Even experienced executives with years in the field can face challenges with which they are unfamiliar. Sometimes this is because not all answers can be found in practice, and further research may be needed. In order to conduct thorough research on a specific topic, you need time and the correct framework – the latter of which did not exist in Belgium, at least until AMS launched its Executive PhD program a few years ago. Academic Director Hugo Marynissen sets out the starting point for the program and its outlook.
Unlike its equivalent in the Anglophone world, the DBA or Doctor of Business Administration, an Executive PhD is universally recognized and has its origins in companies and organizations. The Executive PhD program at AMS connects more closely to reality than most people expect from a doctorate.
Hugo: "At most universities, a doctorate departs from a theoretical question and it is concluded with a contribution to theoretical knowledge. Undoubtedly, research with the required level of depth will be conducted, but it is often conducted by young 20-somethings who are inexperienced when it comes to business practice. As a business school, we see it as our duty – alongside our university partner, the University of Antwerp – to make sure that the acquired knowledge also has practical relevance.”
“Helping other executives to go through a similar development process – that seemed like a fantastic challenge to me."
The program has been created in cooperation with the faculties of Applied Economics and Social Sciences of the University of Antwerp, where our PhD supervisors come from, so every candidate gets the right supervisor for his or her topic.
Hugo himself earned his doctorate in risk, change and crisis management in the UK. His insights were applied within his own organization, but he did not want to leave it at that. “Helping other executives to go through a similar development process – that seemed like a fantastic challenge to me. When AMS offered me that opportunity, the decision was easy. Early in 2015 we started shaping the program, approaching teachers and selecting potential candidates. In the end, we started the program with 18 students – twice the expected number – and that number has since become the norm."
The formula has seen huge success every year, and the program is well-regarded both nationally and internationally. “I believe the reason for that is the personal approach of the Executive PhD team. Actually, that approach perfectly matches our philosophy of a boutique business school. The entire Executive PhD team is regularly in touch with the candidates, even before they are admitted to the program. They are informed as much as possible about the impact of a four-year PhD program on their lives and careers and the possible directions for their research.”
"The entire Executive PhD team is very often in touch with the candidates, even before they are admitted to the program."
It is remarkable to note that the percentage of international candidates in the program has surged: from 36% to 93%-95%. “The international character of our school has more and more become a trump card in our Executive PhD program. AMS is one of the few research institutes with executive programs and such a large network of international partners. In most of our international masters’ programs we notice that beautiful things happen when students from a different culture question our way of thinking."
Within the Executive PhD program, that critical reflex is sharpened even further.” International candidates can also offer enrichment to the next generation of students. “We now have both a Nigerian and a Chinese PhD student whose research is focused on real estate. When combining their knowledge, and enriching it with the in-house knowledge of this topic, the doctorate program can only be further enhanced."
"AMS is one of the few research institutes with executive programs and such a large network of international partners."
People usually start a PhD because they envisage self-development and a transfer of knowledge. The extent to which this is the case differs according to the person. "Companies often invest in PhD programs for employees because they see a distinct return on their investment from the insights gained. But many participants will also disseminate their expertise further through guest lectures and conferences.”
"Companies often invest in PhD programs for employees because they foresee a distinct return on their investment from the insights gained."
Now that graduation for some of our PhD students is getting closer, it is clear what the added value for AMS will be. “We look at our PhD students as future colleagues. Since they are immersed in practice, but simultaneously developing themselves into full-fledged researchers, they are the perfect candidates to join our school as [guest] lecturers. That is an added value for all AMS programs, but it is also an extremely fulfilling exchange for us as a research institute.”
AMS wants these doctorates to have a social value as well. To achieve this, the research has to be relevant beyond the candidate’s organization. “Not every business problem can be the starting point for a research question,” Hugo explains. In many situations, you are able to approach the challenge in front of you from a different angle, and as a result, reach a scientifically relevant thesis and practically applicable results.
That way, you can not only strengthen your organization, but you can also have a social impact. “We see that especially Latin American, African and Asian students explicitly intend to employ their expertise to give back to their community. A dissemination of knowledge is always the best motivation for starting such an intellectually challenging program.”
Earlier, Hugo already wrote in more detail about the difference in the transfer of knowledge between a more traditional and an executive PhD. Learn more here!