Why Get A PhD In Strategic Management? And, Questions About Strategy Doctorates.

Why Did You Get A Doctorate In Strategic Management?

Being trained as an engineer (engi-nerd?) in my undergrad in Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, Canada, I often get the question about why someone like myself might get a PhD in Strategic Management. I think most of the time people are trying to figure out why I would make the transition from Engineering to Business Administration. From the outside world, it appears that these two fields are quite different. The transition can appear strange. Engineering is about building things or fixing problems. Business administration is about managing and growing organizations. Strategic Management, specifically, is focused on how managers organize. Some people think that Strategic Management should always focus on improving the financial performance of the firm, but given my eclectic background I take a much broader view strategic management. 

The truth is that the reason why people get a doctorate in strategic management (whether a PhD or DBA) is because they are inherently interested in how organizations work, broadly speaking, and you want to do research on why organizations work within the world.

For me, engineering was simply a way to understand how Productions, R&D, and Logistics works within the organization. Having a basic understanding of Chemistry and Mathematics helped me to understand some basic principles of the world. However, I was always more interested in how people interact with this world, particularly when it comes to the design and manufacturing of advanced technologies. I also thought it would be cool to apply some of the scientific aspects of engineering to the social sciences. 

Of course, all sorts of people come from all sorts of backgrounds to study strategic management. It’s extremely common to see attorneys, engineers, accountants, and many other professionals go into doctoral programs to study how organizations work.

If you want to learn more and watch the video that this blog post is based on, check out the following video. This is part of my r3ciprocity.com project. I wanted to give back as much as I can. The r3ciprocity project is not only focused on helping graduate students (i.e., Masters and PhD-level students) and faculty make better decisions, get feedback on their writing, and connect these people with great editors / proofreaders. (Check out this blog post I wrote on getting feedback on your writing.) A central tenet of the mission of the r3ciprocity.com project is to aid in the construction and development of valid organizational science. In other words, a central reason why I created the platform was to help scientists do better science.

Why Do A PhD?

You might be thinking that a PhD in Strategic Management is all about making money, or getting some large corporation to earn an extra dollar as a person who works for the corporation, but that is farthest from the truth. Only a small group of professors do work on corporate strategy, and most of those people understand that strategy is much broader than financial rewards.  Strategy is wide, and it often about the struggle that managers (and other stakeholders go through) to define what a group of people doing ‘work’ is all about. Strategy is not just about corporations, or just making money, but about how organizations are formed and how they interact with the world. It’s about people doing everyday things – organizations are in every part of our life. We see organizations when we go to work, do things around the house, play, attend religious ceremonies, give to charity, and interact with the government. All of these organizations do some form of strategy.

A primary reason why most people get a doctorate in Strategic Management because they love to read, write, and do arithmetic. (Read this post about the PhD journey). They love to figure out why organizations work, and why they do not work. Why managers make decisions, or why they do not. 

Many people think that getting a PhD is about teaching. The reality is far from the truth. That is, the teaching component, while is important, is your secondary reason why you do a PhD in Strategic Management. The dominant view for why people get a PhD view themselves is to become some form of researcher or scientist, where they are looking for new insights about the world. If you get a PhD in strategy, you might think of yourself as being more akin to a “chemist” working in a lab than a teacher instructing high school students.

Common Questions About Getting A PhD.

Now that you know what getting a PhD in Strategy is all about, you might be asking yourself some questions. Many of these questions are quite common, and can be answered in this blog post.

Are Doctoral Programs Free In The USA or In Canada? 

Most reputable programs are going to pay you to attend the PhD program. This is called a PhD stipend. The stipend is not large, but it is sufficient. The reason is because you are going to need to live for 4-7 years (likely 5-6 years), and it would not be sustainable without those funds. Moreover, you are doing research for the university, so they get to benefit from any ideas that you discover.

Do I Think PhD Students Should Get Paid More?

Absolutely, but you will realize that the reason is because of market forces (something that you will be better able to understand once you do a PhD in strategy). Even if one wants to change the market, there is always another actor that is exerting influence on the market, such as putting downward pressure on wages. Changing wages is sort of a joint effort between many actors who are outside of your control, and this is not easy to do. It would require a cultural change within all academic programs, not just in Business Schools. Remember, college deans and university presidents have to think about equity across the university, so if PhD students get paid more in Business Schools, than they will have to get paid more in Anthropology. And, if they don’t, there is likely going to be a mass exodus of talented Anthropology professors from your university because they view the changes as unfair.

Check out this video if you want to learn more about PhD stipends:

What About Attending Other PhD Programs With Strategy In Its Name (e.g. Strategic Leadership?): 

A name is just a name. It really does not matter.

