but the PhD will probably be more like 4-7 years depending on what you are doing. There are a few people that do the PhD in 3-4 years (5%), but the majority will take 4-5 years, and the remainder (10%) will take 5-7 years.

Why is there this difference in the length of the program? The key issue with a PhD in Business Administration is that it is a research degree and you will need to have some papers that are well developed before you can get an academic job. Most people can easily complete the requirements with 4 years, but many people will work on papers to improve their chances on the job market before they look for an academic job.

Years ago, I heard that it was the norm to get out in 4 years with a PhD in Business Administration, but this is getting longer as the competition in the academic job market has intensified in the past 25 years. A significant portion (including myself) are turning to post-doctorate education after their PhDs before they get a business professor job.

2. Cost of PhD in Business Administration Versus Doctor of Business Administration Program.

You might think that the cost of the program for a MBA or a DBA is significantly more than a PhD in Business Administration. If you look at the fees, there are often substantial differences. Some MBA and DBA programs look like they are 2-3 times the cost of the PhD in Business Administration. Further, many PhD in Business Administration programs will pay you through PhD stipends. PhD stipends are generally just the right amount of money that allow PhD students to survive and thrive during the PhD. It is not a lot ($10-30 K at most places), but you should be able to eat and have housing.

However, factoring in the opportunity cost of forgoing wages for a few more years during the PhD, the costs are likely very similar to a DBA or MBA. This might differ per person and school, but you should really take this into consideration.

3. Knowledge And Understanding Of Business.

In both the Doctor of Business Administration and the PhD in Business Administration, you will get an amazing understanding of the latest research on business. You will well trained to understand the world of business. You will also know many of the major theories of management theory, depending on your specialization. This is one of the many advantages of doing a PhD in Business Administration. It is truly a joy to know all of these theories.

4. Salaries Of People With A DBA Or A PhD In Business.

Salaries between a DBA and a PhD can vary widely, and largely depends on your career outcomes after both degrees. However, a good general rule is your salary will be rough equal to $10 k per year in higher education. Some PhDs and DBA’s make much less than this, and some make much more than that. It really depends on what you do with both of these degrees.

However, if you want some hard data on PhD salaries, you can watch the following video and check out this link at the AASCB survey on Business School Professor salaries. Information on DBA salaries is much harder to obtain as this will be private, however, you should be able to ask admissions officers for this information. From what I understand (and its not much), you should probably expect DBA salaries to be comparable to graduates of Executive MBA programs.

Differences Between A DBA And PhD In Business Administration.

Differences In Outcomes.

There are important and significant differences in outcomes between the DBA and the PhD in Business Administration. The basic understanding is the PhD is a research degree. It is more similar to getting a PhD in Chemistry, Theoretical Physics, or Economics, than getting a DBA. These degrees train you to develop ideas and share these ideas with other academics. A DBA is much more of a like getting an MBA, a law degree, a nursing degree, or a MD degree. These degrees train you to apply ideas that you learn. The DBA is similar as you are getting an advanced degree in the application of ideas.

In contrast, a PhD will teach you to do research. A PhD in Business, Innovation, Accounting, Operations, or whatever is primarily a research degree. Generally, the outcome you get with this degree is for you to spend 1/3 to all of your time doing research, 1/3 teaching, and 1/3 providing service to the academic community. The service component can be broken up in to being an editor at a major journal, doing service for the college or university in which you teach, doing service for the academic community as a whole (i.e. organizing conferences, etc). Your job is to become a professor in most top business schools.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. A Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) can allow you to teach in a research school, however you are unlikely to be tenure-tracked. You can teach undergraduates, MBAs, and maybe executives. The odd person that gets a DBA might do the occasional research project, but this normally occurs by teaming up with tenure-track faculty members. Harvard’s DBA is also the exception. Harvard’s DBA is generally thought of as a research degree, so you will get academic training if you go that route. You will also be expected to do research if you get a DBA from Harvard.

Process Differences Between A DBA And PhD In Business Administration.

