PhD students are the driving force behind research centres
At INSEEC U. Research Center, we are convinced that attracting doctoral students is the key to a dynamic research centre. We count on attracting doctoral students by offering three-year doctoral contracts in which each PhD student is co-supervised by an INSEEC U. Research Professor who holds a higher doctorate with accreditation to supervise research (HDR), and a Research Professor from a partner doctoral school. These PhD students benefit from the INSEEC U. Research Center’s facilities and teach at INSEEC U. schools, in their fields of expertise.
Another aim is to host postdoctoral researchers on one-year contracts, renewable if necessary. These post-docs can come from a wide variety of disciplinary fields. The challenge is to broaden the scope of the centre’s interdisciplinary offerings.
Companies and organisations are increasingly interested in PhDs because they consider doctors to be “high-potential” individuals.
Indeed, doctoral research is a mandatory pathway that anyone seeking to acquire the competencies that define the researcher’s expertise must follow. Therefore, the title of doctor recognises the knowledge that has been successfully acquired and developed during research, combined with the know-how associated with methodological expertise, and finally, the personal and inter-personal skills developed throughout the process.
At INSEEC U., we also offer complete DBA (Doctorate in Business and Administration) courses at the IFG (INSEEC U.’s lifelong learning division).
Don’t tell my parents I’m a PhD candidate in management – they think I’m looking for a job!
Beyond a rhetorical nod to a well-known book, let’s make one observation: in 2019, the prospect of embarking on a doctoral programme in management sciences does not enthuse many students. Indeed, fewer and fewer of them plan to further their studies after a two-year master’s degree.
Why embark on such an adventure?
Carrying out doctoral research in management sciences means setting one’s sights on a degree requiring eight years of higher education, but above all, it involves the construction of a knowledge-based project. The doctoral thesis consists in proposing new theories, enriching existing ones or revalidating theoretical frameworks in new contexts, according to particular cases and ambitions. It also contributes to managerial expertise in line with the goals of management science, which is defined as an “action science”. The aim is to produce workable and actionable knowledge for the benefit of organisations and their leaders.
I have spent over a decade supervising and supporting numerous PhD students. This experience has enabled me to identify the arguments for and against embarking on the adventure that is a doctoral programme.
Reasons for not doing a PhD thesis
1. The length of the project.
After five years of study (if all goes well), one must start afresh on a project that is described as a three-year programme but in reality is organised over four or even five years. This is a big risk to take at a time when the job market remains very favourable for graduates with master’s degrees in management (human resources, marketing/sales, management control, auditing, etc.). In this discipline, enrolling on a programme of long-term study therefore means turning down job offers.
Even though the age of entry into the job market is being pushed back year after year, it may still seem unreasonable for 23 or 24-year-old graduates to contemplate furthering their studies and risk conforming to the stereotype of the “perpetual student” living in their parents’ home in a state of semi-precariousness. Although doctoral schools are imposing increasingly strict financing requirements for doctoral programmes (ruling out precarious sources of funding such as part-time jobs), this is not systematic, and the level of “PhD scholarships” remains low (around €1,700 per month). Candidates must therefore accept prolonged student status, with an income that does not easily enable them to envisage settling down in life, with everything that this implies in terms of tangible investments and stability – on the emotional level, and even in terms of their family life.
3. A 24-hour-a-day commitment.
Anyone who has embarked on this adventure can confirm the following: a PhD takes time – lots of time – and impinges on one’s evenings, weekends and holidays. Indeed, working “office” hours is hardly conceivable, as there are so many interruptions to research time. More than a purely professional undertaking, this is a life-changing commitment and, for PhD students who already have family lives, it is extremely important for their partners and children to be fully informed and to accept this pact which, whatever happens, will impact their lives. At dissertation vivas, it is not uncommon to see parents or spouses who are exhausted by these years of study that have required them to reorganise their lives and support the new doctor through the all-too-frequent times of doubt and stress.
4. Stress and doubt.
Stress and doubt inevitably accompany such undertakings carried out over such a lengthy period. Despite the thesis supervisor’s presence and support from colleagues on the research team, PhD students often have to cope with their anxieties alone. What type of anxieties? Being unable to mobilize the existing literature on the subject in a relevant way, failing to stabilise the research question, having doubts about the robustness of the model or the chosen method, not obtaining the expected results, suffering from writer’s block in the writing phase… Research work, by definition, is about project management, with all the uncertainty about the expected result that this implies.
5. The undervalued status of university teaching and research staff.
Let’s be honest. Who, in 2020, after eight years of study and earning a doctorate, dreams of starting out on a gross salary of €2,000 per month (junior lecturer’s salary), when the average salary of a Master’s 2 graduate in management is around €36,000 per year? Of course, business schools are willing to raise the salaries of (good) professors and research professors, but it must be acknowledged that there is a fundamental problem of undervalued status, which does nothing to help convince brilliant students to enrol on doctoral programmes.
