In Brief

In this personal reminiscence, one accounting professor recounts her journey from public accounting into academia. Rather than taking the usual PhD, she took the sometimes overlooked path of a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA). Her story shows that there is more than one way to answer the call to impact: CPAs who want to make a difference have more than one option available.

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I had always wanted a future in public accounting. After graduating from Syracuse University and passing the CPA exam, I went to work at a regional accounting firm. Professionally, I never felt overworked or underappreciated. I saw how female partners were able to balance their work and family lives, and I aspired to do the same. Over time, I started to feel that something was missing. I was looking for a way to make an impact, to share knowledge, to be more than just another auditor. I found that there were plenty of options available at the firm to volunteer and give back, but it wasn’t enough. I needed something different.

I’d like to share an option that allows CPAs to utilize their technical accounting knowledge while also having a direct impact on the future of the profession—teaching. Maybe you have casually thought about teaching, but haven’t seriously considered it. Perhaps you think that getting a PhD in accounting is an overwhelming task or only attainable by certain individuals. Well, there is another option: a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) in Accounting. I’m writing this article to share my experience in the DBA program at the University of Florida and to respond to some common questions about pursuing a doctorate degree.

Leading Up to a Career Change

I began my career working for a public accounting firm in Syracuse, N.Y., auditing not-for-profit and governmental organizations. About a year after graduation, I was invited to come back to campus to speak with the incoming group of master’s students about what their year in the program would be like. In discussion with one of the faculty members there, she had mentioned the program was looking into creating a new course in governmental accounting. Because that was my area of expertise, she asked if I would be interested in teaching the course. With little thought, I jumped at the challenge to create the new class and make an impact as an alumna.

I’ve always felt the call of impact. For many years, I thought it was the call to help. As an undergraduate, I worked as an RA (resident advisor) because I wanted to help freshmen adjust to school. I was a tutor to help share my knowledge with others who found it harder to learn; then professionally, I was a mentor because I wanted to help new staff adjust to the demands of work and become more acclimated to the firm. What I really was searching for was how to make an impact. I strived to be the person who impacted others, who lifted them to a better place and who they would remember years later as someone who had a positive effect on their lives. In my mind, there is no better career to do that than teaching.

About two years later, I had fully developed the course—from finding a textbook to writing the syllabus and creating PowerPoint slides and assignments. I taught the course at night while working full-time during the fall semester. After a successful first semester, I contacted the department chair to discuss further opportunities in teaching. He suggested that I pursue a doctorate for long-term stability in a future career in academia. Although adjunct positions open from time to time, the pay is minimal, and there is no guarantee of teaching in a future semester. It’s a great way to try your hand at teaching to determine if you want to pursue it full-time, but it is not a way to make a living.

I didn’t act on that advice until a year and a half later. I was asked to teach again, but this time it was during the spring semester—busy season. At this point, I had to make a choice. I knew it wouldn’t be possible to balance busy season in public accounting and teaching at the university at night. I saw this as my window of opportunity to transition into teaching. With much thought and consideration, I decided to leave public accounting and venture into a new career in academia.

Why Not a PhD?

If I was going to leave a bright future in public accounting for a new one in academia, a long-term stable job would require a doctorate. In my situation, a PhD was not an option. Because I graduated with both my bachelor’s and master’s in accounting from Syracuse University and I was also teaching at Syracuse at the time, it wasn’t in my best interest to also enter its PhD program; I needed experience at another university. My husband was unable to move to a new city at the time; therefore, my only reasonable option for a PhD was to travel to another city. Knowing a PhD program requires full-time work for nearly five years, this was not something I was willing to consider. I knew that a focus on teaching was my ultimate goal. I wanted my impact in academia to be in the classroom and with my students. A DBA is meant to bridge practice and research—the perfect blend of what I was looking for in a degree and a career path. I never would have pursued a career in teaching without having the option of the DBA program.

