The journey of a PhD, through the eyes of one of our alumni


Chris Wuytens is Managing Director at Acerta Consult. He is also one of the very first graduates of the Executive PhD program at Antwerp Management School. He started the program in 2015 and successfully defended his doctoral thesis in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The pressure of academic deadlines may be gone by now, but the drive to keep up the research is still very much alive.


So why did you choose to start the Executive PhD program at AMS in the first place?

I wanted to dive deep in a topic that fascinated me instead of following yet another ready-made training program. The AMS Executive PhD program offers just that: the opportunity to build your own research design in line with your interests and your organization.


So it is not just an academic exercise; you get to apply theory into practice and witness the results within your organization. Both parties benefit from this interaction: my doctoral thesis was underpinned by real-life testing, and my organization was able to apply my insights first-hand. I deliberately engaged my management team, for instance, using them as ‘guinea pigs’, so to speak. In turn, they challenged me to question my hypotheses and findings.


What is also great about this Executive PhD program, is that you get to work in a small group of international peers. You still need to do all the work on your own, of course, but it is great to be able to exchange experiences with other professionals, across industries and countries. And of course, there is also the academic staff, who are ready to support you along the way and help you broaden your network.


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Despite those benefits and support, it probably wasn’t easy to maintain a healthy work-life-PhD balance?

The past few years have been rather intense, yes. But as I mentioned, the good thing about following an Executive PhD program is that my research is work-related. Thus, while doing research, I was able to use data from work, engage my coworkers to set up experiments and give feedback, etc.


But although this combination certainly helps, it still requires meticulous planning. You really need to manage your time in a super-efficient way, because every week there are new research deadlines to meet, academic credits to be earned, etc. And the nearer I got to the finish, the higher the pressure. The funny thing is, practicing sports turned out to be an excellent stress relief. The more pressure, the more I exercised, which kept me healthy, both physically and mentally.


What was your research about?

As our economy thrives on customer experiences, particularly in the service industry, I wanted to zoom in on customer satisfaction mechanisms. The saying goes that happy employees create happy customers. But is that really the case? And if so, how does that work exactly? So I focused on the role of social interaction in the employee-customer satisfaction chain. There already is a lot of research on employee satisfaction, but not on the relationship between employee and customer satisfaction. The COVID-19 pandemic and its social distancing rules has made my research topic all the more relevant, unfortunately.


I applied theories such as the self-determination theory, and my team and I used data from our frontline employees, who are the first point of contact between our customers and our organization. We analyzed the data from different research angles, leading to interesting new insights which we are now putting into practice within our organization.


Clearly, the journey doesn’t end here?

It has been quite a rollercoaster ride. The first few weeks after defending my doctoral thesis, I had to get used to living without all that pressure again. But the drive to do research, to get to the bottom of things, is still there. I have learned so much along the way, and I want to keep on doing that.


Ideally, I will continue combining academic activities with my job. I really enjoyed being the go-between, linking the academic world and the business world. In the future, I would love to teach, for instance, using my practical insights, or write an academic book. I would also like to take on a guiding role for current PhD candidates (e.g. member of a doctoral jury). And recently, Acerta and AMS started a research project on adaptability, using insights from neuroscience. Some of the current AMS executive PhD candidates, by the way, are part of the research team.


So as you can see, it’s not just words, I’m determined to keep the pressure on, and carry on gaining new insights. Because that is one of the most important lessons I learned. Before, I used to rely on my experience and my gut feeling. Now, I tackle challenges in a different way. I have learned to question more and to look first into the current state of science. Combining this objective approach with my experience, definitely leads to better results.