A key thing to remember is that doing research of any sort is very messy and uncertain. There are never any right answers, just more plausible answers. There is also no one way to come up with the answer. You can look at the same situation from many directions, get different answers, and still be right. See the famous article by Allison. That is OK, but it has implications for what happens during the PhD. A PhD is likely to take longer and be more uncertain than a DBA because it is focused on research. A DBA is primarily coursework-based and the project is significantly less ‘theory’ focused. During the PhD, you are suppose to contribute to theory. Although, ones contribution varies drastically.

My point is that a PhD in Business Administration is likely to take longer than a DBA. I cannot over stress these differences between a DBA and PhD in Business Administration. It is also likely to feel a lot more strenuous on you and your family. At least, this was my experience post comprehensive exams (‘comps’). However, I have pretty much seen everyone that has ever done a PhD struggle after ‘comps.’  I guarantee you will cry, feel frustrated, and demoralized throughout the process. Just know that this is normal – you are figuring out a tough problem in which there is no answer.

A DBA can have a few of these frustrations, but it is likely less so (again Harvard’s DBA is an exception).

What is the normal course-work pattern with a PhD in Business Administration? You will spend the first 2 years doing courses, and the following 2-4.5 years doing research. This research will either be on academic papers or your own thesis. The typical DBA will do the 2 years of course-work just like the PhD, which is far more theoretical and academic than an MBA, and then 1 year doing a more applied research project. The reason why it is shorter is just because it is far easy to create a self-contained project that is applied and not theoretical.

A PhD in Business Administration Will Require You To Move.

This is the unfortunate thing, or the fortunate thing if you are looking for an adventure. You will be required to move in virtually all PhD in Business Administration programs. Why? You gain a lot of returns by colocating with other PhD students and with other researchers. There is actually a technical term that we use to describe this – agglomeration economies. This basically means the increased returns you get from clustering with like-minded people.

Where do these returns come from? The benefit of colocating with other researchers (particularly near your faculty supervisors) is that you can learn much more quickly in how to do the craft. You are also more likely to compete with other PhD students to get your work done. Don’t underestimate this competitive element – it is quite motivating, or for some, less motivating. 🙁 You also will learn many of the subtle norms, which I try to talk about in my Youtube videos on doing a PhD in Business Administration.

Because the research component is smaller or more ‘applied’ in an executive Doctor in Business Administration program, many places will offer it online. This can make sense if you don’t want to do research in the long-term. Many people don’t want to do research, and that is ok. The advantage of the online versus is that you can work from home as an executive, but expect this working from home to be quite difficult. You might have and advantage because you could use your workplace as a case in your projects. It will be much more overwhelming than doing an MBA as there is a lot of research material to cover. It will also be over the course of 3-4 years (or more if you take breaks), so you will have to be motivated over a long period of time. Most people don’t do well with this – me included. However, if you think it makes sense for you, feel free to try an executive DBA programs.

When Is A Doctor Of Business Administration Online Program Right For You?

The Outcomes Of A PhD In Business Administration Take Longer To Achieve.

Everything in a PhD in Business Administration is miserably slow. You will work very hard every day for months, but feel like you accomplish only a very little. This feeling in research is completely normal, and it takes a long time to get used to it. You will actually be doing a lot of work, but the tasks just take a long time to accomplish. If you are a patient person, than research works well with you. If you are impatient, it is going to drive you crazy. For example, you will first take 1-2 years to complete a paper, and then when you submit the paper to a journal, the journal will take 4 months to get back to you. Then, the paper will be rejected, and you have to start the process all over again. Expect this cycle to occur many times over before you get tenure.

Want to know more about what is expected from research papers in academia? You can check out the following video on the most important paper attributes for academic research:

A DBA is much quicker and is usually preferable for those that are interested in going into consulting or advancing their executive career. If you want to go into business after, I would not recommend a PhD in Business. Again, you will have much more guaranteed returns if you go the DBA route.

A PhD in Business Administration Is More Competitive.

Most people that are outside of the academia environment are very surprised by how competitive the academic research environment is. I once saw a corporate lawyer, turned business professor, said the number of hours he spends at work and doing work is exactly the same and perhaps even more in the academic environment. Why is that? People doing research in a Business School are very competitive. They usually are quite skilled–engineers, lawyers, etc.–become business school professors. Plus, you generally have all of the brightest students from undergrad going to grad school. Finally, everybody knows how everyone else performs – our track record is explicit and open to the entire world. We are measured in terms of publications – both the quantity and quality of publications. Don’t be surprised with the competitive feel as soon as you enter the PhD program. This feeling in research will never go away.

