A doctoral degree is a doctoral degree – or so you’d think. But if you’re considering a doctoral degree in business, you might’ve wondered if it really matters whether you pursue a Ph.D. in Business or a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).
The two degrees are academically equivalent, typically require a doctoral dissertation, and result in degree-holders earning the title “Doctor” – but their differences should be examined and weighed carefully, because each is oriented toward a varying set of objectives.
An Academic or Professional Degree?
Ph.D. degrees are academic doctorates. It means what it sounds like it means: Earning a Ph.D. prepares you to work in academia (though careers in government and business are possible), produce intensely-focused research, and cultivate new theories within a given field. For those with a Ph.D. in Business it could mean specializing in an area such as finance or marketing, then teaching, researching, and developing new theories about that subject.
“Because business administrators are in constant search for better concepts and methods for conducting enterprise, Ph.D. candidates can always find new topics for basic research,” writes business consultant and educator Dr. William McKibbin.
While the Ph.D. in Business emphasizes new theory development, the DBA Degree is considered a professional degree and focuses on existing theory application.
“Professional doctoral degrees have a scholar-practitioner focus,” says Barry Sugarman, executive director of product development at Laureate Education, Inc. “The notion is that the individual is probably employed already – perhaps in a senior position – and wishes to advance his or her career, wishes to gain more knowledge about a particular subject area, but wants to do that in the context of the work that they do every day – getting better at what they do, rather than learning a particular theoretical concept and doing research in that area.”
One area in which the differences between these two doctorates becomes most potent is in the doctoral dissertation. Sugarman says those with a Ph.D. in business tend to write dissertations on highly theoretical, tightly-focused topics – sometimes called “on the shelf” research. “It’s not that it’s not interesting and it’s not useful,” Sugarman says, “but it doesn’t have general applicability in the business world.”
Conversely, the dissertation of a DBA degree holder, as described by the University of Liverpool, is likely to be about a “practical problem, usually in the student’s workplace, acknowledged as significant by scholarly and practical stakeholders.”
It All Comes Down to You
Both the Ph.D. in Business and the Doctor of Business Administration are important, worthy degrees to pursue. “Learners should realize that theories (or concepts) provide the essential framework for all business research, including research conducted in fulfillment of requirements for both the DBA and Ph.D.,” Dr. William McKibbin writes. “The Ph.D. is not a ‘theoretical’ degree devoid of empirical evidence, and the DBA is not a ‘practical’ degree devoid of theory. Rather, both degrees are grounded in the management literature and evidentiary support.”
The choice depends on your interests and career objectives. Being armed with a wealth of information about the similarities and differences between the degrees can help you tailor your research toward programs that meet your goals.
 Athabasca University Centre for Innovative Management, “DBA General FAQs,” http://www.mba.athabascau.ca/Titan/aucimwebsite.nsf/AllDocAdmin/87B79D7398634BD1872574C800608F41?OpenDocument (Retrieved 4 Mar 2013).
 Get B-Schooled, “Differences Between a DBA and a PhD in Business,” (2010).
 The Vantage Point, “To DBA or PhD in Business Administration,” http://wjmc.blogspot.com/2009/08/to-dba-or-phd-in-business.html (15 Aug 2009).
 Laureate Education, Inc., “The difference between a Doctor of Business Administration and a PhD,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHFgbPASjJY (3 Apr 2012).
 University of Liverpool, “Doctor of Business Administration,” http://university-liverpool-online.com/programmes/doctorates/dba/dba-vs-phd (Retrieved 4 Mar 2013).