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Got Leadership? - Why do I need a graduate degree?

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As a wise mentor used to say, “You realize you needed insurance moments after you need it.” In other words, you realize vulnerabilities of a system only after the system fails. The pandemic crisis involving the pernicious COVID-19 virus has exposed massive shortcomings in local, national, and global systems across the board. It is a forgone conclusion that few if any leaders, in institutions of higher education or other endeavors, had the foresight or the strategy to deal with a phenomenon like the COVID-19 pandemic. The question is whether graduate education prepares a leader for this or much smaller but unexpected “game changing” challenges?

As time passes, the challenges increase. Buckminster Fuller, a 20th Century American journalist and critic worked as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” He is credited for one of the most often used quotes in “change” literature for observation in his 1982 book Critical Path where he presented the “knowledge doubling curve.” He observed that “Until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century.”

More than ever, today’s leaders need to be scholars of knowledge, while also adept at the practices of their field.

More recent evidence shows an exponential growth rate of knowledge in different fields. A 2011 study in “Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association” stated that “Medical knowledge has been expanding exponentially.” Another recent study claimed that scientific knowledge doubles every five years.” Relevance and obsolescence present a similar existential threat to our careers. Recently, Oxford University studied 702 presently viable occupations. The researchers conducting the study warned that 47%, approximately one out of two occupations in the study, are likely to be automated over the next few decades. in June 2019, citing the above study, went on to elaborate that “an estimated 65% of children entering grade school will wind up working in professions that don’t exist yet.” About 54% of Americans believe that they need to train continuously in order to keep up with their changing workplace, and nearly 50% of the knowledge learned during the first year of a four-year technical degree will be out of date by the time the student graduates.

A clear message in these studies is the threat of obsolescence and irrelevance. Twenty years ago, Digital iPhone (2007), rearview cameras, HDTV, Social media, Paypal, Myspace, Facebook, Instagram, Cloud storage, ZOOM, and many other technologies did not even exist on the drawing board. Ebay and Amazon were at their infancies. Internet phone modems were too slow to allow downloadable content and even now, newspapers, books, and movie theaters are on the frontline of an irrelevance battle. The Hechinger Report in April 2017 asked if a college degree was outdated. The Smithsonian Magazine in January 2018 echoed the same sentiment wondering if traditional colleges and universities are becoming obsolete.

Still, the need for some skill sets continue. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported in 2019 the five essential skills missing in job applicants (see Figure 1 below). “Missing skills,” according to 82% of respondents, include dealing with complexity, communication, data analysis, and problem-solving skills, which are transportable across all careers.

Figure 1:

Figure 1

The glaring absence of job-specific or related skills can be understood in one of two ways. At the entry level or “pre-managerial” stages of employment, many employees still require a college degree. At the management level, with emphasis on operations and tactics, a deeper understanding of various fields involved in the operation of the enterprise is needed.

The central premise here is that leaders need a unique set of higher-level wisdom, depth, and knowledge that can best be grown and fostered through advanced graduate “scholar-practitioner” studies in focused doctoral programs.

Should aspiring or practicing leaders pursue practitioner degrees such as an Ed.D., or a theoretician’s degree in leadership such as a Ph.D.? Ph.D. programs emphasize research and analysis skills while Ed.D. programs must have a broader organizational focus. In selection of these programs, one needs to pay close attention that the research commitment does not overshadow the practical application of leadership and change. Ph.D. programs often tend to do that.

In the face of such challenges, successful leaders will need to become fluent in issues that pertain to operational and tactical matters, thoroughly understand the new science and its research, its interpretations, and its applications. More than ever, today’s leaders need to be scholars of knowledge, while also adept at the practices of their field. We are not suggesting that in light of the COVID-19 crisis successful leaders need to become expert medical doctors; rather, to have the ability to learn at some level of proficiency how to be able to knowledgably rely on experts for information, yet have the insight and wisdom to orchestrate the larger picture. In other words, leaders are challenged more and more to be the conductor of the orchestra with the agility to learn new songs while understanding each instrument without the expertise to play it. These complex, deep, and advanced abilities are harnessed and nurtured at the highest rungs of graduate education—scholar-practitioner based doctorate degrees in organizational leadership.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of doctoral programs in leadership that are offered mainly through schools of Education. These degrees, unlike schools of business, put a great deal more emphasis on the people and learning side of leadership than simply the profit motive. To fit this model, however, these Doctor of Education degrees (the Ed.D.), must have a broader organizational focus rather than a narrower educational leadership. The ideal Ed.D. program would emphasize a curriculum based on leadership and change, policy as an instrument of leadership, research, analysis and synthesis, and a global perspective. Such flexibility for doctoral programs is very much in tune with career demands of leaders in a world of constant irrelevance and obsolescence.


Farzin Madjidi, Ed.D., MBA, MS., Professor of Leadership., Associate Dean
Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Pepperdine University

Seta Khajarian, Ed.D., MBA, Associate Clinical Professor of Education, Sr. Director of Institutional Effectiveness
Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Pepperdine University

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