What Is a DBA All About?

What on earth is a DBA degree? And how does it differ from a traditional D.Sc. in Economics and Business Administration? Henrikki Tikkanen, Professor at Aalto University School of Business, and Mikko Laukkanen, Academic Director at Aalto EE, answer frequently asked questions about the differences between the two programs.

Academic Director Mikko Laukkanen from Aalto EE and Professor Henrikki Tikkanen from Aalto University School of Business. Photo: Anu Haapala

Anu Haapala, 13.09.2022

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Why did Aalto decide to launch a DBA degree program? And how does it differ from a traditional D.Sc. in Economics and Business Administration?

Henrikki Tikkanen (HT): “The Aalto Executive DBA program was launched in 2013 because a traditional doctoral program in economics and business administration doesn’t support the doctoral studies of top executives while working. DBA is an established, well-known concept in other parts of the world.

A traditional doctorate prepares students for a scientific career, whereas the DBA is a more pragmatic program where extant management theory is applied. DBA participants are experienced leaders and experts with research materials usually stemming from their own work and background.”

The DBA is a more pragmatic program where extant management theory is applied."

Mikko Laukkanen (ML): “The DBA serves different needs than a traditional doctorate, which is mainly about growing into an academic researcher. In a DBA, business executives become part of the research community, gaining new perspectives for their work practices and thinking, rather than being prepared for a career in research. DBA program participants are handed a complete package: they are told what to do and what to read next. A traditional PhD is a more independent and lonesome effort.”

HT: “DBA courses are tailored to the participants and their interests. Aalto has decided no longer to admit seasoned business executives to complete a Doctor of Science in Economics and Business Administration degree on a part-time basis. The DBA is the channel for executives and top business experts to pursue a doctorate in at Aalto BIZ. They receive as much guidance and supervision as they need and are given prompt feedback.”

ML: “The idea is that also a top business executive will be able to complete a doctorate.”

Is the DBA a real doctorate?

HT: “Similarly to an MBA, the DBA isn’t considered an official degree program in Finland, but from a business perspective, it rarely matters whether a degree is accredited by the Finnish state or the Finnish Ministry of Education. Aalto University School of Business – and thus, its DBA – holds all the international accreditations for business schools (EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA), which play a bigger role internationally. The DBA is considered a doctoral degree by grant providers and foundations, providing research funding for DBA participants.”

The DBA is acknowledged by the wider network of stakeholders including employers, funders, and other researchers."

ML: “The DBA is consistent with the course requirements of the Doctor of Science in Economics and Business Administration degree, and the dissertations of the two programs are on par with each other. The DBA is acknowledged by the wider network of stakeholders including employers, funders, and other researchers.”

What to consider when choosing between different programs like an MBA, Executive MBA or DBA?

ML: “Compared to an MBA or an EMBA, the DBA has a more in-depth approach to the study topic of the student. Participants may have already worked in their field of interest for years, or they’ve come across a certain topic of interest at a later stage and want to more thoroughly understand the underlying phenomena thorough finishing a full-fledged doctoral thesis.”

HT: “Many DBA participants already have an MBA or an EMBA and now want something more. The DBA is designed for senior executives and experts with a master’s degree. We sometimes receive applications from people with a 5–10-year career background, which is usually too early in their careers. The average age among DBA students is 50+, meaning they are much more experienced than for instance EMBA participants. Students can complete a DBA anywhere in the world as our studies are part-time and when needed fully digital.”

ML: “A lot of the supervision is face-to-face, but it can easily be done via Teams, and instructors travel, too.”

How are the participants’ solid work and leadership experience reflected in the studies?

HT: “DBA participants complete as many courses as our regular D.Sc. students, and they take part in international conferences and research seminars. However, they tend to have more conceptual aha moments, as usually a longer time has passed since their master’s studies compared to younger D.Sc. students.

We offer a lot of flexibility in completing the degree. Some have taken a year off work to focus solely on their DBA, while others study alongside work. A number of students advance very quickly, while others are slower and take breaks in between.”

What do participants gain from a DBA? How about their employers?

ML: “The studies often help participants understand their business practices in a completely new way and examine them from a distance. Participants are able to view, apply and interpret research knowledge in a new, broader way”.

HT: “Participants face many new topics, such as research methodology and philosophy of science, which haven’t necessarily been discussed during undergraduate studies. A number of participants claim to have gained a whole new view of the world.”

A number of participants claim to have gained a whole new view of the world."

ML: “Employers gain a concrete, finished dissertation that has involved examining a certain business topic in depth. And naturally the employer benefits from an executive whose thinking has developed.”

HT: “Sometimes a dissertation involves developing a concrete solution for the company. Acquiring the same solution from a consultant may cost more than many DBAs put together. The program can be used as a tool for personnel development, too. It helps experts find new tools for their work.”

ML: “Many want to find a new perspective for their activities. If they don’t find it inside the company, they’ll look for it somewhere else.”

And how does the DBA program benefit the university?

ML: “Although intensive supervision may take up a lot of time, both the professor and his or her research team benefit from the DBA participants’ solid practical background and understanding of business phenomena.”

HT: “The program offers our professors the opportunity to interact intensively with top executives for years. We learn about many practical problems from DBA participants.”

ML: “Instructors get to utilize the results of the DBA dissertations in their own work and teaching. On a practical level, they are able to access completely new data and materials via the DBA participants.”

The Aalto Executive Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) is a structured program in Business Administration for experienced individuals with considerable managerial experience who wish to contribute to the development of their professional competence and their key areas of interest. Read more

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