Update Your Assumptions: How Ph.D. Students Can Achieve Success During their Ph.D. Program Studies in a Business Field

Feature Editor:  Varun Grover

Paul Benjamin Lowry is a Chair Professor and Ph.D. program director in Business IT at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech.

Jason Bennett Thatcher is an MIS Endowed Faculty Fellow in the Culverhouse College of Business of the University of Alabama.

A key challenge of the Ph.D. experience is that many highly qualified students have a disconnect on the purpose of a Ph.D. in a business field in the first place. This is a serious problem because such disconnects increase the likelihood of students dropping out of their Ph.D. programs, increase the time spent in earning a Ph.D., and decrease the likelihood of long-term academic success. Having counseled and prepared scores of students for the Ph.D. experience and having collectively acted as Ph.D. advisors for scores more, we share some insights on how students can form realistic expectations, so that they will have better early success in your Ph.D. program. To help students shift to a realistic mindset, we offer pragmatic advice to help them navigate their years in in their Ph.D. program and increase their likelihood of career success.

Shift your mindset about what you are getting into

Whatever first-year Ph.D. students think about getting a Ph.D. in a business field, our experience is that they are likely wrong about key aspects of the experience; worse, many students do not figure this until after they finish their Ph.D. Even if students have been trained in a business field, there is a high likelihood that they think earning a Ph.D. means learning applied skills or solving applied problems or successfully completing a series of courses, like a management consultant. If trained outside of a business school, a Ph.D. student likely does not understand the nuances of researching industry-relevant topics. Here, to help students make the transition into a business Ph.D. program, we cover some key facts about the Ph.D. experience and dispel some of the common myths and misunderstanding.

Fact: A Ph.D. is a Scientific Research Degree, First and Foremost

A starting problem for many first-year students in business Ph.D. programs is that they see a Ph.D. as a natural continuation of their professional master’s degree or as a natural step to become a ‘teacher.’ By contrast, a Ph.D. in business is a serious scientific research degree; it is not a natural continuation of any professional master’s degrees, especially an MBA. Training in business Ph.D. programs focus on teaching rigorous scientific methods, statistics, analytics, and theories in order to teach students how to create original scientific theories that inform findings relevant to business disciplines and our industry audiences. 

Most first-year students enter with a false notion of what business research is, unless they have conducted theory- and empirical-based scientific research as part of a Master of Science degree. Most business students have not been exposed to peer-reviewed scientific research. Materials in most classes, such as business cases, are not ‘research’ that will qualify you for tenure later on. The ability to craft a business case differs from the kind of research required by typical tenure-track faculty positions, which require multiple publications in elite peer-reviewed scientific journals. A business Ph.D. trains students to focus on publishing in such journals in business fields.

Myth: A Ph.D. is a Teaching Degree

Many first-year students cite a calling to teach as a reason to earn a business Ph.D. In reality, most business schools do not require a Ph.D. to teach in them, and mastering material required to teach business courses is dramatically easier to learn than it is to learn how to conduct scientific research. Most Ph.D. programs offer little formal training on teaching. At most, a program might have one course on teaching, and faculty generally expect students to learn how to teach on their own. Yes, it is important to master teaching; but savvy students wait to start teaching later in their Ph.D. experience (and also minimize teaching preparations into their early career), and first focus on acquiring research, research, and more research skills. While enrolled in a Ph.D. program, students’ first priority should be on acquiring the expertise necessary to become a scholar and researcher, as opportunities to acquire teaching expertise will surface later in most Ph.D. programs and will be abundant at a first academic job. Frankly, a pragmatic reason for prioritizing scholarship, is that although teaching is highly important, it is an exponentially easier skill to learn to do than is scientific research. Good teaching does not require a Ph.D., but good research does. Moreover, we would argue that good teaching is more about presentation skills, empathy, presence, kindness, attentiveness, timely objective feedback, and listening than it is about a particular teaching skill set or delivery mechanism. That is also why there is not one successful approach to teaching; a teaching technique (e.g., lecture versus flipped classrooms) that works extremely well for one professor, or at one school, can be disastrous for another if he/she provides poor feedback or is a poor listener or unaware of institutional norms, for example.

Myth: ‘Business’ is your Core Scientific Anchor

Successful Ph.D. students should acquire a deep understanding of business problems, especially in their particular business discipline (e.g., Accounting, Finance, Managerial Economics/Economics, Management, Human Resources/Organizational Behavior, Information Systems or Business Analytics, Operations Management/Supply Chain Management, and Marketing). However, because business research is problem-centered, it is important to anchor their research agenda in science, theory and even the methods, from at least one key ‘reference discipline.’

Often, business Ph.D.’s and disciplines build on the following reference disciplines – one of which savvier Ph.D. students should ideally master: psychology, sociology, economics, statistics/analytics, computer science or engineering, and mathematics. Expertise in one or two of these is crucial to successfully conducting business research, because expertise in at least one of these helps students understand how to study a business problem, in a manner, that will offer novel scientific insight. For example, finance and accounting rely heavily on economics and applied mathematics; operations management relies heavily on industrial engineering and mathematics; some management disciplines rely heavily on psychology and some rely heavily on economics; variations of analytics and information systems rely on different combinations of psychology, economics, statistics/analytics, computer science or engineering, and mathematics. Students need careful faculty mentoring to wisely choose their reference disciplines.

