Doctoral education: oxygen for productivity and innovation

Business leaders handle multiple problems and decisions every day. How can they increase productivity in their company? How can they attract the brightest minds to their organization and how can they solve complex problems?

A shortage of ideas is rarely among the problems they face.

Most ambitious people I know have at least one long-standing creative idea or innovative notion languishing in their bottom drawer. Faced with daily operational responsibilities, their biggest obstacle is finding the time, the team or the avenue to supply oxygen to ignite that spark of an idea.

For many, the idea incubator has been a traditional PhD program. For decades, now mythologized by contemporary students, the PhD was a direct line to discovery and tenure-track teaching and research careers. But for increasing numbers of students equally as bright as their predecessors, the PhD track has been a long road to a professional dead end. In 2011, Statistics Canada reported that only 18.6% of PhDs were employed as full-time university professors.

Recent criticism of doctoral education from non-academic employers targets the narrow focus of student research and the lightweight calibre of practical, professional skills among some fresh PhDs. On the student side, frustrated graduates point to diminishing returns in and outside the academic labour market and the opportunity cost of four to eight years of intensive research and study.

Professional degrees are increasingly essential to advancement as are traditional doctoral degrees to discipline-specific knowledge creation.

Doctoral research has long been seen as synonymous with a country’s achievement in research and development, innovation and productivity growth, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sectors. However, in light of globalization and rapidly changing labour markets, we know that Canada’s true productivity bump will come from the connection between ideas and implementation.

Canada needs applied research that starts from and reflects that reality.

Royal Roads University responded to that need with the development of Canada’s first doctor of social sciences (DSocSci) program in 2010. The program provides an interdisciplinary idea incubator and a transdisciplinary cadre for executives, senior administrators or analysts to develop policy-relevant, applied research written and usable in a widely accessible way.

A new Conference Board of Canada report, Training Scholar-Practitioners: Doctoral Education for the Professional Sphere, showcases Royal Roads’ DSocSci program as the type of professional doctorate that Canada needs in light of shifting labour market realities, demands of a diverse student population and the growing need for universities to better prepare doctoral students for work in non-academic careers.

The report finds the delivery and alternative knowledge-sharing formats used in our DSocSci program can be a model for designers of traditional and professional doctorate programs, particularly as knowledge mobilization becomes an increasingly integral part of Canada’s post-secondary agenda.

Building on the success of the DSocSci program, the school’s forthcoming doctor of business administration (DBA) will also be a research-based doctoral program designed for working professionals in fields such as business, trade, technology, natural resources, industry and other commercial sectors. The program will provide an avenue for decision-makers with more than 10 years’ experience to develop original, impactful research on the practice of management and for their innovative ideas to materialize.

Combining the strengths of the professional doctorate with the research value and rigour of the traditional PhD program, applied doctoral programs like our DSocSci and proposed DBA can fuel the Canadian economy with business and social innovation practices driven by ideas connected to real-world results from people engaged in their practice.

Canada’s combined resource-based and knowledge-based economy presents worlds of opportunity for ambitious people who are or aspire to be leaders in their sector. And those ambitious people present worlds of productivity for the economy – given enough oxygen. 

Allan Cahoon, PhD, is president and vice-chancellor of Royal Roads University.