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The DBA journey: what to expect and how to keep yourself on track?

The DBA journey: what to expect and how to keep yourself on track?

Posted by Eva Cools
on Oct 6, 2020
in DBA

In this article, Dr Eva Cools, DBA Manager & Research Manager, Vlerick Business School, Belgium aims to give a realistic view on what you can expect throughout the Doctorate of Business Administration journey.

All DBA (Doctorate of Business Administration) participants kick off their doctoral journey with lots of ambition and eagerness to learn more about the academic world. But, for many, the first months are a kind of reality check. It turns out that academia has lots of explicit rules, but even more implicit ones. Why, then, do academics always talk about ‘academic freedom’? Each field has its own paradigms, biases, preferences, language, … how to make sense of these implicit norms? Second, it seems the participants have to learn to read again, literally. To figure out which parts of an article are the most important, going back and forth to really understand what is meant, making sense of the conclusions that often come down to ‘it depends’ … this is all more challenging than initially expected.

In a nutshell, the first part of the journey is learning to ‘start to walk’ in order to gradually grow into this completely new world – which seems odd in these times in which we are used to running and everything needs to go fast. Enjoying the slowness, taking a step back, not jumping to the managerial mindset that wants to know how to apply this in practice, but instead putting on your critical head, questioning and asking why this would be the case… it feels weird at first.

To manage expectations, this blog post aims to give a realistic view on what you can expect throughout the DBA journey. Of course, not every participant will follow this path to the letter, and research seldom follows a linear process, so don’t regard this as a cooking recipe. But we do hope this blog can help you assess whether you are more or less on track. We also add some advice on how to keep making good progress, as it asks a lot of self-discipline to motivate yourself for an end-goal that seems miles away.

What to expect? When are you on track?

Before moving to the specifics of each year of the doctoral journey, it might be good to remind you of the end-goal of the DBA and, by extension, any doctoral programme.

The overall aims of the DBA programme are to:

  • contribute to rigorous, relevant and responsible academic research with the purpose of creating and disseminating original knowledge with impact on the academic community, the broader (business) world, and society as a whole;
  • develop research capability via theoretical, methodological and research skills training to become an independent management scholar with high ethical standards;
  • build a broader academic and professional identity via the development of a range of intellectual, (inter)personal and self-management skills to prepare for a future academic or business career.

Also, Rome was not built in a day – so how to achieve these aims while continuously reflecting on, and linking back to, your personal ambitions?

Year 1

DBA participants often seem to be disappointed with their progress in the first year, as they hope to immediately translate the newly acquired knowledge to the research idea they identified as the starting point for their PhD and to conduct this research as they wrote it up upon admission to the programme. In addition, supervisors sometimes seem to have expected more of their DBA candidate in terms of digging into their field of expertise and refining their research idea.

To avoid this disappointment, it might be good to keep in mind that the main focus of the first year is following the courses to acquaint yourself with the principles underlying academic research. What is the role of theory; and, even more philosophically, ‘What is theory’? How to design a study in a valid and reliable way? When and why to choose quantitative versus qualitative methods? Which paradigms exist in management research? During the courses, you will be invited to apply the insights to your initial research idea to make it more tangible – but this does not mean that the results will be taken up directly in your dissertation. Through the course reflection papers, you will be able to conduct some further literature search on your topic, but don’t expect to already write up a comprehensive literature review. The courses will bring you first ideas for the pilot study we expect you to conduct as one of the doctoral assignments, but the study will probably not be implemented until the second year.

In one sentence: during the first year, your professional expertise and initial research idea will be enriched by immersing you in the world of academia. Year 1 will awaken your slow, reflexive academic mindset. The courses will help you diverge, offering a broad overview of options, before you start to converge towards your own research journey. While bridging the so-called gap between research and practice, it is perfectly normal that, from time to time, you will wonder whether the choice to move from a knowledge consumer to a knowledge creator was the right one. Don’t let this doubt keep you from going on and talking to people to get feedback. Keep in touch with your peers and supervisors and give them the chance to be involved in your maturity process.

Year 2

During the second year, you have time to dig deeper and translate the insights of the courses into the doctoral assignments. First, there is the requirement to write up a literature review, which helps you position your research within the existing knowledge base. Start from the papers you submitted for the courses and continue your literature search in a structured way. The challenge will be to maintain the balance between staying focused – and hence, not going too broad – while at the same time pushing yourself to diverge before converging. How many articles should you read before you have a good view on what is already known about a certain topic and what the gaps are? How to reach saturation? How to structure your thoughts? Your supervisors can help keep you on track, identifying the right level of journals, choosing the right keywords, making sense of what you read, and writing up your review in an academic way. While the course reflection papers of the first year were an initial exercise in academic writing, this literature review will be your first assignment in which you will also experiment with finding your own academic style.

Next to the literature review, you will conduct a pilot study that serves to assess the feasibility of a larger study. Keep in mind that this pilot does not aim to test the hypotheses or research questions of the larger study. This assignment is your chance to further implement your methodological insights from the quantitative and/or qualitative research courses in a safe way. The most important part of this assignment is the learnings you derive for the actual studies of your PhD.