Myth: For Academic Credentials, all that Matters is Earning the ‘Ph.D.’

This is an especially misleading notion, and thus early on in a student’s Ph.D. experience, he/she needs to come to grips with the reality that the Ph.D. is the starting point, not the culminating point. Completing a Ph.D. is a first step in a career path. If Ph.D. students master the fundamentals, their career path becomes easier. Better business scholars think of earning a Ph.D. more like earning an MD: it only entitles them to start the next steps. With an MD, doctors cannot practice medicine with a full license and board certification without a residency and further formal training. Typically, the location and quality of training of an MD’s residency will shape a young medical doctor’s career path. Like MDs, where and how a young faculty member starts their career as a Ph.D. matters— seek work at the highest quality school possible. 

Although it may not feel like it, Ph.D. students exert substantial control over how they start their careers. Many fresh business Ph.D.’s start as an untenured assistant professor (worst case, they start as post-doc’s or in a non-tenure track positions) and will have six years to publish high level scientific research and do a good job with teaching and service. To earn a tenure-track assistant professor position, PhD. students need to aggressively pursue publishing high quality scientific research—something that a student greatly controls during the Ph.D. Unfortunately, too often, students become distracted writing conference papers, book chapters, or for low quality journals; worse, some programs do them the disservice of overburdening them with teaching assignments. These are serious problems that hurt students in the long-run, because only top business publications will provide them the opportunity to compete for a tenure-track position at a high quality institution.

Moreover, the scientific research skills, theories, and methods that Ph.D. students master will shape their publication strategy for years to come. If a Ph.D. student has mastered them well, they create increased likelihood of earning tenure at a quality institution, and the legitimacy that comes with it as a permanent member of the academic community. However, business Ph.D.s will not achieve full respect, influence, and internal and external power until or unless they become a full professor, which takes a minimum of another six years of demonstrating research excellence such that you earn internationally recognition. After this, there is one more possible formal title and honor, although this one is highly scarce because it is a highly resource-intensive position: that is, earning an endowed named chair as an eminent scholar. To have a hope of earning these positions and recognitions, a Ph.D. student needs to acquire a fundamental mastery of relevant scientific skills and an ability to contribute to not only business but also to their chosen referent discipline. The point of all of this is that the choices that Ph.D. students make throughout their program, will shape their life-long career path involving immense learning, growth, and frankly, at times, some pain. A Ph.D. only gives students a license to walk on this path; the steps that they take while earning that license matter, so what work that students do in the program, and what they learn, have important implications.

Myth: It’s About Being a ‘Straight A’ Student

Virtually every Ph.D. student is smart (if not brilliant), hardworking, and has the strong academic record necessary to earn position in a Ph.D. program. And yes, a Ph.D. involves rigorous coursework, where students strive to earn top marks. However, it is important to remember that final grade earned in coursework is a secondary consideration for a Ph.D.; the primary emphasis is acquiring skills necessary to produce original scientific research that changes research and practice. It is thus important for students, especially in their first two years, to carefully select coursework that will develop their ability to conduct high-quality research, especially in terms of capacity to employ rigorous methods, create or apply theory, and apply the most appropriate statistical analyses to their work.  

Moreover, although mastering many statistical techniques, mathematical equations, and data collection methodologies—especially now in the era of big data, AI, and analytics—such techniques alone are just part of what will make a Ph.D. student a successful researcher. Ph.D. students must develop the ability to write, read exceptionally difficult articles, communicate, work with others, innovate, persevere, provide objective critical feedback, and to create original theoretical ideas. In fact, these may be the most important skills in the long run. Consequently, a good Ph.D. program should primarily focus on molding students into becoming true scholar scientists, not fostering their professional-student and test-taking skills.  


To conclude, strong students should consider their Ph.D. program experience a starting point in their academic career, not a culminating point. Thus, they should think of it more as ‘an apprentice piece’ than a ‘masterpiece.’ The primary goal is to acquire the skills necessary to conduct independent, thoughtful scientific research. If done correctly, a young scholar will earn the highly rewarding opportunity for a life of continual learning, influencing thousands of students for the better, and contributing meaningfully to the broader scientific discourse to make the world a better place. 

Paul Benjamin Lowry is a Chair Professor and Ph.D. program director in Business IT at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech. He was a tenured Full Professor at both City University of Hong Kong and University of Hong Kong. His Ph.D. is in MIS from the University of Arizona. He has 121+ journal articles in MISQ, ISR, JMIS, DSJ, and others. He is a department editor at DSJ, and an SE at JMIS, JAIS, and ISJ. His interests are security/privacy, online deviance, computer ethics, HCI, gamification, business analytics, decision sciences, innovation, and supply chains. Paul.Lowry.PhD@gmail.com

Jason Bennett Thatcher is an MIS Endowed Faculty Fellow in the Culverhouse College of Business of the University of Alabama. Dr. Thatcher studies strategic, human resource management, and cybersecurity issues related to the effective application of information technologies in organizations.  His work appears in the MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, and other refereed outlets. He has served as President of the Association for Information Systems.

Updated: March 4, 2020 — 10:17 am

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