Here is what is most important to a PhD program: These programs might be good (and many are very good), but you have to look at ‘who’ are at those programs and ‘where’ are the graduates going to.

It is important that you look between the lines when someone markets something to you. Does the career that their graduates get make sense for you? If so, then there is a match between you and the institution. If not, you should probably apply elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of every doctoral program. You should be asking where PhD students have gone and who they have on faculty. If they don’t want to share this information, they are likely not being honest with you. And, if they do those avoidance tactics, is that the kind of place that you want to be at for 4-5 years of your life?

Ultimately, the reason why you get your doctorate is because you feel that it is calling for you do so. You need to find other people to work with that match these interests. Your supervisors should be doing things that match what you are interested in, or at least something that you find interesting and could learn about.  There is no other reason for doing a PhD than you just find some research topic, or some idea, just really cool. Yes, there are secondary effects, like possible increases in income or status, but those changes are so minor that they do not matter. Indeed, I would argue that those secondary effects actually don’t exist for many people. You find many people that take a pay cut to get their PhD and become a professor.

If you need more tips about doctoral programs, you should read the following blog post.

Does The University Matter For Getting A PhD In Strategic Management?

Absolutely, it does. However, the university matters and not the way that you think it would. Status and reputation are very important in the academic market, and you should look for schools that have a certain amount of status and reputation.  Here are some of the most common lists that most Business Schools go by to ‘rank’ their programs:

BUT, I think rankings are not the best indicator that you should go by. Rankings are like popularity in people. We all know people that are ‘popular’ but once you get to know them, you realize there is not magic behind them.

The most important thing is that you find a university that fits with who you as a person. Doing a PhD is very difficult journey and you need to find people that are supportive of who you are. Ask many questions of all people that you encounter that went to that university or work at the university. You want to get a sense of the culture of the organization, and who will be supportive of you. Most academics will agree that culture is the single most important factor that makes a good university.  

Can You Study Other Research Topics When You Do A PhD In Strategic Management?

Absolutely. This is encouraged. Research means going into all areas of study.

You can study many of the ‘sister’ and sub-discipline fields, like entrepreneurship, international business, organizational behavior, or innovation. In those fields, you learn about organizational theory, research methods, and very similar things that you would when you study strategic management. The only major difference is that the focus of the research is on these different subjects.

However, you are also encouraged to go into more interesting areas. If you see research that fits what you are interested in a far off domain, like Architecture, you might want to spend a few weeks studying how they understand what you are interested in. The only difference is that you think about what they study from your own unique lens.

A major thing that you will get to understand is that what you study reflects where you will end up. These different subjects drive where you will get a research position once you are done your PhD. For example, if you do research on Innovation, you’ll likely fill a faculty position at a university that focuses on Innovation, but if you do research on international business, you will likely fill a faculty position in international business. Check out the following video to explore more.

What Do You Want To Do With Your PhD?

I think one of the most important things that you should think about is what you want to do in 30 years, and how the doctorate allows you to achieve those goals 30 years from now. You can think of this discovery process in one of two ways: 

  1. Work Backwards. You can think of it in terms of working backwards towards the ultimate goal of what you want to do. If you do this discovery process, then you’re going to need extensive information about what your objectives are, and what the people do with similar expected outcomes, and how they got their based on those objectives.  in other words, you’re going to have to do some investigative reporting into your future career.
  2. Think Option Value. Another way that you can think about getting your doctorate is in terms of the options that provides. Having options for jobs, if your plans of getting a PhD and becoming a professor falls through, is a very good thing. The reason why you think of it in terms of options is because you’re highly uncertain about where you’re going to be in the future. You need more options because you are unlikely to know who and what are going to be in the future. In this case, you should still do investigative reporting by interviewing people that have the best options that are currently available to you.

Check out this video if you want to see how I talked about this career choice:

How Has A PhD Changed You?

For me, doing a PhD really help me to think about my own views in terms of life, religion, and politics. I am not going to tell you what those views are, but my PhD was quite formative for me. The reason why is that it helped me to explore uncomfortable current views in a smart way.  I also became much more humbler with my views, because I realized how difficult it is to truly understand something very well, and quickly things can change once you understand that topic.  doing a PhD with a very personal journey for me, and I think it’s very personal journey for everyone who does research.

I discuss how a PhD has changed my life and how I think.

If you want to learn more about doing research, doing a PhD, or the r3ciprocity project,  I would highly encourage you to explore this blog and my YouTube videos. You might want to  start with these posts: 

The Myth of the PhD Expert.

How To Get A PhD In Strategy And Innovation.

How To Become A Business School Professor.

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