Soapbox

January 16, 2012 12:01 am

Schools need to raise their game when it comes to PhDs

It is the quality and culture of a school’s PhD programme, rather than its MBA, that really speaks volumes about a school

Few business school leaders dispute the value and importance of a PhD programme to the reputation and esteem of their school. Yet most
PhD programmes in business schools remain small – too small – and the measures used to assess their quality weak, dated and throughput-based.

A rather “ivory tower” view of the PhD student – independent and isolated in their research – prevails, especially in the UK. Most PhD programmes in the UK now offer a taught element covering research methods and scholarship. However, they stop short of disciplinary teaching, an essential element of the US model. Without this taught element, it is all the more important that PhD programmes in the UK be sufficiently large to promote communal learning and be genuinely integrated in, not isolated from, business school life.

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The MBA is often seen as the flagship programme of a business school and a key indicator of its esteem. In fact, it is the quality and culture of its PhD programme, underpinned by the research environment that has been cultivated, that really speaks volumes about the school.

A vibrant, sizeable PhD programme makes a clear statement of a business school’s research intentions and environment. It is an important inducement to research-active academic staff and a resource that academics can draw upon in facilitating their own research agenda.

At the same time a stream of PhD supervision keeps academics up to date with emerging theory and practice and potential new faculty members.

At my business school, we have over 180 PhDs, up from 11 just five years ago, not that this is a mere numbers game. Indeed, the transactional cost of a PhD student – space, supervision, resources and so forth – is expensive compared with their undergraduate and masters counterparts. Had I been inclined to pack in the students it would have been much easier, not to mention economical, to do so with undergraduates. But achieving critical mass must go hand in hand with setting more rigorous indicators by which to measure quality. Too often PhD programmes are judged simply by their pass/fail and major/minor revisions ratios (a throughput measure). In the absence of a PhD ranking for business schools it is up to these institutions to raise their game and change the metrics when it comes to PhDs.

Any measure must gauge the quality of PhD research in a given school, so a convenient starting point would be the quality of journals in which PhDs publish, either during their programme or soon after graduation.

In much the same way as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, (and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise) places a heavy weighting on research outputs, so too should the publication record of PhD graduates be an indicator of a programme’s quality. Anything less does a disservice to a degree that is of such importance to the future of the sector, considering that a PhD is so often the gateway into academia. This in turn raises the issue of employability skills – something that is deemed critical in the undergraduate and MBA context but less so in that of the PhD.

A doctorate is a “licence to teach” and with students becoming ever more consumer-driven, the teaching skills of these future educators need to be addressed and even embedded into their programme of research. There is already some pull in this direction, particularly among schools that want not only capable researchers on return, but also lecturers.

While small may be beautiful, it can also mean “limiting and underpinned by outdated principals”. It is this latter connotation that applies to PhD programmes in business schools.

Small in terms of the size of the cohort risks research taking place in a vacuum, with no benefits to the school or growth of the academy. Small in the sense of measuring quality too narrowly does the sector no favours, when we should be proving our relevance to business and industry more than ever before. Strong, vibrant PhD programmes that are integrated in business school life are a key means of proving this relevance, from pure blue-sky research seeking to signpost the future, through to applied research that seeks to solve or uncover a specific problem with a solution.

The author is head of Brunel Business School at Brunel University.

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