Executive business research: Not your typical students, not your usual Ph.D.
October 28, 2017
One student in this novel graduate program flies in for weekly classes from Denver, Colorado; two others commute from Houston, Texas, and Miami, Florida.
Their classmates include corporate executives, government professionals, a former CIA intelligence officer, and a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries. They hold graduate degrees in such fields as engineering, math, law, and linguistics, in addition to business.
They aren’t your typical Ph.D. students. And what they’ve chosen to pursue, at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in metro Washington, D.C., is not your typical Ph.D. program.
“This program is unlike any doctoral program in business,” says Sarah Tuskey, chair of Miami Dade College’s business department. Tuskey extensively researched executive doctoral programs before signing up for Virginia Tech’s Ph.D. (executive business research concentration) when it was launched by the Pamplin College of Business a year ago. “I knew I wanted to be a part of what was being built here.”
A unique combination of rigor and flexibility
Richard Essig sought top-notch training — “I wanted to learn the same skills that every doctoral student at an AACSB-accredited school would receive who intends to publish in elite journals” — while keeping his day job as vice president of corporate strategy and development at Nolan Financial. AACSB International is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Essig, who has an MBA from Duke University, is also an adjunct faculty member at West Chester University and an executive mentor for business students at the University of Delaware. He found in Virginia Tech’s program both rigor and flexibility. “There was no question in my mind that this program was the perfect fit for me.”
Hari Ravella, a former worldwide leader for market adoption at IBM Watson Health, spent almost a year in another doctoral program before realizing he would not be entirely happy with the outcome. Even though it meant starting over again, he made the switch to the Virginia Tech program when it was inaugurated.
Mark Mondry was an engineer at Westinghouse before becoming a patent attorney in Silicon Valley, but was captivated by teaching after a stint as an instructor at UC Berkeley. He wanted to hone his research skills to pursue an academic career, but family and professional obligations made full-time study unrealistic.
The Virginia Tech program gives him “the unique opportunity to grow” as a teacher and researcher, Mondry says.
“Our executive Ph.D. is unusual,” says program director Dipankar Chakravarti.
Research — original, publishable, peer-reviewed research — is the defining element of Ph.D.-level study, and this part-time program, Chakravarti says, has the same demands and expectations as full-time programs.
Indeed, it was the chance to do research on par with what a full-time student would do that drew Ravella to the program. “The requirements are exactly the same as the full-time Ph.D.,” he says. “We are not evaluated any differently — no slack is cut — just because we are not full-time students.”
Mondry notes the heavy emphasis on training in the “research methods necessary for us to become scholars capable of contributing to the most prestigious business journals.”
Mastering a concentration, tackling broad research problems
Another distinction: part-time programs typically offer broad training across business disciplines, Chakravarti says, but “our approach is to have students focus on their chosen discipline and master the area while also reaching across disciplines to tackle research problems.”
Says Ravella: “We get the required depth via the content courses in the chosen concentration and very rigorous methods courses in both quantitative and behavioral tracks to pick up the necessary research skills and apply them in the research project.”
Class format is yet another way the program stands out: part-time students at the Northern Virginia Center are brought together for classes synchronously with full-time students on Virginia Tech’s main campus in Blacksburg by video conferencing. This real-time interaction makes for richer discussion for both groups, Chakravarti says.
Tuskey thinks this model is “unique.” Engaging executive students with traditional Ph.D. students, she says, allows “a tremendous exchange that has the potential to advance research in new ways.”
Full-time student Daniel Villanova agrees. “The part-time students come from industry backgrounds and have points-of-view that supplement the theory-centric structure of the courses,” says Villanova, who is seeking a Ph.D. in marketing. “We can end up discussing managerially-motivated research questions, adjusting possible research approaches for different theoretical angles that crop up during the class.”
Both groups of students “benefit in ways that might not be accessible if we had been in our own silos.”
Improving career trajectories
Most of the program’s students have academic careers in mind — and rosy job prospects after graduation, given the continuing national shortage of faculty with business doctorates. A few are already teaching at colleges and universities and are interested in credentialing themselves for full-time positions.
The coursework has already taught Tuskey to “think differently, be more creative, and ask better questions,” she says. “Earning a Ph.D. in business will enable me to be a better researcher and a better instructor.”
