Menu Close

Doctoral diplomas: a European tradition waiting for a transformation

Young doctoral candidate on the stage of the competition “My Thesis in 180 Seconds” at Polytechnique. Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The doctorate is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious diplomas and is part of the educational tradition in Europe. In management sciences, the situation is more paradoxical. The discipline is applied and principally vocational – in companies and organisations – yet doctorates in management are today mainly intended for the academic world.

Steeped in a long tradition, the doctorate seems to have had some difficulty evolving in Europe and elsewhere. Despite the internationalisation of educational systems, cross-national collaborations and a worldwide academic labour market, the impact of the doctoral contributions for organisations remain questionable. Does the innovation and European harmonisation that we’ve seen in other programmes stop when we get to doctoral level?

A doctorate is a doctorate, right? No

An illustration with the case of France demonstrates the national complexities of awarding doctorates, the right to supervise and the functioning of the academic labour market. The French doctorate goes back to the 13th century with the creation of the University of Paris at the Sorbonne. Although it has undergone some important reforms over time, the awarding of the doctorate remains a monopoly of public universities.

A major 1980s reform was supposed to align French practices with those of the Anglo-Saxon world and the Ph.D. However, this only went so far. To conduct research and supervise others within French universities, a habilitation (HDR, habilitations de dergier le recherche) is still required. The HDR is therefore the highest grade in France, whereas in Anglo-Saxon countries it is the Ph.D. A similar system exists in Germany, where the habilitation remains an entry ticket for professors. Furthermore, the most prestigious way to become a full professor in economics and management remains an elite national contest. A similar system also exists in Italy.

Private schools and the doctorate: a sensitive subject

Paradoxically, elite management education has become the preserve of private business schools yet these institutions are rarely allowed to award Doctorates themselves. The French system, with the range of grandes écoles, again illustrates the point. Traditionally, the grandes écoles were established to train leaders for industry, politics and commerce rather than carry out research. However, internationalisation of the sector, pressure to obtain accreditations (AACSB, AMBA, EQUIS) and a search by researchers for academic legitimacy have created common pressures. Thus grandes écoles began to do research, publish and create their own doctoral programs. Thus, these schools have created doctoral programs: Ph.D. and DBA (doctorate in business administration). These programs are an innovation and a response to the public monopoly for awarding doctorates.

Pressures to innovate

A recent review of trends in doctoral education identified four drivers for the expansion and innovation in the sector:

  • There has been a rapid expansion of business-school education and bachelors and masters programs in management requiring qualified staff to teach.

  • International accreditations require teachers to have relevant qualifications and to be active researchers – requiring doctoral-level training.

  • Firms have been increasing their demands for consultants and trainers with a legitimacy in their subject matter.

  • Doctoral programs provide business schools with a lever to boost research output and recruit and retain their professors in the international market.

Beyond expanding the sector, these drivers are also promoting other forms of innovation.

Innovating in the thesis format: the publication game

Although universities and grandes écoles are a place of scientific innovation and contribute to the creation of new knowledge in all sectors, there remains a certain conservatism in thesis format. The article-by-article thesis permits doctoral students to bring together a number of articles published or in the process of being published in scientific journals.

An article-based approach allows doctoral students to enter the job market for academic posts with a doctorate and a CV containing relevant publications – an advantage compared to the student following the traditional thesis. Further, this approach allows doctoral students to learn how to write scientific articles, understand the peer-review system and prime a scientific-production pipeline.

With an article-based thesis, an introductory chapter, a literature review and a general methodology accompanies two, three or four articles. This collection allows the examiners to evaluate the approach and the scientific contribution of the doctoral students’ work. A concluding chapter reviews the main theoretical contributions, possibly contributions to practice, and the limits of the research.

However, for aspiring scholars a non-traditional thesis format may prove to be a risky because its recognition is not assured. Some universities in Europe remain resistant to awarding and recognising article-based doctorates, for example in France and the UK. On the other hand, in the Netherlands the new format has become a standard.

Contribution to theory or practice?

The difficulty of innovating in doctoral studies is accentuated by the lack of a shared vision at the international level. An ongoing European project aimed at creating a common vision of the doctorate has yet to identify a single framework. Furthermore, this review has strengthened the hierarchy between the “academic doctorate” and the “professional doctorate”. The differences are largely due to the essentially academic character of the research work and their audiences. Ph.D candidates tend to have limited professional experience, study full-time and aim for an academic career. On the other hand, professional doctorates – such as the DBA – are usually high-level executives and study part-time. DBA graduates tend to remain in business or adopt a mixed career of teaching and practice.

With the exception of DBA programs, links with companies are not generally well developed in doctoral studies. Some countries have developed programs where companies host doctoral students – for example, the collaborative studentships in the UK or the CIFRE programme in France. However, these programs remain marginal in management sciences. Management research may rely on the use of cross-company databases, which does not necessarily require a permanent immersion in a firm. Engagement with companies and managers remains an underdeveloped area.

Again, academic conservativism is at play here, creating pressures for theoretical rather than practice contributions. Whatever the format, a doctoral thesis must have a scientific contribution but not necessarily a practical contribution. The doctoral student may be encouraged to value their research with the wider public and organisations. Yet theses are not evaluated on their impact upon organisations or society. Hence a remoteness between the concerns of researchers and those of companies.

What innovations for the future?

In a world of profound upheaval, the demands of business and society will continue to exert strong pressure on the academic world to innovate at all levels, including doctoral training. The need for management science training and the shortage of researchers are powerful drivers for changing the practices in universities and business schools.

In addition, the development of international research collaborations between academic institutions is also a promoter of innovation. The action of the accreditation bodies is a factor for innovation and change for management schools. Internationalisation makes it possible to question national models and to break resistance to change and to innovation. Finally, innovations are required in order to integrate the needs of society for relevant knowledge and allow the full impact of research for all stakeholders.

This article was originally published in French

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 175,100 academics and researchers from 4,818 institutions.

Register now