Doctorate: the major transformations of the thesis in management?


While, in Anglo-Saxon or Germanic countries, the doctorate is one of the royal ways to access management functions in companies, in France, with the weight of the grandes écoles, the doctorate remains above all a springboard towards teaching and research professions. In fact, in 2013, the National Foundation for Management Education (FNEGE) had already shown that 75% of PhDs in management made the choice of an academic career. However, as access to a university position is becoming more and more competitive, the choice of this outlet, still largely in the majority, is now called into question.

More recent work tends to show that employability outside the academic sphere depends, to a great extent, on the activity of the doctoral student working on a thesis: it is also up to the doctoral student to create the external value of his diploma. Those who leave academia mainly go into consulting professions, or join entrepreneurial projects whose activity is linked to their academic research. Others, again, are moving towards more traditional functions which correspond to their disciplinary thesis specialization (human resources management, marketing, finance, accounting, information systems, data science, etc.).

These behaviors can explain the tension of recruitment in a context of stagnation in the number of senior management lecturers in the recent period. Business schools are now fully involved in international competition (publication bonuses, anglicization of courses).

In response to this changing world of work, the exercise of the thesis is modified, incorporating rituals of self-promotion . We consider these evolutions as the witness of more fundamental changes in the construction of scientific knowledge, and study them from a comprehensive and prospective perspective.

A variety of theses

A number of studies report, each year, the number of PhDs in management or their professional integration. These studies are carried out by universities or by external organizations, such as the FNEGE or the national association for research and technology . However, these studies only reflect a snapshot and therefore do not take into account the dynamics of the thesis in management. The thesis is no longer a joint exercise. It would be more a question of speaking of theses, in the plural, as the expectations differ according to the institution, the chosen format, or the sub-discipline.

This discussion deserves to be deepened, in a political and institutional landscape that is constantly changing. The multiannual research programming law (LPR) is currently on the national scene and is straining the French research world , fearing a decline in academic freedom, a threat to careers and access to university functions. These new challenges are opaque to the general public, who as a whole have little knowledge of academia. What are the transformations at work and to what extent?

As part of a research partnership with the FNEGE, launched in October 2020 and for a period of two years, our project aims to make informal and implicit knowledge about the thesis work visible and accessible, by questioning the future of this ritual until now inescapable. To do this, we try to answer a number of key questions:

  • what are the hot topics?
  • which writing language is preferred (English or French)?
  • where doctoral supervision and, therefore, doctoral students in management are concentrated in France? And above all, what are their professional opportunities over several years?

As young PhDs in management, from various disciplines, it seems important to us to educate the debate in our community and beyond, to guide political choices in this area.

Three main objectives are targeted:

  • help master’s and young doctoral students to see more clearly about the thesis in management;
  • reveal the diversity of management research, its roots and its managerial and societal concerns;
  • map the professional integration of management doctors to provide information on doctoral supervision at the national level. The analysis of the metadata of nearly 3,000 management theses, defended between 2010 and 2019, allows trends to emerge and opens up new avenues of reflection.

Three major trends …

Writing language and thesis manuscript format

In ten years, the number of theses written in English has more than doubled. It will be interesting to study the antecedents which lead to this choice: decision of the doctoral student, decision of the thesis director, disciplinary requirements, desire to expatriate, previous academic career, race for scientific publication, etc. The first results show a strong link between the writing language (English vs. French) and the format of the thesis (on essays vs. monographic), suggesting an internationalization of the doctoral process.

Evolution of the number of management theses written in English.

Unsurprisingly, a small number of universities and schools, located in the largest metropolises, concentrate doctoral supervision in management.

According to the FNEGE theses observatory, over the past ten years, Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Grenoble and Montpellier are doing well, with at least 100 theses defended. As a result, one can wonder about the reasons which allow a regional pole to emerge, in particular, with regard to the funding of research (public grants, training, etc.).

Number of management theses defended between 2010 and 2019. Provided by the author

Characteristics of doctoral supervision and impact on the career

The thesis director plays an important, even crucial, role in the thesis marathon, but also in professional orientation. Some studies have already highlighted the profiles of the thesis supervisor (s) as determining (s) for professional integration, by specifying, for example, that when “the status of the thesis supervisor is high”, the doctor is more easily oriented towards a first post in university. Based on this observation, we will question the relevant criteria to characterize doctoral supervision, in particular by studying the role played by thesis co-supervision.

Evolution of the number of management theses supervised by two or more directors. Provided by the author

Some avenues of research

Beyond exploring the three aforementioned trends, our approach leads us to formulate four avenues of research. First of all, the question of the place of the qualification for the functions of lecturer (MCF) in the professional integration of doctors is launched: what is the share of qualified doctors? How many of them are in place, and for how many years after their defense? What happens to unqualified doctors?

Then, in addition to the issue of qualification, the typical pathways for access to teaching-researcher functions (MCF, at the university, or assistant professor, in business school) and the profiles of the doctors are just as decisive: age , gender, initial training, discipline, anchoring with the managerial concerns of the moment, doctoral supervision, laboratory, university, publications and classification, etc. Then, the informal dimension, the keystone of the management thesis and the professional integration of doctors into the academic world, invites new reflections, especially as the rules of the game change rapidly.

The stake of our project manifests itself at several levels and is part of a long-term time horizon: we will report on its upheavals and analyze its implications, as recently a collective of sociologists of work on the case of mathematics . Thus, we hope to contribute to the already fruitful reflection on the thesis as a support for the creation of knowledge, but also as a tool for integration into the career.

Author Bios: Hugo Gaillard is a Senior Lecturer in Management Sciences at Le Mans University, Albane Grandazzi is Assistant Professor at Grenoble School of Management (GEM), Julien Cloarec is Assistant Professor of Data Science, IAE Lyon School of Management at Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University and Juliette Senn is Assistant Professor, Montpellier Business School at UGEI