I will be adding more to this post on the similarities and differences between a DBA And PhD in Business Administration, so stay tuned. In the meantime, you can check out the following videos.

What Is The Difference Between A PhD In Business Administration And An MBA Or An Undergraduate Business Program?

Ok, so there are some differences between a DBA and a PhD in Business Administration, but how different is it from an MBA, Masters, or Undergrad Program? If you have never been in a PhD program, how do you do know what to expect? To a large extent, undergrad and grad school are very similar in that graduate school is simply just an extension of undergraduate education. An PhD is an extension of a MBA or Masters.  A MBA / Masters program is primarily focused on coursework and a PhD program is primarily focused on research. A Masters program is somewhere in between and an undergrad and PhD program if it is focused on research. Most MBAs are focused more on professional education, but some do have a component of research. This might be a 4-6 month project, or you might do some research project for one of your professors.

What are some key differences with graduate school from an undergraduate or professional-style MBA or executive MBA? Intellectually, there might be similarities, but there are many key differences.

  1. You will feel a lot more uncertain and challenged. You will never know if your answers are correct or if you are going in right direction. You will have to get used to this feeling of being uncertain during the research game as graduate school is primarily self-directed. It is up to you to choose your academic career. Also, grad school is a lot more frustrating than undergraduate school. You will not know what to do, and there will be many things along the way will ruin results. You should expect this frustration, and part of the fun is for you is to figure out why this is occurring.
  2. Each course is substantially more difficult than an undergraduate course. Expect courses in a PhD in Business Administration to be equivalent to 2 to 3 undergraduate courses. This level of rigor is quite normal in must PhD or DBA programs.
  3. You will be working in an apprentice-type relationship with a professor. You will grow a strong working relationship or friendship with your academic supervisor. You should be meeting at least every other week with a professor to discuss your research. Also, know that there will be less of a status divide between you and the professor. It is common to call your supervisor by their first name, rather than Professor so and so.
  4. Graduate school is not a time for partying or an extension of the undergrad lifestyle. Most professors will want you to eventually start acting like a professor, although of course, we do have fun. However, the imagine that PhD students are slackers or just party all the time is rather off. There is a considerable amount of work to do to just get by in the PhD program.
  5. Graduate school is a lot more collaborative than undergraduate programs, but it is also very isolating. You will have to collaborate with Professors and other students in the PhD program. This is completely normal. However, know that you will still be doing much of this work on your own, and you will meet up with your collaborators every couple of days or weeks. You have to feel comfortable working on your own during a PhD of Business Administration.
  6. During a PhD program, everybody is extremely smart. They are typically the top 5% of graduates from MBA programs across the world. However, people will predict like they know what they are doing, but very few people know what they are doing. Everybody in a PhD in Business Administration or DBA is just ‘bumbling along’ just like you.
  7. Getting good grades does not matter in graduate school. A lot of people get this wrong when they first enter the PhD program. It is important to get good grades, but what is really important is whether you are doing research and you are being productive with your research. If you could produce one more paper at the consequence of getting B+ rather than an A, you should choose to write that paper. Notice that this is quite different than an undergraduate program in which the best outcome is to get the highest grade.
  8. There will be a stronger focus on theory in a graduate program than in an undergraduate program. I know that you probably don’t really get what I am talking about with ‘theory,’ but generally you are expected to think very broadly and think about problems in a very general terms, compared to an undergrad or MBA program. In an MBA program, it is common to think about how the material you are learning about is practical.

If you are interested in learning more about a DBA or a PhD in Business Administration, you can watch these videos:

How To Get Into The Best Business Schools In The US

How To Write An Email To A Professor For Graduate School Admission?

Why Did You Decide To Get A PhD Degree In Business Strategy? 

What Is A Normal Day Of A PhD Student Or A Research Professor?

PhD Supply And Demand – What Is The Supply And Demand Of A Graduate Degree

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Going To Grad School?

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