What Is a Practitioner-Scholar?

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About seven years ago I was fortunate to be invited to teach in the USF Muma College of Business executive Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) Program. I was an old hand at doctoral education having taught PhD students for more than 30 years. But as I would soon learn, there are different models of doctoral education, and how I would approach my DBA classes would be different from a PhD class. My PhD students were trained to be scientists in the field of industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology. Because this is an applied field where many graduates become practitioners working in industry, they were trained using the scientist-practitioner approach. I was told that my DBA students were on a different path to becoming a practitioner-scholar, not a scientist-practitioner. Early on I wondered to myself, what is a practitioner-scholar?

The Training of Scientist-Practitioners

The main focus of most PhD training across fields is to turn out people who are able to conduct and publish academic research that contributes to knowledge. Many of my former PhD students became professors who conduct research and publish it in top academic research outlets. In graduate school they learned the fine points of research methodology, and they were mentored in conducting and publishing academic research. Because the IO field is an applied one in which most PhDs become practitioners, there was also a dose of practical training. Some programs do more of the practice stuff than others, but all prepare their graduates to be able to work as research experts in and for organizations. The scientist-practitioner idea is that they are trained to conduct academic research and to use those research skills to assist organizations.

What Is a Practitioner-Scholar?

As I started teaching DBA students, I was introduced to a different model of doctoral training. Rather than becoming experts in the nuts and bolts of academic research methodology and publication, practitioner scholars (sometimes called pracademics) are boundary spanners who are able to link the academic to the practice world. Practitioner scholars understand academic research, both content and methodology. They are able to conduct research, but their focus is more on the application of academic knowledge than creating it. They are able to bridge the academic and practice worlds by taking findings from the academic literature and translating them into practice, such as creating an intervention that is based on theory. We spend a lot more time in my DBA classes talking about how to apply findings in the workplace than we did in my PhD classes.

There are several differences between scientist-practitioner and practitioner-scholar training.

  • Phd training in longer: The program I taught in took 4-6 years to complete. Our DBA is a three-year program.
  • PhD students get more in-depth training in research methodology, especially statistics. The extra years mean more classes and more time to hone academic research and publication skills.
  • Practitioner-scholars are focused more on being consumers than creators of research; PhD students are the opposite.
  • Practitioner-scholar dissertations are usually problem-focused, attempting to find solutions for practical problems of organizations for my DBA students. PhD dissertations are usually theory-focused, looking to fill gaps in the academic literature.

I have taught content and methodology to both DBA and PhD students. I often find myself covering the same material, and I admit I have recycled some PowerPoint slides from my PhD to DBA classes. The difference is in the emphasis. In the PhD class we are dissecting research papers, often critiquing their methodology, discussing theoretical issues, and exploring how the paper contributes to the knowledge base. In DBA class we might read the same article, but our focus is on how the research is relevant to practice and how it might be applied in an organizational setting. Both classes examine what was done and what was concluded, but the ultimate purpose differs. One is focused mainly on how to conduct the research, and the other on how to apply it. These two skill sets are complimentary, with both needed to identify relevant practical problems, conduct research to better understand them, create interventions to address those problems, and evaluate the effectiveness of those interventions.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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