A third assignment for the second year is the field-specific exam, which aims to deepen your knowledge of a particular field. The field-specific exam either consists of a reflection paper on seminar works in your field (as identified by your supervisors) or a reading course within your field. Whereas the courses of the first year mainly take a methodological perspective within management research at large – although every teacher inevitably brings his or her own field-specific perspective – here it is time for you to immerse yourself in the specificities of your knowledge domain.

Finally, you integrate all your earlier insights in a focused proposal and work plan for your doctoral research, which you present to a jury as the official transition to the research stage of your doctoral journey. In preparing this presentation, and to get feedback on your research proposal, you start to engage more in the academic community, presenting your work in a research seminar or amongst your peers.

Through these doctoral assignments, your academic mindset will be completely activated, and you will experience a growing trust in your academic skills and the value of the endeavour you are engaged in. Moving from the course work (year 1) to the doctoral assignments (year 2) feels like the natural next step for many DBA participants. All of the puzzle pieces fit nicely together, and it is exciting to put your initial learnings into practice. A challenge you might experience in year 2 is to self-organize and dedicate enough time without the prescribed pace that the courses brought in the first year.

Year 3

Once your research proposal has been accepted, you continue to implement the studies you perhaps initiated already during the second year. There is no one best way to take these studies forward, as this depends on your own preference and how your doctoral research has been designed. Some people like to work on different studies in parallel, while others take a more sequential approach. Sometimes you need the results of an earlier study to be able to set up the next one (for instance, in the case of experimental research).

In terms of expectations, during the third year, you will work on the first and, hopefully, also the second paper of your doctoral research. You will further develop the studies conceptually, collect and analyse the data, and write up the initial papers. You will be more actively engaged in the academic community – and maybe you will present one of your studies at an academic conference. As you start becoming an expert in your field, you can act as a friendly reviewer for peers working in the same domain. Your doctoral guidance committee will also assess your progress and serve as a sounding board in the first and second doctoral seminars in which you present your first two studies. Based on this feedback, some will already be able to submit one of their papers to an academic journal. In the third year, you put your academic mindset and skills to work, and you learn the craft of scholarship by doing – hopefully, you’ll have many ups; but unavoidably, you’ll have some downs.

Year 4

In the fourth year, the end-goal starts to come closer. As is the case with many skills and talents, your learning process starts to pay off, and you gain speed in setting up and conducting your third doctoral study. In comparison with the first year, it seems like you are now speed-reading when you dig into the literature. You have also learned from earlier mistakes and you feel confident designing a robust study. You become even more active in the academic community through conference presentations, research seminar presentations, and first article submissions to an academic journal.

During the fourth year, you update the literature review you have been conducting and start to write up your doctoral thesis. In most cases, this means adding an introductory chapter that ties together the themes of your three papers, as well as a concluding chapter in which you reflect on the academic contributions of your work and its broader impact on your practice and society at large. Sometimes people still choose to write a thesis in book format (a PhD by thesis instead of by papers), but in this case as well your time mainly goes into writing up the conclusions that extend beyond your own work. Once your doctoral guidance committee allows you to do so, you defend your PhD in front of an international jury.

Obtaining your PhD title means that you have earned your ‘license to research’ and are considered by the academic community to be an independent management scholar that has proven to be able to conduct academic research with high ethical standards. You have evolved from apprentice to master and, hopefully, you will continue to engage in rigorous, relevant and responsible research with a positive impact on society. As an ‘engaged scholar’, you can translate your academic insights back into your professional activities, reversing the step you took in the first months of your doctoral journey and thus closing the loop. You have broadened your professional and personal identity, which might lead you to rethink your per.



Taking on a doctoral journey comes with certain expectations and ambitions that you have defined for yourself. Keeping these goals in mind will be crucial to staying committed and focused. At the same time, we want you to be realistic and patient in learning the craft and art of scholarship. Step-by-step you will reach your goals – although perhaps more slowly than you initially envisioned or via unforeseen paths and detours.

When starting your DBA trajectory, four years might seem like ages – but you’ll quickly notice that time flies and it’s necessary to take proactive actions in order to progress and keep yourself on track, certainly because academic research time can’t be compressed. Some advice for maintaining a good pace:

  • Dedicate significant blocks of time in your agenda to allow yourself to grow into the academic mindset and to reflect without the daily operational pressure of your business life.
  • Create your own intermediate deadlines, certainly when the courses are finished, to divide the big end-goal into smaller intermediate goals using the expectations described above as guidance to self-assess your progress.
  • Use the guidance and expertise of your supervisors and the research community to get feedback, to learn from others, and to make the most of your precious time.
  • Make use of the flexibility offered within the programme to define your own path, as this helps you stay engaged.

Apart from this advice, your passion for the topic you are investigating is most crucial to maintaining your enthusiasm. As one of the current participants says: “Choose a topic that is challenging enough that it scares you a bit but at the same time excites you a lot!” It might seem from the path described above that there are many potential pitfalls and hurdles along the way – but your intrinsic motivation, curiosity and excitement will push you forward.

Finally, although a doctorate is an individual achievement, this does not mean it must be a lonely experience. Engage in the broader research community by attending research events and discussing with your supervisors and peers. Immerse yourself in the academic world and ask enough feedback along the way. Trust the process and take the leap to achieve your academic dream. And above all, enjoy the journey – as the process to earning your PhD title is every bit as valuable and important as the title itself. Good luck!

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