Are our doctoral programmes fit for purpose and the future?

Many of us are familiar with growing debates around whether Business Schools are ‘fit for purpose’, essentially in their ability to ‘serve business’ in the face of increased global competition, economic uncertainty, technological advances and forces of consumerism. The provision of doctoral programmes in these schools warrants attention. Indeed, the number of business and management doctorates worldwide has grown exponentially in the last decade against a backdrop where the number of doctorate holders worldwide is estimated to stand in excess of 15 million. In context, however despite massification, the doctorate remains a prestigious award, held by approximately 0.2% of the global population.

Our doctoral programmes as elite educational awards are acknowledged to endure in the face of adversity, with shared fundamental challenges for their current and future management, not least: massification of the doctorate award; individualised national economic and skills agendas; paradigm shifts in knowledge production; competing strategic, academic and employability needs; a rise in demand for flexible, remote education opportunities; and heightened awareness of mental health and wellbeing vulnerabilities.

Eight years on since the first EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference, our growing international community of programme directors, heads of doctoral schools and other professionals working in doctoral education recently met to reflect on our experiences of management in practice and explicitly asked ‘Are our doctoral programmes fit for purpose and the future?’

This short article was inspired by the speakers, participants and organisers of the 2018 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference in Frankfurt, for which I thank them as conference Chair.

Fit for purpose?

The strategic value of the doctorate to any Business School cannot be overlooked, contributing to research performance metrics and funding as well as being fundamental to the reproduction of the academy and maintenance of the research ecosystem. Cost-benefit analysis of our doctoral programmes is an essential starting point for any consideration of the ‘fit for the purpose’ of doctoral programmes today.It is vital to reflect on what our doctoral programmes are aiming to achieve. Do our higher education institution aims fit with what our countries need, the requirements of different types of employers and, fundamentally, end-user, student needs?

Different perspectives from around the world provided by Dimitris Assimakopoulos, Guangzhong Li and Yusra Mouzughi force us to consider the external drivers of Business School doctoral education. Direct relationships are visible between education, the knowledge economy and national development growth. In this context, the need for doctoral education is perhaps unequivocal.

Yet, as Michael Grote reminded us during the EFMD conference, a more critical view of investment and opportunity costs is required when considering academic needs and the doctorate. Here, time is a factor that should not be dismissed. Pressure to increase timely completion rates and throughput sits against widening institutional expectations of doctoral student outputs. Achieving high-level journal publications does not happen miraculously overnight for our doctoral researchers; the medium- to long-term trajectory to produce research outputs as an increasingly expected part of the doctorate award must be acknowledged and accepted. So too, must the allocation of high quality supervision and the need for academic mentoring be explicitly recognised to ensure the ‘serious’ research reputation of Business Schools. Placement of our doctoral researchers at high-ranking institutions remains a widely accepted indicator of the quality of programmes, despite the realities of non-academic doctoral career paths. Are we too insular in focus? How well do we prepare our doctoral researchers for life post-doctorate in line with their aspirations and shifting employment patterns? Are we prepared in terms of designing programmes that are responsive to employer needs? Do we really understand what is needed?

Existential questions are required as to the nature and purpose of the doctorate amidst a proliferation of award types and routes. Perhaps the DBA award is far more easy to grasp as a ‘product’ aligned to traditional views of the raison d’etre of the Business School as being ‘to meet the needs of business’ and the alignment of macro-level economic development policies with industrial strategy. Our group discussions indicated this to be so.

In contrast, the PhD award, transcending disciplinary areas, remains strongly embedded in traditional notions of academic purpose, not least the requirement to make an original contribution to theoretical knowledge. There are understandable concerns around the need to not lose sight of the quality and rigour required in doctoral level education whilst supporting researcher employability in an unknown future and, in the case of Business School PhDs, simultaneously achieving business relevance. The industrial PhD has perhaps further blurred the boundaries on the distinctiveness of the two traditionally demarcated awards. It is here that a normative Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) agenda offers some clear opportunities in helping to guide the production of research that enables businesses to contribute to a better world /making lives better.

But perhaps our social responsibilities should begin with the design and delivery of our own programmes. Throughout the EFMD conference we noted a number of challenges relating to supporting the doctoral researcher experience, development of their academic and professional skills, mentoring and wellbeing, and research environment. These are not faced by Business Schools alone. They included concerns over the responsibilities of programme directors. Many of these challenges may be recognised to be exacerbated by a variance in the status of doctoral researchers between (and even within) institutions: ’employees’ with ‘full’ academic rights, identities and research integration opportunities versus ‘students’, often dislocated from faculty save for their performance of teaching assistant or research assistant duties as a means of mitigating the costs of doctorate provision. A wealth of experience and practice exists in the provision of formal and informal community-building opportunities for our doctoral researchers in Business Schools. This frequently receives little formal recognition as part of the ‘hidden side’ of programmes management but it proves invaluable as a form of study-life support for doctoral researchers from cohorts of all sizes and modes of study, regardless of demographic variables.

A clear sense of what we are trying to achieve presents an opportunity for Business School doctorates to innovate and ensure that they are fit for the future based on the theory of ‘jobs to be done’ (Christensen Institute) rather than competing against luck. There is a need to recognise the absence of ‘one size fits all’ solutions. Internationally, Business School doctorate provision varies greatly in size and scale, mode of study and market characteristics. So too do our funding models contrast and the extent of government investment, target-setting and alignment to national economic goals between European countries and the Middle East and China in particular is notable.

As acknowledged by Mark Smith in summation of the 2017 EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference, there are ‘legitimate concerns that innovations may lead to lower standards or a lack of recognition’. Yet, there are jobs to be done. As John Miles highlighted in laying the foundations for an AI and Big Data-based approach to skills development, the expectations of our doctoral researchers are shifting in line with technological advancements and modern lifestyles. Furthermore, Jordi Diaz reiterated the need for Business School doctoral programmes to be agile and to proactively sustain innovation, reminding us that the time to innovate is already here. We are already witnessing a clear divide between traditional, conservative Business Schools and those that are displaying pioneering approaches to embracing the future, not least the Thought Leadership Platform of Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management and the sustainable development business model of Rotterdam School of Management. In the words of Diaz, ‘better disrupt yourself than to have someone else do it for you?’

Competitive collaboration as a future strategy for the Business School doctorate community

Being fit for the future does not have to mean full re-invention, of course. Nor does it have to mean endorsing only individualised acts of innovation. Many Business School doctoral programmes have established their distinctive academic, methodological and pedagogical strengths. In addition to identifying our competitive strengths, there is scope to develop collaborations between our institutions. As discussed during the EFMD conference, there are some clear examples of where training is already being shared between institutions in response to resource challenges faced by programmes limited to small full-time PhD cohorts.

There is a need to acknowledge that in the heavily ranked Business School arena, competitive collaboration offers an appropriate strategy for knowledge management. Whilst Mode 2 Knowledge Production signifies a need to recognise the strength of forging multidisciplinary relationships, there is further opportunity for us to shape the future of Business School doctoral education through developing and sustaining our community of practice, precisely in the spirit of the annual EFMD Doctoral Programmes Conference.

Being fit for the future requires us to explicitly consider relevance. With this in mind, we are delighted to announce the acceptance of our book proposal by Emerald, ‘Business Doctorates World-Wide: Relevance to Academia, Students, and Business?’ (expected publication date May, 2020). An invitation for expressions of interest for co-edited chapters has been circulated.

Guest post by Nicola Palmer, Head of Doctoral Training, Sheffield Hallam University, UK