‘Finding solutions to ongoing challenges’: Athabasca U doctoral students tackle the big questions facing businesses
How do you top an MBA?
While some graduates go on to earn a PhD in business, Athabasca University (AU) chose to offer something a little different—the country’s first online doctorate in business administration (DBA).
The decision to offer the program in 2009 was generated by demand from MBA students who earned their degree through the university, says Kay Devine, program director of AU’s DBA program.
“Both a PhD and a DBA require the student to engage in rigorous research,” she says. “The major difference is that the DBA concentrates on applied research rather than theoretical research.”
It’s an important distinction. Students enrolled at the country’s first university specializing in online distance education are often extremely busy professionals who are already well established and want to engage in research that directly addresses their intellectual curiosity while providing real-world benefits for their organizations.
To date, 85 students have enrolled in the DBA program, which offers six courses that build on an applicant’s MBA earned at any accredited institution. Students have completed the program in as few as three years or as many as seven.
“The students are a very eclectic bunch,” says Devine. “They’re all intellectually curious and incredibly interesting people.”
Among the courses she teaches is Current Research, in which students learn how to create an interesting research question, review literature, and identify research and knowledge gaps. It’s just one of the courses that helps to prepare students to write their dissertations.
Student dissertations completed to date include research into whether smaller businesses should enter the international arena; how aboriginal and other workers at a construction company could better recognize common values; and how public-private partnerships in Alberta transportation projects could achieve optimum results.
Balancing School and Life
DBA graduate Andrea Smilski is interim dean of Health and Human Services, at Vancouver Island University (VIU). She earned her MBA at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK and completed coursework at UBC’s Philosophy of Nursing program.
“I completed all but my dissertation at UBC,” she says. “Between 60-hour work weeks, two sons, a husband running his own business and other family commitments, I realized I couldn’t make the commitment to go back and finish.”
At AU, she realized that she could make the time to complete the online DBA program on her own schedule. She enrolled in 2013 and received credit for four courses completed elsewhere.
Her research examined the relationship between an individual employee’s judgement of institutional legitimacy and its effect on sickness absence and presenteeism (coming to work while unwell). She also looked at whether these outcomes changed with the level of an employee’s psychological wellbeing.
“I designed a scale to measure an individual’s opinion of institutional legitimacy as part of the research,” says Smilski.
She received her DBA in 2016. The research completed for her dissertation resulted in practical organizational changes at VIU.“Looking back at the program, I really enjoyed it,” she says.
“I worked with world-renowned instructors that I would never have had access to. The whole experience was very liberating. It’s the way learning should be.”– Andrea Smilski
Hamid Shirazi is a senior business development specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Growth. He earned his MBA at Athabasca in 2006, but wanted more.
“For me, it was never a choice between a PhD, and a DBA,” he says. “PhDs are professional researchers and DBAs are researching professionals. I see myself on the applied side of business, finding solutions to ongoing challenges. There was also no doubt I would take the DBA at Athabasca. I love the flexibility of the platform, which allows me to work according to my own schedule.”
Shirazi has narrowed down the research he will pursue for his dissertation. He wants to understand the thinking and behaviour common to high-growth Canadian companies.
“Only a small fraction of Canadian companies employ more than 500 people,” he says. “If we can transfer their knowledge and behaviour to other businesses, we can grow thousands of small and medium-sized businesses into large ones and fuel accelerated growth and job creation. What energizes me is creating economic empowerment for Canadians.”
He notes that Athabasca’s online platform allows for easy collaboration with other students and generous access to professors.
“The university’s subject matter experts care deeply about growth. With a group of like-minded professionals, we can push the boundaries of business knowledge.”– Hamid Shirazi