A Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, but the most ambitious business professionals might wonder if they should aim even higher. A doctoral degree is more advanced than a master’s degree, but the differences go beyond the complexity of the coursework. MBAs and Ph.D. degrees in business focus on different topics and prepare students for different career outcomes. Ph.D. programs in business emphasize research and academic pursuits, while an MBA curriculum prepares students for real-world practice in the professional world.
Differences in Focus
When you compare the curriculum of MBA and business Ph.D. programs side by side, you will quickly notice the difference in these courses of study. In business Ph.D. programs, research methodology is a major focus of the curriculum. Students often devote several courses to the study of research methods and practices. Courses in the philosophy and science of research and in the teaching, publishing and dissemination of knowledge may also be part of the core coursework requirements. Ph.D. programs also require students to write a dissertation, a lengthy document that presents original research.
MBA programs tend to feature a very different type of curriculum than Ph.D. programs in business, even when offered by the same institution. Students of an MBA program are primarily there to learn the skills needed to advance their business careers rather than advancing academic knowledge of the business world. They typically take core coursework from every major area of business, including management, finance, accounting, marketing and business strategy.
Most MBA programs also include a concentration, specialization or focus area. Students choose their focus area based on their personal and professional interests and take a cluster of courses in that subject area. These MBA specializations can be fairly broad, covering topics in general management, finance or marketing. They can also have a narrower focus, such as digital technology, social impact or the health sector.
In the United States, master’s-level graduate programs often require a thesis, which serves to prove the student’s mastery of the subject matter much as the doctoral thesis demonstrates that the candidate deserves to be awarded the Ph.D. However, MBA programs are practice-oriented rather than research-oriented. While some MBA programs do have a thesis requirement, many are non-thesis MBA programs that instead culminate in a capstone course or experience.
Another major difference between the MBA and the Ph.D. in business is how much time it takes to complete your studies. MBA programs typically require two years of full-time study, and some can be completed in as little as one year. Ph.D. programs in business routinely take four, five or even six years. In comparison, the time it takes to complete a DBA program is between that of an MBA and a Ph.D., often amounting to three years of full-time study.
Contrary to popular belief, the Ph.D. in business is not the doctoral equivalent of the MBA. That’s the Doctor of Business Administration, or DBA degree, which equips highly accomplished and experienced students with doctoral-level skills as business practitioners.
Differences in Learning Outcomes
What you gain out of your graduate studies is also different depending on whether you pursue an MBA or a Ph.D. in business. With an MBA, you’re prepared to advance into senior-level roles in business practice. Some students aim for manager positions in fields like marketing, finance and human resources. Others have their eyes on C-suite executive roles like Chief Financial officer (CEO) and Chief Operations Officer (COO). Although most MBA students plan to work in the business world in some capacity, some graduate students focus instead on making an impact through nonprofit management. DBA degrees, too, prepare students for high-level roles in business.
When you complete your Ph.D. in business program, the expectation is that you will follow a path in either research or academia. Your career is most likely to revolve around gaining knowledge through research and passing on academic knowledge of business to the next generations of students. Research in business involves developing theories in areas like financial economics, strategic management and accounting systems and testing those theories using scientific methodologies. Although you won’t personally be putting your theories into practice in the business world, the theories and concepts you teach your students will end up making a big impact on the ways businesses operate.
Because Ph.D. programs emphasize academic knowledge, teaching may be a required part of Ph.D. studies. In courses where they serve as the lead instructor, Ph.D. students often teach introductory and foundational courses for undergraduate business students.