PhD in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems Expert Assessment

Expert Assessment by Dr. Denise Rousseau and Dr. Kim Cameron

Weatherhead’s PhD in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems program was reviewed in February 2015 as part of the normal review cycle of all PhD programs at Case Western Reserve University by two pioneers and leading scholars in evidence-based management: Kim Cameron, Associate Dean of Executive Education and William Russell Kelly Professor of Management & Organizations from the University of Michigan, and Denise Rousseau, University Professor, Carnegie Mellon University; H.J. Heinz II Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy. Based on the expert assessment of Dr. Rousseau and Dr. Cameron and with their permission, we publish excerpts of their review below. Italics are added by the program management to highlight key findings of their discovery process.

Overall Assessment

The PhD in Management program at Case Western Reserve University is the premier program in its niche. Its most notable strengths include:

Intellectual Thrust of the Program

We were impressed with the intensity of the program, from the first two years of DM course work to the two subsequent years of the PhD curriculum. Program leadership appears sensitive to the fact that potential students may not have realistic expectations regarding the workload, and they make considerable effort to manage student expectations and workload.

The quality of training received in the program is evident in the evolution of student thinking along several lines over the course of the program. Students demonstrate advancement in critical thinking by building on the DM experience with both qualitative and quantitative research. They are provided an opportunity to engage in a deep dive into research across several disciplines in the PhD program. The shift from a focus on problem solution to understanding what makes something a researchable practice problem is an important distinction between this PhD program and a conventional DBA.

The program’s imagination component appears to take several forms, not the least of which is the need for faculty and students to come to grips with (and agreement on) the interdisciplinary nature of the types of problems that dissertations tackle. This imagination is also likely fed by the students’ maturity and apparent hunger to conduct rigorous and important research. We also note that some students reported pursuing individual flexibility in courses and project work in order to better address their research interests. At times this involves faculty outside the program and in external organizations. We applaud and encourage this flexibility when deemed appropriate for the student.

A strength of the PhD program is the systematic development of students from their first days in the Doctor of Management (DM) program. This development grows from curious observers of a general issue to crafting this issue into a researchable problem-of-practice statement. Participants appear to have wide latitude in problem choice, though it is clear that some ultimately work on the problem with which they began the DM program. This seems quite appropriate given the developmental activities in which students participate throughout their four years. Issues tackled reflect real practice problems to which the student brings a well-grounded appreciation of theory and research from various relevant disciplines.

It became clear that most students judge the most rigorous aspects of the program to be their exposure to quantitative methods training and the necessity of developing publishable quality outputs. In that regard, this program does an admirable job of helping an entire cohort develop levels of competence in conducting mixed-method research well above the quality of other practitioner-oriented doctoral programs.

One issue we would raise is how best to attain “significant” intellectual contributions. One characteristic of significant contributions is their tendency to reflect programmatic research efforts. In the learning process, students generally need the freedom to explore a variety of questions and research literatures, something this program appears to encourage (although some students wished to have more flexibility in their course work).

By the time graduates have completed a dissertation, they are more likely to be in a position to present, publish, or otherwise make a significant intellectual contribution. But to do so, they may need post-dissertation help with the publication process. Ideally they need the opportunity to continue their research based on the deep knowledge acquired through their dissertation. In traditional PhD programs in management, graduates go on to tenure-track jobs were they are usually provided with support to do research. Without such support (including continued collaboration with advisors and colleagues), even well prepared graduates may find it difficult to actually produce a published product for a peer-reviewed journal or book.

Program’s Placement Among Other Programs

Compared to top-rated traditional PhD programs in management—such as Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, MIT, and others—the graduates of the Weatherhead PhD in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems program are less likely to sustain research and publication activity in their careers. This is less due to preparation than to the age and career stage of graduates. On the other hand, the placement of a few recent PhD program graduates in well-known business schools suggests that a limited number of individual graduates may perform at comparable levels. We would not expect this to be the norm. We believe the PhD in Management program occupies a distinct niche and should not compete directly with these more traditional PhD programs.

Compared to other executive PhD programs in management, we believe that this is the premier program. We have personal knowledge of programs in a variety of universities in the US, UK, and Asia which offer executive PhD degrees. In comparing the present CWRU PhD in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems program with others, we note the rigor of the program’s interdisciplinary and mixed methods training and the intensity with which participants are immersed in the research and writing process. Although the cohort structure provides valuable support to individuals, the program still insists that individuals do their own individual work and holds them to high standards.

Other executive programs sometimes allow group dissertations and other less demanding work products in order to move students through the program quickly. We appreciate that the Weatherhead program does not try to get students through at all costs. Rather, it provides support so that individuals’ hard work will pay off. This is an important program distinction. Moreover, program graduates appear to transfer to their professional lives a critical and engaged approach to organization building and problem solving—another reason why we suggest that more effort be undertaken to assess what graduates do (and do differently) in their post-practice experiences.