As enticing as the final destination looks, however, there is no forgetting how grueling the doctoral journey is, especially when returning to school after years away — and a full day at the office.
Juggling work, school, and family commitments is a “herculean task,” says Ravella. “But we’re a very motivated bunch!”
Echoing the sentiments of several classmates, Tuskey says the first semester was particularly challenging. “Many of us have not been students for over a decade. We are learning new information, new ways of thinking, and new tools, all while learning to be a student again,” she says.
“Unsurprisingly, the biggest difficulty so far is finding the time to develop viable research ideas,” says Essig.
Embracing the challenges
Chakravarti agrees. While professional experiences contribute greatly to class discussions, the students must also “translate those experiences into researchable academic questions that would make high-quality doctoral research projects, papers, and dissertations,” he says.
Chakravarti was surprised by the number and caliber of the applicants and the depth of their motivation: “The students we accepted have held their own. They have embraced the challenge of learning difficult and unfamiliar material and are excited about doing high-quality academic research.”
His classmates, Mondry says, are some of the “sharpest, most motivated, and focused individuals” he has met. “Many are at the top of their fields, a time in their career when they could otherwise easily justify protecting any family, social, and leisure activity time. Rather, they have chosen this program and invited all the pressures — and productivity — that go with it.”
The program’s recruiting success suggests that there is a “robust demand for an academically rigorous, part-time Ph.D. in business,” Chakravarti says, from those aspiring to be faculty members as well as business schools that are potential employers of such graduates.
George Koo, a member of the second cohort, which started classes this fall, had been accepted to several doctoral programs.
Koo is CEO and chief investment officer of an investment advisory firm he founded after a long career at several notable Wall Street firms. He has a master’s in international relations from Harvard, an MBA from St. John’s University, graduate business certificates from Harvard and NYU, and CPA and CFA designations.
“I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. because I enjoy learning and research,” Koo says. He often pondered the causes and effects of financial phenomena he observed and realized that he lacked the scientific research skills, including proficiency in high-level analytical tools, needed to support theories and create models. “I did not want a program that was merely an extension of an MBA program that did not cover the skills necessary to do world-class research.”
Virginia Tech’s program is “a good fit for me,” Koo says, citing its quality, Virginia Tech’s status as a top-tier research institution, the faculty’s enthusiasm, and its support for students. The latter includes Joy Jackson, the program’s associate director, who brings years of experience in graduate and executive education from her work at the Brookings Institution and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Koo’s sentiments are shared by members of the inaugural class. Says Essig: “For business executives looking to acquire elite research skills, the executive Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech provides all the resources needed to accomplish this goal.”
Says Tuskey: “I have learned so much and have enjoyed it tremendously.”
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Market research, both formal and informal, revealed that there was demand for a Ph.D. such as Virginia Tech’s concentration in executive business research, says marketing professor Dipankar Chakravarti. The research also confirmed the need to clearly differentiate and position the program on the emphasis on doing high-quality research. Chakravarti, who was recruited in 2015 by Pamplin dean Robert Sumichrast to launch the executive Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and internationally renowned researcher who was recognized for course innovation and creativity by Johns Hopkins University and in Forbes magazine. A veteran professor who has taught courses at levels from undergraduate to executive education at five business schools around the country, he has also served as a department head and a vice dean. Chakravarti discovered early on that prospective students often had expectations that reflected the structure of traditional part-time programs. “Our key challenge here was to identify and cultivate those exceptional individuals with the motivation, background, and aptitude to take on the demands of a research-intensive Ph.D. program.”This entailed many discussions with prospective students about expectations — theirs and the program’s.Chakravarti worked closely with individual departments so that seminars could be aligned to allow full-time and part-time students to take classes together.Synchronous coursework relies on information technology, which posed its own challenges: “we needed to assemble these resources for efficient program delivery.” He and the faculty created and delivered a new set of research methodology seminars that now provide a common methodology core for all Pamplin Ph.D. programs. Also added were several new departmental doctoral seminars.
—By Sookhan Ho
Part-time studies in nation’s capital
In addition to the Ph.D. in business, Virginia Tech offers a range of other part-time graduate programs in business and technology in the Washington, D.C., area. These include the MBA (Evening and Executive) and the M.S. in business administration, hospitality and tourism management.