These doctors mean business

Fuelled by late-blooming entrepreneurs, business schools see doctoral enrolment double


Valerie Sheppard’s been self-employed, she’s worked in government (in the tourism sector), and now she’s headed back to school. Sheppard, 50, who says she has an entrepreneurial streak, is one of four candidates in the University of Victoria’s new business Ph.D. program (UVic welcomed its first cohort this month). “I don’t see myself retiring,” says Sheppard. “Getting a Ph.D. will give me the flexibility to keep working.” After spending years out in the workforce, going back to school is a bit “scary,” she admits, but she’ll have someone close for support: daughter Leah, 26, is doing a Ph.D. in business, too, at the University of British Columbia.

A mother and daughter both doing business Ph.D.s might sound unique, but it speaks to the booming popularity of the degree. The number of doctoral candidates enrolled in business programs nearly doubled in a decade, from 696 in 1998 to 1,227 in 2008, Statistics Canada figures show. (That year, about 31 per cent of students were aged 30 to 34, and 24 per cent were 40-plus, the two biggest age groups.) UVic decided to offer the Ph.D. because “there’s a shortage of business school professors out there, and we knew there’d be a demand for graduates,” says academic director Charlene Zietsma.

Indeed, as countries like Brazil, China and India became financial hubs, the number of business schools worldwide tripled from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, drawing North American-trained academics, says John Fernandes, president and chief executive officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a leading accreditation agency. (Most of the grads leaving for developing regions were international students, he says, heading back home.) At the same time, North American business schools cut back on Ph.D. programs, investing in the more lucrative, and high-profile, M.B.A. instead.

Job prospects have suffered in this gloomy economy, but they’re expected to improve. “The market for academics with a business Ph.D. has been good, and will be again,” predicts Debbie Compeau, who directs the Ph.D. program at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.

But academia isn’t the only option. Many of those who pursue a doctorate in business have past work experience, and about 20 per cent of all students will take their degrees into the workforce, Fernandes says. Among these people, a new type of degree is gaining traction: the doctorate of business administration. Unlike a Ph.D., which is scholarly and research-based, the D.B.A. encourages “applied research that’s relevant to the real world,” says John Ingham, who directs the three-year D.B.A. program at the Université de Sherbrooke, one of two in Canada to offer the degree. (The other is Athabasca University.)

Richard Vaillancourt, 54, is completing a D.B.A. online through Athabasca while serving as CEO of OMISTA Credit Union in Moncton, N.B. “I thought a D.B.A. would be more relevant and practitioner-oriented, whereas a Ph.D. is more research,” says Vaillancourt, who’s considering a career in credit-union consulting or teaching, post-retirement.

In January, Valerie Sheppard left her government job to take on an associate faculty position at Royal Roads University; getting a Ph.D. will “solidify my ability to teach in a university setting,” she says, and keep working for many years to come. And, she argues, the so-called Ivory Tower and the real world aren’t so far apart. As a professor, “you’ve got your own courses, and students; there’s some flexibility,” she says. “In a sense, it’s entrepreneurial. That’s what I’m looking for.”

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