My Experience

One of the greatest benefits of the DBA program is the student population. My DBA cohort brought a wealth of professional experience that provided a significant advantage over a traditional PhD program. Through coursework and out-of-classroom discussions, I gained a deeper level of knowledge by interacting with my peers in areas related to their respective fields of expertise. We discussed and critiqued research papers with our cumulative professional knowledge. Even being new to research, by bringing in our professional experiences, we collectively assessed research papers from perspectives that the authors often didn’t have. This made the residencies insightful and enjoyable, and they became weekend sessions that I would look forward to attending. In a PhD program, where most students have little to no professional experience, this would not be common ground; most PhD students have just finished their undergraduate or master’s degree and have not worked professionally for any significant length of time (“9 Things You Should Consider Before Embarking on a PhD,” Andy Greenspon, April 3, 2013, https://bit.ly/3CIll8J). I would equate it to the difference in discussion between an MBA in a 4+1 program and an executive MBA program; the coursework may be similar, but the student experience is entirely different. When students have work experience, the discussions are almost always livelier, more valuable, and more worthwhile.

Upon graduating with my DBA, I was hired as an assistant professor of accounting at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Although small in size, our impact is significant. U.S. News and World Report ranked Le Moyne’s accounting program #52 nationally in 2020 (https://bit.ly/3jUQJIL). The focus the school brings to teaching and improving our programs to build better professionals is exactly what I was looking for.

One of the questions I am often asked regards whether my choice to pursue a DBA has limited my career path. The DBA has a different purpose than a PhD, the same way that a CMA has a different purpose than a CFE. If I wanted to be a forensic accountant, then getting a CMA wouldn’t be the best choice. In that same vein, if I wanted to be a top-tier researcher at a large research institution, then a DBA wouldn’t be for me. However, in a regional, teaching-focused school where activities on campus and in the classroom are a priority, a DBA has not held me back.

In August 2020, I took over as director of accounting programs at Le Moyne, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t completed my doctorate. One of my proudest achievements was being recognized with honorable mention for the 2020 AICPA George Krull/Grant Thornton Innovation in Junior- and Senior-Level Teaching Award. This award was for an activity that I wrote for my auditing class based on my professional experience. In teaching the auditing course, I felt that a sense of reality was missing from the classroom. So much of the course is focused on theory, which is helpful for students to learn and understand—but not necessarily realistic for their first few years in public accounting. I wrote the activity to simulate a professional situation where the students are using their understanding of audit theory to solve a problem while still working in the safe space of a classroom. It is an honor to be recognized for doing exactly what I set out to do—bridge practice and academia in the classroom.

Considering a DBA?

I chose to enroll at the University of Florida to complete my DBA. Although I couldn’t travel far for a PhD program, the DBA program requires infrequent, weekend trips to campus, making it more accessible for working professionals. It was important for me to find a DBA program that was respected for research with a focus on teaching. Not all programs are meant for practitioners looking to transition into academia—some programs are specifically designed for professionals looking to take knowledge back into their organizations. Personally, it was important to find a school with a good reputation in both business and accounting. I wanted to learn from faculty members that were renowned experts and esteemed professors that frequently contributed to their fields of research; the University of Florida checked all of the boxes. Based on the lessons learned during my DBA journey, here is some advice for those thinking about making the leap:

Have buy-in from your family and friends.

The journey is neither short nor easy, and it will be more difficult if the people closest to you are not encouraging. You may find that you do not have as much time to commit to activities. It’s a great time to purge from your life the things that aren’t fulfilling. You will have to create time to engage in activities, so you want to make sure they are the ones you really want to be involved in. Home life will also be different. You might need to wake up early or stay up late to complete coursework or do research, and household chores may get pushed to your significant other more frequently. They may not understand what you are working on, but they should be supportive and kept informed, to the extent possible, of your progress.

Have a purpose.

Know why you are getting a DBA. What started you down this path? Why do you continue? Having a purpose will make the amount of work required worth it. This drive will keep you going during the inevitable nights and weekends when you don’t want to read another research paper. Whatever the reason, use it for motivation.

Make friends.

Your cohort is a community of colleagues that will go through the same struggles as you over the next three years. What you are doing in class or what’s frustrating to you may be difficult to explain to the other important people in your life. Your wins may not seem that important to them, but your colleagues will get it. They will understand how important it is to finally work out a strong research question. They will get it when you are frustrated because you don’t understand a research paper. They are also your best resources. In a finance class, you can reach out to finance experts and ask for help. These colleagues can also make the residencies and your time in the program more enjoyable. Some of the best experiences I had in the program were outside of the classroom. Many riveting discussions were held over dinner after class. Don’t lose out on those opportunities.

