Ahead of graduation, our DBA alumni Tom McDonogh is looking back at his time at the Business School and sharing memories of his own graduation as well as his experience being on the Durham DBA programme.
The beginning of April 2022 saw me come back to Durham to be awarded a Doctorate in Business Administration at congregation. It was a truly memorable day but one which also marked the end of a long journey of self-discovery which all started ten years previously. Back then I had just completed my MBA at Durham and a good friend and mentor suggested that I pursue a further degree as part of the Durham DBA programme.
My role as the managing director of a family firm meant that the main reasons for joining the programme were more personal, as I was keen to learn something new, acquire new skills, challenge myself and finally advance the research into a corporate environmental response which I had started in my MBA dissertation. Looking back on it, it was these more intrinsic motivations which led me to undertake the DBA in the first place and it was these which would carry me through more challenging times later in the programme.
My DBA thesis investigated motivations for advancing corporate environmental response (CER) within small and medium-sized service organisations, specifically focusing on the Irish hotel industry. Having quantitative background in econometrics, I managed to challenge myself when I decided to use a qualitative research methodology based upon a grounded approach for my doctorate. I have no doubt that using a qualitative methodology ultimately ensured that my research phase was more challenging than it might otherwise have been for me personally yet using this research methodology took me well out of my comfort zone and provided me with a fantastic learning experience.
I enjoyed all phases of the DBA programme. The taught phase characterised as it was then by six structured week-long residential modules conducted over eighteen months and was hugely enjoyable partly due to being conducted with small class sizes with close interaction with amazing faculty. In addition, the cohort-based approach provided an excellent source of support and I never felt on my own during the different phases of the DBA, always having someone to discuss issues with, either within the student cohort or supervisory team.
Importantly, the cohort system meant that while the subject matter was both engaging and challenging, we were able to support each other throughout and indeed many of us became friends for life. The subjects covered within the taught phase were interesting, practical and relevant to the future research phase.
Unlike most master’s programmes, a part-time doctorate entails a significant and long-term commitment varying between five and seven years normally. As can be imagined, life can and does get in the way. People need to be both aware of this and be prepared to deal with it in advance. Indeed, while I was pursuing my DBA, I had to suspend my studies a number of times – some were business-related, others personal such as for example the birth of two of my children (not twins!) – but all through this the support of both my supervisory team and the DBA office was brilliant.
Comparatively, the research phase was a far more unstructured research environment. During the taught phase, the course material and assessment questions were set for us. In the research phase, these structures were gone, and we had to advance our research question on our own, albeit brilliantly supported by my supervisory team and the DBA office. Consequently, the research phase, was ultimately the most intellectually challenging and invigorating part of the programme.
Finally, the viva. I was happy to just get to the viva! I remember thinking before I went in (figuratively, as it was held virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions) that if it all ended there and then that I had had a great journey to that point. As it transpired (and not just because of the result!), the viva was one of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of the DBA process as it gave me the opportunity to discuss and address any concerns that the examiners may have had with the printed thesis. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about the research context, my research, my chosen methodology and the relevance of my findings. In hindsight, the viva provided a fantastic ending to this journey.
I have two pieces of advice to any prospective DBA student. The first is to be sure about your reasons for undertaking the degree and be satisfied that these motivations are strong enough to carry you through to the end. Secondly, my advice relates to writing a DBA thesis (advice I was given but didn’t take note of it until late in the day) which is to write a little bit every day. In my case, I procrastinated and invariably found reasons not to write...but eventually got there!
The benefits to myself and my business of having undertaken the DBA are numerous. Undertaking the programme changed me in ways I never foresaw, developing my critical thinking skills far beyond that of an MBA, with these skills being used daily in my business. Other benefits include how the programme developed my general communication, presentation, and writing skills. It has enhanced my ability to analyse complicated and unstructured problems, articulate solutions, as well as accept and address critical feedback and comment. It didn’t hurt my self-confidence either! In addition, skills of self-discipline and time management have been honed. I’ll conclude by saying that undertaking the Durham DBA has been one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, challenging and life-changing (in a positive way!) journeys of my life. I miss it!