Seeking for DBA at 40s and 50s: What are they looking for?

Source:Global DBA (Aisa Track)Date:2019-03-19

Two decades years ago, I worked at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and introduced MBA and EMBA education to the Chinese market. At that time, MBA programs represented an effective mechanism in US and Europe to foster professional managers with volume and speed. As the Chinese economy was taking off, the concept was quickly accepted by various business leaders, professional managers and even government officials at all levels. As a result, across China, both business schools and business administration programs have grown by leaps and bounds.

Today, most of these MBA and EMBA graduates are in the middle of their lives. Looking back, after 20 years of joys and sorrows as well as love and hatred, the Chinese economy has stumbled and grown all the way while harvesting innumerable fruits. However, looking forward, they seem standing at a crossroad again. How can they start a new journey of life?

Dreaming to be a University Professor

James is an overseas Chinese in Malaysia and an MBA graduate from the University of Chicago in the early years, who came to China to join a Fortune 500 company in the 1990s. He had participated in and witnessed China's reform and opening up, before joining the top management of a leading French food company in China. Two years ago, he made up his mind to study in a DBA program run by a French business school in Asia. Born in 1950s, James is one of the older participants of his class. His research topic focuses on his own interest in life and the "midlife journey of executives".

I asked James, “Do you plan to teach at a university to share your experience and insights once retired as an executive?” James admitted the idea. He intends to join a business school and systematically teach MBA and EMBA participants after retirement. An on-the-job DBA program will properly prepare him for his goal for future life and he is also eager to mentor more youth around the world.

As far as I know, corporate executives like James, who have rich experience in business management practices, are increasingly valued by major business schools in the world. They are often invited by these institutions for sharing and lectures. Given their brilliant biographs, it seems that there is no need for a doctorate degree for cosmetics. However, having stood on the podium of business schools, these business leaders become less confident. A two-hour presentation or a half-day lecture on the business and industry may be appealing to EMBA and MBA participants. But these CEOs feel at their wits’ end for an entire day of systematic sessions, not to mention a module lasting 2-4 days, which is only limited to executives with academic training. A complete course calls for a systematic knowledge system and a theoretical framework, completed by classroom skills, clear learning objectives and how to ensure effective knowledge transfer. An information-sharing lecture is to give people fish, while knowledge transfer is to teach people how to fish! To teach at top business schools at home and abroad is beyond the capabilities of a business veteran. Therefore, James gives himself plenty of time to prepare for becoming a university professor. To his surprise, the beginning of the DBA program empowered, and he is now increasingly enjoying the process of study and refinement.

He showed me some benefits of an on-the-job DBA program:

  1. The freedom to learn sustains ongoing self-growth;
  2. The mode of adult learning without pressure is self-discretionary. One no longer needs to compete with his/her classmates;
  3. Establish connections outside of your own profession. Some professional networks are too business oriented, and colleagues and business partners may not be true friends. However, those who share ultimate pursuit of life are more likely to become best friends forever;
  4. Explore some uncharted territories, especially the topics you are really interested in and bring you a higher level of implications in life.

James' research interest in his DBA study has made him quite popular among business executives at home and abroad. He took the time to share his insights on reading literatures, connect theories to practices and help other executives review their lives and find out the balance between health, life and work. James's expectation also represents a large number of DBA participants, who are eager to join top institutions as visiting professors and mentor younger generations.

As James found out, the curriculum of a DBA program is totally different from that of MBA or EMBA. A DBA program doesn’t gather assignments for each course or examine the required knowledge or skills. Instead, it focuses on research methodology and cognitive theory. If you want to conduct independent research, you need to understand the logic behind the new knowledge and ideas. Even on global strategy, supply chain management, capital markets, marketing and other general topics, it is put into the context of human science and review its current height in worldwide management, scientific and even philosophical communities, before advancing to a targeted issue. So far, I have witnessed a number of interesting ideas in some leading DBA programs in China.

For example:

  • The operation of shadow banking in China;
  • Knowledge transfer across companies in the automotive supply chain;
  • The capital operation of art trading in China;
  • Considerations for setting up community sites under high-end private hospitals in China;
  • The leadership model of Chinese companies after acquiring overseas targets;
  • The operation of new politics-business relationship in China’s real estate industry;
  • The effects of Chinese business schools participating in international certification and ranking on their quality;
  • Global supply chain reengineering reflected by China's new C2B customization;
  • Changes in learning in the digital age by reviewing corporate academies in China;
  • The survival of private museums in China...

These are just research ideas, while the actual topics will be further refined by DBA participants after taking advices from professors, engaging in in-depth study and reviewing a large number of relevant world-class literatures. Each participant has to choose between qualitative, quantitative and mixed methodologies for his/her research design and demonstrate its feasibility in a smaller scope. These are directly connected to the final topic. A DBA dissertation makes obvious contributions to interdisciplinary research, industry, business and practices. A large part of DBA dissertations, especially those high-quality ones created produced in China, will fill the gaps in international academics.

The academic journey of industry leaders

A Tsinghua EMBA graduate, Ms. Xiaolei was the founder of a major SAAS platform in China. Having successfully sold her shares in the company, she initially planned to enjoy a life full of leisure and family happiness. After a variety of workshops, she also signed up for a DBA program along with her friends. Beyond her expectation, the DBA program was totally distinct from all those workshops and seminars on management, entrepreneurship, philosophy and Chinese studies she had enrolled in across the world! In her words, “those executive workshops only ‘slightly touch knowledge’, while the DBA program is doing ‘acupuncture’ on my brain. I have to strain every nerve to generate results!"

Every time, Ms. Xiaolei flew from Singapore to Shanghai, Beijing, Lyon, Paris and other places, and actively arranged to interview various private museums in China. She chose to use qualitative methodology and interviewed 30-40 museum owners in less than a year. Before the New Year, during the annual forum of China’s museum industry, Xiaolei’s findings derived from 1-2 years of research highly inspired the participants, both in terms of theoretical exploration and practical implication. She also felt that her research was concerned with some extremely important, yet less attended facets of the industry.

In Beijing, when she and her DBA classmates discussed over dinner, she found that in the face of imperial cuisine, people were talking about how to conduct research, compile data and make positive effects on the industry. During the dinner, a new entrepreneur who sold traditional Chinese footwear and owned a footwear museum in Tianjin, had supported the museum with corporate profits. After listening to Xiaolei’s story, he decided to continue the practice in order to leave a window for future generations to understand the traditional Chinese shoe-making techniques. He and Xiaolei discussed how to find some breakthroughs to make the museum self-financing. This is a real situation of a DBA dinner one may be curious about. There are fine foods, alcohol, dancing and singing. But more often, people talk about the responsibility and undertaking behind business sustainability.


DBA, an imported concept after MBA and EMBA, has gradually entered the vision of Chinese entrepreneurs and executives in recent years. It will represent a smaller group of real elites after nearly two decades of development in MBA and EMBA programs. At present, it is far more popular in China than its origins. As an editor of a leading financial media in China said, who is studying in a DBA program, he enjoys the process. He found that the development of China's economy and the practices of Chinese management call for more sound research rooted in this land. Executives are creating and also wanting to discover, communicate and summarize. The knowledge, wisdom of Chinese management and theories that will be generated in future will serve as better references for China's future practice and will contribute to the world's intellectual treasures.

DBA participants are still young and ambitious. It is their collective voice to seek for the meaning of life and the higher value of self-existence.

At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right!

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