Push yourself.

Know your weaknesses, and continue to work on them. If you are not a great public speaker, present as often as you can, and if you are not a great writer, learn to write better. You are also likely to be taught by endowed or department chairs that have pretty much experienced everything in a university setting. Ask them to share their experience, and use this knowledge to help build strengths from your academic weaknesses.

Enjoy the ride.

In retrospect, the typical three years it takes to complete a DBA program will fly by. Do not forget to enjoy the experience while you’re wishing time would move faster. It will be hard to duplicate this untrammeled access to world-class faculty and a large group of professionals looking to further their collective knowledge of business at any other point in time. Take advantage of it, and remember to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.

I could not be happier with my decision or more thankful for my experience in the DBA program at the University of Florida. It offered me entry into a career I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to pursue. Teaching became the perfect blend of accounting and making an impact. I did not have to give up my passion of accounting for another career; I married it into a new one. Students love to hear real-life experiences, and my professional experience is an asset in the classroom. Teaching gives me the flexibility to control how much, when, and where I choose to work, with deadlines that are self-imposed. This does not mean that teaching is a stress-free job; rather, that the control and flexibility offsets some of the academic stress. Looking back, I am glad I used that professor’s challenge to create a new class as an opportunity to test the academic waters. Since then, I have found that there is no career better than teaching. Having a lifelong impact on my students is the greatest reward.

What Is a Doctorate in Business Administration?

The DBA is a terminal degree where students use research along with their practical knowledge and experience to help solve problems in the field of business. The Executive DBA Council states that the research approach for a DBA degree is “engaged scholarship”—working at the “intersection of theory and contemporary business issues” with the objective of producing practitioner researchers (http://www.executivedba.org/degree). Typically, it is a part-time residential program and not an online degree. Most DBA programs require frequent visits to campus for extended classes on weekends. Instead of the consistent meetings that on-campus courses require, these programs condense that time into full-day classes over several weekends per semester. The DBA typically requires the completion of in-depth research papers for most courses and a dissertation defense in order to complete the program. This unique blend of practitioner experience and research is exactly what is needed from faculty to teach our future business leaders. The following table summarizes the similarities and differences between DBA and PhD programs. The major differences are completion time, program cost, and student profile.

DBA Program; PhD Program Completion Time; 3 years of part-time, off-campus work Required residency trips to campus Frequency and lengths of trips vary, usually extended weekends; 4 to 5 years or more of full-time, on-campus work Program Cost; High cost: tuition is expensive Students are responsible for travel costs and some meals during residency trips; Low cost: minimal tuition, and stipends are available Opportunities for graduate assistantships Coursework Focus; Research-focused coursework in all areas of business Final thesis in one specialty area; Research-focused coursework with a focus in one area of business Final thesis in one specialty area Degree; Terminal degree in business1 Terminal degree in business Upon completion, students are considered Scholarly Academics (SA)2 for AACSB Accreditation3; Upon completion, students are considered Scholarly Academics (SA) for AACSB Accreditation Prerequisites and Student Profile; Master's degree Experienced professionals looking to further their professional knowledge and development Some look to pursue an academic career; Undergraduate degree or graduate-level education Little to no professional experience Looking to become tenured research professors Future Career; Prepares students for a tenure-track career in a teaching-focused university or a clinical professorship; Prepares students for a tenure-track career in a research-focused university 1. A terminal degree is the highest degree available in a certain track of knowledge. In the field of business, both DBA and PhD degrees are considered terminal degrees. 2. Scholarly academics are defined as “faculty who have normally attained a terminal degree in a field related to the area of teaching and who sustain currency and relevance through scholarship and related activities. For these purposes, a terminal degree includes PhD or DBA, MST, LLM, or JD. Additional terminal degrees may also be appropriate for SA status” (2020 AACSB Business Accreditation Standards). 3. For more information on Faculty Qualifications in accordance with AACSB Guidelines, refer to the 2020 AACSB Business Accreditation Standards at https://bit.ly/2XcBgMm.
Christie M. Novak, DBA, CPA, is the director of accounting programs and an assistant professor of accounting in the Madden School of Business at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, N.Y.