6. The surest way to lose touch with reality.
The final argument, in line with other enduring clichés (but we have to contend with feelings and representations), is the prospect of becoming an “ivory-tower academic” – someone who is unquestionably an intellectual, but completely out of touch with “real life”. It must be admitted that as the months go by, PhD students acquire an increasingly codified, abstruse language, and identify more and more with their own community and its particular rites and codes, which can appear somewhat insular. The few managers who attend management research conferences are often torn between not understanding the possible contributions to their professional practices and being appalled at seeing their own activity dissected, evaluated and recodified… to such an extent that they no longer recognize
Reasons for doing a PhD thesis in Management Science
1. Societal challenges.
The purpose of management research remains the production of knowledge in management to support companies and help business leaders develop a better understanding of their practices, which will enable them to plot the best course for their future. PhD students in management science must take on the mission of helping companies to actively influence their environment rather than passively react to it. This is an important and positive challenge, and it is gratifying to contribute to a project that can impact society, even on a modest scale.
2. Disciplinary challenges.
While life sciences, philosophy, sociology and economics no longer need to prove their legitimacy, management – a new science – still faces this challenge. Carrying out doctoral research in management science means becoming part of a community that has been developing for just over 50 years. This makes it a very exciting undertaking that also leaves room for initiatives by young researchers, because there is still a sufficient effusion of ideas and invention to limit the degree of standardisation.
3. The tremendous intellectual stimulation of any doctoral project.
“Learning to learn” and “learning to work” are not empty phrases. Everyone agrees that these are months of intellectual jubilation. It is frequently observed that young researchers become addicted to this stimulation, which they subsequently strive to rekindle throughout their careers. This is what can lead them to join the community of professors and researchers, despite the meagre financial rewards. From this perspective, the long-term commitment, stress and doubt can be seen as conditions favouring new learning.
4. A portfolio of new and rare competencies.
PhD students acquire three competencies to which many high-level managers aspire. Firstly, the ability to make sense of things, thanks to their capital of knowledge acquired through highly extensive reading and shared experience in research, which operational managers are never able to do, as they have insufficient time and knowledge of the conventions of this literature. Yet concepts are powerful accelerators for understanding and interpreting the world around us; they serve to identify what can “work” by capitalizing on the experience acquired by other people in other contexts. Secondly, PhD students acquire expertise in reflexivity, i.e. the ability to observe themselves in action, to reinterpret their own actions and how they relate to an environment that they have learned to decipher. This ability to interpret action includes expertise in identifying weak signals, which are often invisible to operational staff. The ability to manage doubt without denying its existence is also a skill that is rarely identified in organisations. Finally, PhD students acquire expertise in “continuous” learning (which implies the ability to “unlearn” and to keep acquiring new knowledge).
5. The PhD: the new frontier for high-potential managers.
The BMD (Bachelor’s-Master’s-Doctorate) reform has meant that all students are now aiming to reach master’s degree level. This is reflected in the rates of further study, even after “career-focused” degrees. The new order is therefore defined by the steady increase in the levels of qualifications required to access particular jobs or functions. This inflation makes competition increasingly fierce and raises the bar for high-potential managers. Through PhDs, the management professions are joining those in the so-called “hard” sciences, in which companies have a long tradition of recruiting doctors for their research and development centres or laboratories. Holders of PhDs in finance are already being widely recruited by banking institutions.
6. An exciting and singular project.
I have never met a doctor who regrets his or her choice. Over time, it is perfectly clear that on balance, the knowledge and expertise acquired largely make up for the bad times, which in their own way, also contribute to the PhD student’s personal and professional development. Completing one’s programme of study with a viva and obtaining the title of doctor is a joy like no other. It means joining a community of people who have made the same journey and who stand out for their hunger to learn and understand, having acquired the tools and methods to do so. Obtaining a PhD is not an end in itself as one might think, but rather the adoption of a new posture in life, a vision of existence in which everything seems possible, once the course has been set and the resolve has been affirmed.
In the end, should you go for it, or not?
Yes, absolutely! Starting a doctoral thesis is about enthusiastically identifying a puzzle to be solved. It is about the desire to better understand and interpret the world around us. It is about asking “why”, like the children we once were – seeking answers to everything that surprises us – but with tools and methods we master. Conducting doctoral research is also about leaving behind ready-made beliefs and ideas, and gaining the objectivity required to rise above conflicts based on “hearsay”.
Let’s be clear, doctoral research in management science is unlikely to change the course of the history of management and organizations, but it can contribute to it on a modest scale, and that is quite an achievement in itself, as it contributes to the knowledge about managerial practices.
Doctoral research might not change the world, but it definitely changes the PhD student who performs it. And that is priceless.