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Bryce Adams, a cloud analytics specialist at technology company Oracle, was partway through his doctoral studies in management at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) when his professors presented an interesting option. Would he like to switch to a Doctor in Business Administration instead?

Adams’ response was a resounding “Yes.”

With the start of spring term on April 3, UMUC is phasing out its Doctor of Management (DM) and replacing it with a DBA designed for individuals interested in leadership roles at for-profit, nonprofit, government, and nongovernmental organizations, including higher education. The new program takes three years to complete.

Current doctoral candidates may remain in the DM program until they finish or, since much of the DBA coursework overlaps with that of the DM, they can make the switch. Adams felt the DBA would be stronger on his resume.

“A Doctor of Business Administration is better understood in the workplace,” said Marcia Bouchard, an adjunct associate professor for both doctoral programs. “The MBA is a very practitioner-based degree. The DBA keeps that practitioner side and adds the scholarly side. And we do it with experiential learning that requires students to take real-world business problems and apply the scholarly literature that will ultimately guide the manager in decision-making.”

UMUC’s 48-credit DBA addresses management theory and strategic thinking, organizational leadership and change, and research and innovation. Courses are online, but it is mandatory for DBA students, regardless of where they live, to also take part in an on-site residency weekend in Maryland.

Douglas Harrison, associate dean of The Graduate School, described both the DM and DBA as flagship programs for UMUC. The DM, launched in 2000 with a scholar-practitioner focus that bridged the gap between the purely theoretical and practice in the field, continued to evolve over the years. And, in the fall of 2016, it “went live” with UMUC’s learning model, which emphasizes competency- and scenario-based learning. Harrison said that transformation sparked a two-year process to “rethink” the program.

“We knew we were onto something. UMUC was leading these new experiential styles of learning, and we changed our pedagogy for doctoral education in a way that was leading edge,” Harrison said. “We began to see an opportunity to position the degree more appropriately in a DBA program.”

The move to the DBA responds to the growing demand for data-driven business leaders who can understand an organization’s full portfolio. At the same time, the program offers a clearer pathway for students moving from undergraduate business programs to MBAs and beyond. Importantly, Harrison said, the change more accurately reflects the aims of UMUC’s doctoral program in business.

“We discovered through market data that the Doctor of Management was seen as focused more narrowly on senior managers. But our DM wasn’t just aimed at a CEO track. It was aimed at a more diverse array of C-suite executives,” Harrison said. “The shift to the DBA is a recognition of that.”

The Nuts and Bolts

In the DBA program, cohorts of 15 or 20 students travel through the program together, taking online classes and their on-site residency in sequential order. Students must receive a grade of B or above to advance to the next course. It is expected that 60 to 70 students will enroll in the DBA program this year, with that number rising over time.

Vice Dean of Doctoral Programs Bryan Booth said the range of workplaces represented by UMUC doctoral students in business is wide and has included for-profit companies, big consulting companies, and agencies in the federal government. Professor Denise Breckon also noted that her DM students have run the gamut of positions, from an IT professional to a National Institutes of Health researcher, as well as medical doctors and lawyers.

Booth said the same kind of diversity is projected for the DBA, calling it a plus for the program.

“If there is a class discussion about leadership change, for example, Janelle in finance will describe how that takes place in finance while Terrance talks about how it is done at his federal agency and Hsin talks about how they do it in a consulting environment,” Booth said. “The for-profit people discover that they can learn from not-for-profit people.”

The DBA moves business leaders away from making decisions by intuition to relying instead on rigorous research and data. Breckon said the degree is useful for individuals who want to rise within their organizations, launch their own companies, pursue a second career after retirement or teach in higher education.

The DBA coursework is rigorous. UMUC offers an unusual tool to help potential doctoral candidates weigh whether the program is right for them. Every student contemplating a DBA must take the Foundations of Doctoral Studies course (DBA 600). It does not count toward the degree and is exempt from financial aid, but it gives students a sense of the intensity of the work ahead.

Richard Nguyen, a financial analysis manager at Fannie Mae, enrolled in the DM and has now moved to the DBA. He said the program is more intense than he had expected, but that has taught him to be a better time manager. He also said the program has been “immensely helpful” for his job.

Nguyen said he couldn’t quit work and enroll in a traditional full-time doctoral program because he doesn’t have the means. “I have a mortgage, and I’m married.” But he liked the online coursework in the UMUC program. When he graduates in December 2019, he will be among the first UMUC students with a DBA.

Nguyen, who has a master’s degree in finance, is already applying lessons from the DBA program to his job.

“How I manage my employees, how I interact with senior management, my communications skills—including writing—have all been affected,” he said. “It’s great that I can solve numbers problems, but how do I explain to others how I solve these issues? How do I explain to people in different fields—IT, senior management—and in layman’s terms? I can do that now.”

Cohorts and Residencies

 Booth and professors in the program underscore the importance of the cohort design of the program, as well as the required residency. Patty LePage, another DM candidate who jumped to a DBA, said her cohort has formed deep connections, exchanging phone numbers and communicating constantly via a WhatsApp chat group they formed.

“Having cohorts really helps to keep people in the program resilient. When you have these relationships, you boost each other up. You have teammates who are pulling out your strengths, and that is great at this advanced level,” she said. “We’re forming great friendships but we’re also creating great networking collaborations.”

LePage is a military spouse with an undergraduate degree in psychology from UMUC. After a mentor pointed out that most military installations need clinical social workers, she pursued a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California in 2016. Her long-term goal had been a doctorate in psychology—until she realized that she was interested in work that carried a bigger impact than one-on-one therapy.

“I started looking at business schools because I wanted to work for nonprofits to make them more successful,” she said. “When I saw the program at UMUC, I knew these were the classes I wanted.”

LePage and her husband operate a nonprofit for military veterans who are in transition. She recently launched a business-consulting company to help nonprofits and other organizations use data to improve operations.

LePage said she looks forward to the DBA residency when her cohort members will meet face-to-face and come together with their professors and Booth for an intense weekend. The residency gives students a chance to showcase the research and findings from their problem-solving work with real organizations.

“This is really a unique and powerful program that is the pinnacle form of applied and experiential-based learning,” said Harrison.