Doctoral candidates can now choose to undertake a dissertation, doctoral study, or consulting capstone.

A young man stands in his office.Pursuing a doctoral degree is a significant journey, offering doctoral candidates a rewarding and challenging experience to make a difference in their field. Doctoral degree programs are known for their academic rigor, and part of that can involve a capstone project—an increasingly popular way for doctoral students to implement their research findings.

The Dissertation and the Doctoral Study

Working professionals who prefer to impact the business community through a more theoretical approach, closing gaps in the available literature or adding to the body of knowledge, are likely to choose the academic route of a PhD. One popular example is a PhD in Management. With a PhD, one would complete a standard dissertation. Those who aim to solve a problem and contribute to the field through a more practical approach may opt for a professional doctorate, such as a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree. Instead of writing a dissertation, doctoral candidates in a DBA program historically complete a doctoral study that results in a new product, service, or method and an accompanying paper outlining the problem and the evidence-based solution. Now, however, some universities are offering DBA doctoral candidates an alternative to the traditional doctoral study: a consulting capstone project that similarly solves a problem, but in real time.

What Is a Consulting Capstone Project?

Many business management professionals are familiar with the capstone project, which is often the outcome of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. With a capstone, a team of students put aside their textbooks and demonstrate the skills and knowledge they learned throughout the program to create a solution for an organization. A doctoral capstone project takes the capstone concept further.

Walden University introduced the consulting capstone project, where individual students in Walden’s online DBA degree program partner with a nonprofit organization or small business to gain valuable real-life and real-time experience while pursuing their doctoral degree. Walden students follow the Baldridge framework and criteria for performance excellence, a comprehensive approach using a systems perspective that aims to “improve [an] organization’s performance and get sustainable results.”* According to Dr. Eric Riedel, Walden’s chief academic officer, online DBA doctoral candidates who choose the consulting capstone project get the “unique experience to utilize the skills and knowledge they have learned in their program to help an organization identify areas of improvement, establish milestones, and create a plan and case study for success.”

The consulting capstone project allows participating students to gain a solid foundation and experience in consulting and coaching while also delivering valued insights to the leaders of client organizations into how they might achieve strategic objectives. Small businesses and nonprofit organizations often lack human and fiscal resources to address specific initiatives; the consulting doctoral candidate helps bridge that gap.

The work of the consulting capstone is as challenging as any doctoral program component. Whereas most students in doctoral programs are researchers, the consulting capstone project enables students to function as researchers and unpaid consultants who regularly confer with the leaders of their client organizations and deliver a final report. The consulting capstone project journey can be transformative for the student and also the client organization.

Students considering a doctoral degree have always had numerous choices when it comes to where and what they wish to learn. And now, with the consulting capstone, they have another choice for how they learn.

“I think Walden’s DBA program is probably one of the finest in the country,” says Dr. Art Tyler, faculty member in Walden’s School of Management. “It not only looks at just the academic issues, but it also looks at social change. And that’s important, I think, if any person is going to be a leader in developing new models, new methods, and new solutions for the 21st century.”


*National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST, Baldridge Performance Excellence Program: How Baldridge Works, U.S. Department of Commerce, on the internet at www.nist.gov/baldrige/how-baldrige-works.

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