The Practitioner Scholar

Doctor of Management Blog

Philip A. Cola: Top Ten Helpful Tips for Navigating the DM\PhD Program at Weatherhead

May 28, 2014 ·

I write this reflection one month away from final classes for the DM program at Weatherhead.  I will continue for a fourth year in pursuit of a PhD in Management and Sustainable Systems.  I have a year of independent study, reading, proposal writing, comprehensive exams, workshops, data analyses, dissertation writing and a defense of my research.  I feel a sense of obligation to give back to the program.  I have talked with many potential students for the program over the last three years, attended many dissertation defenses, and was recently invited to provide a few tips on successfully navigating the program to current first and second year students.  Here is that list in writing.

Top Ten Helpful Tips for Navigating the DM\PhD Program at Weatherhead

  1. Organization is of critical importance and it is never too early to get started.  I started work on the program the moment we received the syllabus for the first semester (i.e., mid-July before classes began in August).   I kept an ongoing task list on blackboard each semester in order to stay current.  There is way too much to do to fall behind.  The connotation of being obsessive compulsive is a GOOD thing in this program.
  2. Read Everything that you are advised to read and more.  You are paying a good deal of money to have experienced faculty guide your reading list for 3-4 years.  Take advantage of that opportunity.  If they give you required reading – read it; if it’s optional – read it; and if someone passes along something they think you might be interested in – read it!!  This is what scholars do and if you decide to go for the PhD then your reading list entering the fourth year is done.
  3. Enjoy the Experience as not many of us are likely to do anything like this ever again.  Not too many people approaching middle age are privileged to go back to college especially at a prestigious university in the way that the DM allows.  Cherish the experience and allow your mind to be open to what the journey brings personally, professionally and intellectually.  Do your best to stay in good physical shape.  There is a freshman 15 lbs. here too if not careful.
  4. Avoid the DM vs. PhD Dilemma by staying true to number 3 above.  People entering this doctorate program are smart, successful and have a lot of confidence.  Trust your inclination at the beginning and if the practitioner route is best for you that is fine or if the academic route is preferable you will know that in your own mind.  At the end of each semester check in with yourself on this topic and don’t be unduly influenced by others.  You must follow your own path.  Students decide by the third year, but way too much anxiety goes into discussing this choice.
  5. Understand the Program gets more Difficult as you Progress.  This is done by design and should be understood.  It seems intuitive that a doctoral program at an institution like Case Western Reserve University would become increasingly difficult as you go along.  However, it seems to catch us all by surprise.  It’s best to avoid that surprise and understand that is what you should hope for to ensure the rigor and value of the program.
  6. Be prepared for STATISTICS.  It is not something doctoral students can avoid.  Trust me, I tried for 20 years and is one main reason why I did not have a PhD in my 20s.  Flowing from point 5 above there is a sequence of 3-4 classes on quantitative methodology that are of increasing difficulty.  THERE IS A QUANTITATIVE CAPSTONE THAT MUST BE PASSED AT THE END OF THE SECOND YEAR TO CONTINUE IN THE PROGRAM.  If you work hard and stay true to the curriculum you will pass.  You need quantitative skills as a baseline minimum to properly enter into practitioner scholar conversations. 
  7. Trust the Program and the Curriculum because it works!!  Once in a while you will have a book, an article, a professor or even a course that does not resonate with you.  You want to yell, scream and let everyone know, but ultimately understand that this is a successful program.  Leadership tries to make it better each semester.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not, but they will keep trying.  The flow from the qualitative sequence, to the quantitative sequence, to mixed methods and on into the dissertation proposal (as applicable) is amazing and works very well.  The rigor of the program shines through when you become a reviewer for the Academy of Management or other academic outlets.  You realize you are very well trained.
  8. Work Hard at Finding the Right Advisor.  This is not something I thought too much about coming into the program.  I was behind before I started.  Do your homework when reviewing the interests of the faculty at Weatherhead.  Talk to people, meet them, and think about working very closely with someone for 3-4 years.  Understand their personal and professional styles as well as their approach to scholarship.  Determine if that matches your style.  Too much time, energy and anxiety is spent scrambling for the right advisor.  I found a great match in my advisor, but it took until second semester of the second year.
  9. Pick an Interesting and Enduring research topic.  Assignment number 1 on my task list prior to that first semester was to choose a problem of practice that you want to research.  The more time you spend picking a solid, interesting and manageable topic the better the required research projects will flow.  As you write your papers it becomes evident that your topic must be interesting to a broad audience.  If you realize this after your qualitative paper it can be too late.  This goes hand in hand with item number 8 above and is something a terrific advisor will help you frame (NOT CHOOSE) in a manageable way that fits the program requirements.
  10. Develop and Improve your Relational Capacity.  This construct is defined as the capacity to build and grow deeper meaningful relationships with others through behaviors and values.  This construct emerged for me in my own research on physician scientists in academic medical centers, but it is very applicable to the DM\PhD journey.  You need your cohort, other cohorts, program leadership, family, friends, advisors, colleagues and many countless others to support you as you attempt to successfully navigate the program.  Don’t underestimate the need for deeper and more meaningful relationships when you embark on such a significant journey.  Let people into your experiences to help and support you as often as you can.

The DM program has been amazing, exhilarating, challenging, scary, and frustrating, but above all it has provided the opportunity for me to grow and transform in order to achieve something that I needed in my life.  The friends and relationships developed will be cherished for a lifetime.  Peer respect has come and my acceptance to an academic community of scholars is on schedule.  I am excited and prepared to excel in the PhD year.  Thanks to everyone for everything.  I wish everyone associated with this program only the best now and into the future.

Philip A. Cola is vice president for research and technology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, where he is a non-profit research fellow. He can be reached at

Tags: DM Reflections

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