The Difference Between PhD and DBA Explained


Being a graduate business school we are often asked what exactly is the difference between a PhD and a DBA degree or program. In general, the two degrees are typically considered equivalent from an academic rigor standpoint, they both must satisfy the requirement for originality, and both can be used for teaching purposes. However, there are some important distinctions that should be kept in mind.

Theoretical Versus Applied

One of the main differences that is typically mentioned is that the PhD program is considered an academic program and takes a theoretical orientation whereas the DBA Program is considered a professional and applied degree with a practical orientation. This basically means that the research and the writing of the dissertation or manuscript is approached from different starting points. As a point of understanding, at Monarch we refer to the thesis completed within the PhD program as a “dissertation” whereas the thesis completed within the DBA or other non-PhD programs is referred to as a “manuscript”.

Students wishing to complete a PhD typically would come from a Master degree, though entry to a PhD degree only requires a bachelor degree. This is further discussed on our Master-In-Passing degree page. Within the master degree they would have completed a thesis. The thesis at the master level does not have a requirement for originality as does a PhD. With a completed master thesis in hand the student typically wants to continue their research in the same study domain, often on the very same issue, and push the boundaries of theory. That is, develop new theories, models or frameworks. We call this pushing the scholarship forward. Often, while having completed their master thesis they have developed an insight in the field that they wish to further examine and explore in a scientific manner and thus continue to do so at the Doctoral level within the PhD program.

In contrast, business people experience real managerial issues at their place of work. These can be issues in isolation affecting only a select number of people (ie: workgroup or department level) or they can be issues that affect a large number of people (ie: the customer base or stakeholder groups). Whatever the case may be they are typically born of a practical experience where an observer (ie: a worker, manager or consultant) has realized that there must be a better or more efficient way. Seeing the practical need for a better solution the observer decides to research the issue, albeit from an hands-on perspective.

A Bit Of History

Historically, the MBA degree was considered the terminal degree in business studies. If a business person wished to complete a PhD they needed to do so in Economics or another faculty; business faculties simply did not cater to the request for Doctoral level studies. As an interesting side note, most PhD programs at the time also had a second or third language requirement. And this was seen as unnecessary from a business school standpoint. We can have varying opinions on this but that was the environment at the time. Accordingly, in order to satisfy both the novel business school doctoral applicant and the traditional academic stakeholders American schools in particular decided to create the DBA program – Doctor of Business Administration. It would essentially cater to the practical needs of business people and also remove the language requirement at the doctoral level.

Since that time the DBA has matured as a Doctoral degree and spread across the world and is now considered for the most part equivalent to the PhD. However, the applied nature of the DBA persists with many practical managers opting for the degree in place of the more academically oriented PhD. Both degrees are of value within the business environment and thus some academics and practitioners recognizing this also wish to acquire an even wider breadth of knowledge through the combined Dual PhD / DBA program. The combined program addresses both the theoretical orientation of the PHD as well as the practical and applied orientation of the DBA.

New Models Versus Practical Deliverables

Within the context of the above the PhD dissertation and DBA manuscript take on a different look. PhD Dissertations are traditionally based on a 6 chapter format that includes:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Literature Review
  • Chapter 3: Methodology
  • Chapter 4: Data Analysis
  • Chapter 5: Synthesis
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion & Further Study

Within the 6 chapter format, the PhD student shows their command of the issue and seminal literature as well as a strong understanding of the various research methodologies that may be used to address the research question or hypothesis at hand. This typically would include both a desk and field research component. The data is then analyzed and synthesized with new theory, models or frameworks being developed and conclusions being brought to the foreground with recommendation for future studies. The student’s primary role is to examine theory and any “Literature Gaps” that may exist and then to develop new abstractions that fill these “Literature Gaps”.

In contrast, the DBA manuscript being practical by design is based on a more open 4 chapter format that drives towards the development of real world recommendations for practicing managers. The chapter format includes:

  • Chapter 1: Statement of the Issue
  • Chapter 2: Supporting Literature (Academic & Professional)
  • Chapter 3: Integration
  • Chapter 4: Recommendations & Action Steps

Hence, in contrast to pushing the theoretical boundaries of the academic domains the DBA examines how best to resolve the stated issue and to provide actionable recommendations to the reader, ie: managerial take-aways. Within the context of the Supporting Literature the DBA researcher also examines academic theory but the examination of the academic theory is principally married to the professional literature and a “Praxis Gap” is examined. Examining the “Praxis Gap” means understanding the delta between the existing theoretical and professional knowledge and the actual “praxis” (practice) on the ground. As one can imagine, the most recent developments in technology, for instance, may be far ahead of the academic or professional literature of the moment. The DBA student lives in this Praxis Gap and brings better understanding to it so that better solutions and procedures may be designed.

With respect to a Dual PhD/DBA program and dissertation the student would be expected to complete both of the above responsibilities, roles and perspectives.

About The Author

Dr. Jeffrey Henderson holds the position of Dean of the School and Professor of Business Ethics. Dr. Henderson has held the position of Dean of Studies and Dean of the Faculty in the past. Earlier, Dr. Henderson was an affiliate professor at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business, France. Dr. Henderson has also been a lecturer for real estate finance within the Faculty of Management at McGill University, Canada.  Dr. Henderson holds a D.Phil. in Business Research from Monarch Business School, a Doctorandus (Drs.) and MBA from Nijenrode Unversiteit in The Netherlands and a Bachelor of Commerce with distinction from McGill University in Montreal.