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Past Issue • Oct-Dec 2012

Confronting the Crisis in Doctoral Education: A First Step

In his response to Professor Phanish Puranam’s article, Professor Sanjay Kallapur explains his support for separate academic and sophisticated practitioner  PhD tracks, elaborates on the potential for technology to reduce the costs of doctoral education and identifies problems that may arise from the two-track system.

The picture  that Professor Phanish Puranam paints about the crisis in doctoral education in India is real. I commend him for articulating it and am pleased to respond to his article.  Provocative as they are, I am mostly in agreement with his views.

First,  I reinforce  the importance  of Professor Puranam’s   disclaimer   in  which    he   emphasises the  importance  of rigorous research that  includes abstraction, logical reasoning, reliable measurements, and valid  causal inferences achieved through appropriate  research designs. These are not merely academic affectations; rather, they are the practical means of ensuring that lessons drawn from  obser ved phenomena  can be generalised to other similar situations. The system of doing science by publishing in peer-reviewed  publications  is the best system known to us for producing  good science. I reiterate that Professor Puranam’s article should not be taken to mean that India can dispense with the need to train cutting-edge  researchers. India has as much  need for cutting-edge   research as does the  developed  world, because  as the  economic   success of Silicon  Valley and Research Triangle Park demonstrate, world-class research is the  most  powerful  engine of economic growth.

As a background   to understanding the skills needed for business school teachers, it is worthwhile to step back and think  about what MBA  education does. There are many ways of training managers − self- learning on the job, formal on-the-job apprenticeships and classroom education in MBA programmes. The last  of these, originally  an American phenomenon, has now taken root  in ever y part of the world. The success  of MBA education  −  notwithstanding  all the introspection  about MBA education being at a crossroads, which  does ser ve a useful  and  necessar y purpose − suggests that  this  method  of training  is superior to the alternatives.

Classroom MBA education is designed to provide students with  conceptual frameworks to understand and make  sense of business phenomena.  It is quite different  from the way people are taught chess or golf − there, the coach (it’s  a coach and not a professor) does teach some concepts but  largely obser ves and critiques  practice. As an example of a framework, the

4 Ps (or 4 Cs) of Marketing focus the practitioner’s thinking  on the key dimensions on which decisions need to be made. Similarly, Porter’s  5 forces point to the  relevant  aspects to focus on  in formulating competitive  strategy. The role of concepts is utilitarian - they highlight the underlying similarities in seemingly different  areas. Other wise,  as in the olden days, one would need separate courses for railroad management and insurance company  management.

I have a slight  disagreement   with him on  the teaching track. While the importance of pedagogical innovations  is undeniable,  I do not believe  that  a large number  of business faculty  members  need to be  engaged in pedagogical research. Indeed, unlike K-12  schools that require teachers to have training in education, I do not know of any university that requires its professors to have training  in pedagogy. This  suggests that  pedagogy can be picked up on the job.

I am not denying the value of research in pedagogy. For instance, if accounting  courses can teach either

The system of doing science by publishing in peer- reviewed publications is the best system known to us for producing good science.

It follows  that the MBA  teacher should have a deep understanding of concepts.

This understanding requires the professor to think from first principles, confront  the concepts and frameworks with reality, and continually think of how to refine and generalise the concepts and frameworks. One can never have perfect conceptual frameworks - they must be constantly refined. This is where the need for PhD  education  comes in. PhD education imparts  the knowledge to understand the concepts at sufficient depth to be able to convey them to the student,  and the research skills to apply and refine frameworks.

I agree with  Professor Puranam that individuals with sound  knowledge  of concepts,  who  keep themselves current  by testing the boundaries of these concepts  through  research (academic)  or through application (sophisticated practitioner),  are well- suited to convey these concepts and frameworks  to students. the income statement or the statement of cash flows first, I can  see the value of systematic  research on which   leads to better  student  learning.  I  believe that such research should involve a collaboration between  business professors  and researchers in the school of education. The latter  are in a position   to tie it into general frameworks  of learning, which  is not the comparative  advantage of business professors. I do not want to make too much of this difference, however. I suspect it is a matter  of emphasis − both Professor Puranam and I agree that pedagogical skills are required  in imparting  concepts to students and that research on pedagogy is useful.

Turning  to another  point that   he  makes,  I completely agree with him on the desirability of using technology to reduce the cost of doctoral education. PhD  education  consists of two parts  − two years of doctoral-level  courses (which  are of a  different nature than MBA  courses, and therefore  cannot be delivered to MBA and PhD students simultaneously

to reduce costs) and another  two-three  years of intense research super vision.  Because doctoral  class sizes are small  − area courses might  have only  two -four  students − the cost per student works out to be ver y high. Student learning could improve rather than worsen if class sizes are larger;  however,  given faculty  constraints  for the  next  phase of doctoral education,  namely research super vision,  larger class sizes within an institution are not feasible. Thus, the only feasible way of reducing the cost of coursework Professor Puranam proposes, I foresee two  issues for which I do not have solutions.  I nevertheless want to raise them  because I think   the  success of the two- track model depends on finding  solutions to these issues. First,  it is a common experience  that  two- track  systems cause frictions.   People in each track tend to consider themselves superior  to those in the other. This has a human cost, and more importantly, it  prevents   what   could    other wise   be   fruitful collaborations  among people  across tracks  where

India has as much need for cutting-edge research as does the developed world, because as the economic success of Silicon Valley and Research Triangle Park demonstrate, world-class research is the most powerful engine of economic growth.

is to deliver them simultaneously to students across different institutions. Fortunately, videoconferencing technology has made this easy. Professor Puranam’s school, INSEAD, is a good example of one that has successfully leveraged technology

to deliver its PhD programme across two campuses using videoconferencing technology. We at the ISB have also successfully organised doctoral courses with remotely located instructors or with instructors teaching at other institutions, without the need for any special technological infrastructure other

each side’s unique  strengths could  generate synergy. Second, there are broadly-agreed norms for quality in the academic research track and an entire ecosystem, including  peer-reviewed journals, to generate transparent  quality measures (a paper must be good if it is accepted for publication  in a prestigious  journal). It is much harder to evaluate the quality  of work in the practitioner track. I am not  at all saying that all practitioner-track  work is of low quality; my point is that the bad apples cannot be readily separated out from the rest of the basket, and therefore may spoil the whole basket’s reputation. I suspect the two issues are inter-related. If quality control in both tracks were than standard desktop computers,  video cameras and an Internet connection.

While I endorse at least two  of the three   tracks  for PhD  education  that equally  good,  there  would  be less friction. I commend Professor Puranam again for raising important issues and hope that it results in concrete action to tackle the crisis in doctoral education.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

  • Sanjay-Kallapur

    Sanjay Kallapur

    Professor of Accounting and Deputy Dean, Faculty and Research at the Indian School of Business. 
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