Acclaimed DBA program transforming business leaders into practitioner-scholars

Members of the inaugural Doctor of Business Administration cohort began their second year of the program in November and are expected to graduate in 2020. (Photos courtesy of Harlan Hodge)

Cindy Goodwin-Sak had several problems to solve.

From calculating the cost of software defects to optimizing team processes, her unanswered work questions had piled up with no clear way to answer them – or so she thought.

Goodwin-Sak, a director of strategy and operations for Cisco Systems, was working through these complicated projects when she came across promotional material from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Reading through the mailer, she quickly understood she could address these tough questions through a scholarly lens.

The DBA class of 2021 brought together 16 business practitioners from across the country, including UMSL PMBA alumna Cindy Goodwin-Sak (second from right in the front row).

“The material made me realize that I could go to school to answer some of the problems that I’d encountered,” she said. “I’m really interested in learning about how to find answers to some of the questions that I have and be able to apply them to business. I received my master’s degree from UMSL, and it was a fantastic experience. Actually, it’s one of the reasons I was so excited to come back.”

Goodwin-Sak, who earned her PMBA in 2012, is now at UMSL as a member of the Doctor of Business Administration program’s newest cohort, which is slated to graduate in 2021.

The DBA program entered its second year in November by welcoming 16 new students with wide-ranging industry and managerial experiences. Together, the two classes include students commuting from 10 different states.

“It’s incredible to see that we have students coming from across the country,” said Ekin Pellegrini, director of executive education and co-director of the DBA program. “They are choosing UMSL DBA over programs in their neighborhoods. We have students commuting from different states monthly when they have options much closer to them. It’s UMSL that’s bringing these business professionals to St. Louis.”

The terminal degree option offered through the College of Business Administration is part of a small market in the United States – with the country’s oldest program only dating back two decades. While DBA programs have been offered longer and are more common in European and Asian universities, UMSL still earned a top 22 international ranking from CEO Magazine in March.

Pellegrini believes UMSL was positioned to pull such an accolade in its first year because of the program’s collaboration with other successful colleges. Prior to UMSL’s inaugural year in 2017, program faculty and administrators met with, received training from and observed a number of recognized leaders in DBA education.

“This type of collaboration isn’t typical in academia. We usually compete, not collaborate,” Pellegrini said. “Because of that relationship with other universities, we’ve had a very strong start. So when people ask, ‘How on earth did CEO Magazine rank you in the first year of your existence,’ we can point to the three years of incredible research, collaboration and due diligence before we even started.”

UMSL’s DBA program focuses on the application of theory paired with a deep exploration of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Courses are structured over a three-year period through online learning and a two-day residency each month.

Like a standard doctoral program, students are expected to produce independent research that contributes to theory as well as practice. However, the methods by which students prepare for their dissertations differ from most PhD programs.

Students take content courses in every area of study offered through the College of Business Administration, allowing them to gain a deep understanding of multiple business practices. Through the structured timeline, students can also expect to graduate alongside the same students they started the program with.

“PhD programs are very discipline focused,” Pellegrini said. “It’s an inch-wide, mile-deep study. Through a DBA, students are exposed to all areas of business research. Our structure also allows students to continue building a career while receiving a doctoral education to inform their practice in a scholarly manner. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Within each cohort are students with 10 to 37 years of management experience, including six C-level officers. Students’ research interests and work experiences spread across a variety of industries, providing for rich discussion centered on the coursework.

“We’ve become a family,” said James Jordan, Jr., a 2001 accounting graduate who returned to UMSL for the inaugural DBA cohort. “Not only do we have discussion during our on-campus residencies, but the discussions continue outside the classroom. When we have downtime, we often discuss work-related issues. There is always someone else with a similar experience or has a source to help you figure out that situation.

“We all come from various backgrounds. We often look to each other for help on assignments as well as work-related issues. The faculty did a great job of putting the cohorts together. It’s been a lot of work but one of the best learning experiences.”

Now in his second year of the program, Jordan has noticed a shift in the way he approaches new challenges in his role as a division director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development office. As challenges arise, he now finds himself reviewing journal articles and other literature while looking for ways to apply those studies to his organization.

Goodwin-Sak, who is less than a month into the Statistical Modeling course and a Doctoral Foundations Seminar, also observed a change in the way she approaches the original challenges she enrolled in the program to address.

“I’ve taken a lot of stat classes before, and this one is more applied to business than any other,” she said. “It’s immediately applicable, and I’m scrutinizing data at work in an entirely different way. I’m also really learning about how to do quantitative and qualitative research to start answering some of those questions that I have at work. It’s just going to provide me with a whole new skill set.”

These forms of application are precisely what Pellegrini and other UMSL DBA faculty envisioned as they developed the program. Administrators are now eager to see how students go on to apply their research as the first commencement ceremony approaches in 2020.

“The connection between scholars and practitioners is long overdue,” Pellegrini said. “That’s how business schools should be. We need to be connected to industry, and practitioners need to work with us. It’s a perfect match. The students coming into the program don’t know how to inform practice with scholarly research. But upon graduation, they are going to be practitioner-scholars. Once they learn how to inform their decisions with scholarly research, it’s going to change the way business is done in St. Louis and beyond.”

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