The MBA-Doctoral Connection

Sometimes, students in sections are not really in the MBA program. Rather, they’re there just for the first semester. Who are they? They’re doctoral students who opt to enroll in the MBA program for this short, but meaningful, time. Shasa Dobrow (“Give a shout out to Sec-C!”), Wendy Smith (“Section H is the best.”), and Yuhai Xuan (“Section B is all about fun.”) talk about why they did this last fall.

For Shasa, a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior, it was the broad exposure to business; she’d never had training in finance or marketing, for example. Though Yuhai, a doctoral student in Business Economics, has been learning finance theories, he hasn’t dealt much with their applications. He enjoyed seeing in his MBA class how finance is done in the real world, as it complements his more abstract understanding of the field. Wendy, a doctoral student in Organizational Behavior, found that the MBA courses educated her in the language of business and thought processes of managers. She feels this will enable her to better interface as a professor with MBA students and as a researcher with those in business.

All three doctoral students agreed that their MBA experience would make them better business school faculty. Shasa explains, “As a future teacher, watching professors teach and hearing students’ reactions educated me about how to teach effectively. Already, as I’m teaching at Harvard College, I’m transporting the case method into my current teaching. I write a lot on the chalkboard, ask lots of questions, and will even cold call undergrads, which is especially fun after living in fear of being cold called myself.”

The MBA Experience
Academics and professional development aside, what did they really think of their time in the MBA program? For Shasa, it was culture shock.

Though she had been at HBS for four years (as a research associate and doctoral student), suddenly everything felt very different. Once again, Shasa was a new student in a new context with different daily routines.

Shasa reflects, “It was memorable, life-changing, and I really appreciated the welcome I received as a doctoral student. I was treated like everyone else, including getting teased for falling asleep in class! I really enjoyed the spirit of camaraderie; it was much less competitive an environment than I expected. I know I’ve made some lifelong friends. And I’m always impressed when my sectionmates ask me how my research is going, and I’m excited to hear about how their job searches are going.”

Wendy loved her experience as well. She found it “socially fantastic to meet an incredibly intelligent, motivated, and interesting group of people,” and she hopes that the MBA students she met learned that the doctoral programs aren’t so physically or intellectually far away. “It was a literal merging of theory and practice, great for both MBA and doctoral students.” Some of her most memorable experiences were the one-off conversations with sectionmates and her study group. Wendy especially appreciated how welcoming her section was of her husband, as well as the touching good-bye she received when she left mid-year.

Coming from lecture-based doctoral courses, Yuhai was not used to speaking up in class. However, by the end, he felt like a true member of the section. He really valued the variety of talents within the section that contributed to his MBA education. “Life as an MBA student is great. I really enjoyed it.”

Still Doctoral Students at Heart
After an experience like that, why would anyone return to the Doctoral Programs? Yuhai admits that he once considered an MBA, but he chose instead the doctoral degree, because he wants to do in-depth study and likes the intellectual challenge. Yuhai elaborates, “If I had done an MBA, the experience would have been very different. For example, the Finance class is very applied in MBA, more practitioner-oriented. When I study finance in Business Economics, it’s more abstract. I get to see the underlying structure. I have more time to explore and understand. You come up with your own agenda, pose your own questions, and delve deeply into it; it’s like being your own boss.”

Even while in consulting, Wendy knew that the doctoral path was the right one for her. She says, “I really enjoying think about ideas, writing them up, and sharing them with people.” Besides, she remarks, “[In a doctoral program,] it’s nice not having to worry about getting a summer job!” For Shasa, while being in the MBA program was enjoyable and gave her a whole new perspective, it helped solidify her feeling that she likes the way of thinking in the doctoral programs, the more research-oriented perspective on the world. “In the doctoral programs, you have course requirements, but you have to figure things out on your own and you have to come up with your own ideas. You have to shape your own research agenda,” explains Shasa.

Advice for MBA Students Considering Doctoral
However, the connection between the MBA and Doctoral programs goes both ways. So, while doctoral students sometimes end up in the MBA program, some MBA students consider a career in business academia and thus a doctoral degree in business. Wendy, Shasa, and Yuhai have advice for them.

Wendy says, “You have to ask yourself whether you like to do research, to write. Can I envision doing research? It was valuable to have experience seeing what research was like before starting the program [by working as a research associate]. Field studies are closer to what life is like as a doctoral student. Also, MBA students should take advantage of doctoral classes. Test out if you like that kind of class. What you’re reading and how you talk about it is very different.”

Shasa agrees, “Our doctoral program is focused on research, not on teaching. MBAs see professors in the classroom and often assume that that’s all they do, and possibly consulting. It’s only a drop in the bucket in terms of their responsibilities.” She provides concrete advice: “If you want to delve into class topics at an even deeper level and test hypotheses in a more rigorous way, you may want to consider a doctoral degree. If you like asking questions, analyzing topics, more than being a practitioner, that’s another sign. Talk to professors or doctoral students.”

Shasa jokes, “If you think a Harvard Business Review article is too theoretical, you probably shouldn’t consider a doctoral program.”
While Yuhai went straight from college to a doctoral program, he thinks there may be an advantage to having work experience or an MBA beforehand. He believes that individuals get to know their profession well and thus might have a good idea of what they would like to research.

Yuhai suggests that everybody strengthen or refresh their quantitative skills, as the programs are very math-intensive. He also advises MBA students to prepare to work hard. In many of the programs, the first two years involve high-level theory classes, some of which can be difficult and time consuming.

Each year, some MBA students will meet a few doctoral students in
sections and classes, and hopefully, some doctoral students will meet a few MBA students who remain at HBS for the next step in their careers.