Why Executives & Academics Need Each Other. And Why More Executives Should Pursue Ph.D.s

Matt Schatteman Doctoral Program, Leadership

For executives, entering a doctoral program can at first feel like "sitting down at the wrong poker table," says the author. But playing through the hand is worth it.

For executives, entering a doctoral program can at first feel like “sitting down at the wrong poker table,” says the author. But playing through the hand is worth it.

Editor’s Note: Do business and academia need each other? Matt Schatteman, a senior leader with a division of publicly-traded Kaman Corp., argues they do in this essay on his experiences as a student in an executive doctoral program. For more on the scholar-practitioner experience, see this article.

To be in an executive Ph.D. program is to have a foot in two different worlds. One foot is planted squarely in the world of corporate business. This world has its own language and customs that are learned over time as you climb the ladder of your career. It is a world of decisions and actions, where great wheels are put into motion. It is a world of meetings and discussions, but it is also a world of agendas and objectives.

What an executive Ph.D. program allows you to do is to tentatively place the other foot in the world of academics. This is a world with its own set of languages and customs, and you are in an immersion program. This is not a world of actions or decisions; it is a world of contemplation and debate. This is not a world where you win an argument, because as soon as you successfully debate a concept, you are encouraged to walk it up the other side of the hill. You are forced to view a concept from all sides, and see the value in each perspective.

This does not mean that it is a world of inaction. The greatest wheels in history have been put in motion by the lightning bolts of insight released through this sort of academic discourse. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Locke, Drucker and Collins all used the joyful exercise of academic debate to present the world a new perspective of itself. The classroom experience is where you learn the art of academic discourse.

It is not until you attend an academic conference that you feel the full weight of this world.

First entering an academic conference as an executive doctoral student feels like sitting down at the wrong poker table. You may be the best poker player out of all of your friends, but you just sat down with a band of professionals and you don’t stand a chance. You feel this all the more so at an international conference. You walk the halls with thought leaders, the people wrote the books you studied. And then it happens; you feel the warm embrace of the academic world. The intimidation fades away as your engagement rises.

These great minds stop and listen to your perspective. They accept your view, and instead of arguing its merits, they take your perspective out for a walk. They find nuances you hadn’t even seen. Then they hand it back to you, because it is your own and now you see that it is beautiful.

At this point you feel you have gotten what you came for: you learned the language, and you performed the customs. But now this is where the magic of an executive program begins, because suddenly you feel their thirst. These esteemed academics are ravenous for what you consider everyday experience. They look to see the fruition of their concepts in your experience. This opens your eyes and shows you the value that you and your corporate experience bring to the academic world.

You realize that your foot can leave a print on this academic world, but you also see that what you have gained in the academic immersion puts you on the leading edge of the corporate world. You find that you have debated concepts to their logical end in class, only to find those same concepts in their infancy in the corporate world.


SchattemanMatt Schatteman is the general manager of Catching Fluidpower, a division of Kaman. He is also a doctoral student in the Ph.D./D.B.A. Program in Values-Driven Leadership, for senior executives. Read more about Matt’s work in this article, on leading culture while navigating workforce shifts.
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