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The benefits of an academic background in business and vice versa

I now have been a professor for six years and at this point in my life, I find myself enjoying talking about things more than doing them. This is a reflection on a career spent in both academics and business.


David Duncombe

Fulbright scholar, marketing and communications
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 06.03.2023

Before starting a 30-year career in business, I earned a doctorate in International Relations from Oxford University. A common question that I was asked in my corporate life was: What is a doctorate doing in marketing management? My answers usually boiled down to: I enjoy making things happen, rather than just talking about them.

Academic background helped me to do business differently

I believe that my advanced degree gave me an advantage in my job in many ways. The experience of having been an expert in my academic field of study gave me confidence when dealing with experts in other business functions or consultants.

My study of world history, institutions, and economics gave me the ability to see implications of international business trends better than most of my colleagues. Theoretical understandings enabled me to see my colleagues’, customers’, or competitors’ behaviors as part of systemic patterns rather than individual actions. This made them more predictable and me more empathetic.

Perhaps, most importantly, I learned how to learn. Although I never formally studied marketing management. I was always able to teach myself what I needed to know by hitting the books, doing my own research or experiments, seeking advice, or even going back to school again to plug the gaps.

Even late in my career, I earned a Masters in Predictive Analytics because I could see how important data analytics were becoming to my company’s future. Continuous learning is required in business, and I was more comfortable doing this than most.

Despite being mostly positive, my advanced degree was also a negative at times. Some colleagues were intimidated by my background. They misunderstood how I processed information, or even considered my analytic style to be a disadvantage in an environment that favored action. So, I always had to be careful when sharing my credentials.

Key takeaway: A successful business career strikes a balance between theory and practice and requires confidence to learn or try new things.

Having a business background helps me to teach differently

I have been teaching for six years since retiring from corporate life. The reverse question now comes up: How does my business background affect my approach to teaching?

I find that my business background is a great advantage for teaching. Having done things rather than just having studied them gives me street credibility with the students. For instance, when I teach marketing research, I can supplement the textbook content with stories from a career of authorizing, planning, and attending focus groups and customer interviews all around the world. I can also pepper my lectures on marketing or business strategy with personal examples of how the textbooks’ theories played out in my career.

Personally, I enjoy sharing my personal stories and hard-won lessons. I hope that the students will find my stories useful in their future careers.

Since starting to teach, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the business theories in the textbooks that I use. One really does not know something until one has to teach it. As I learn more about business theories, I gain new perspectives on my past decisions and often wish I knew then what I now know.

I also realize that my stories are getting older every year, and therefore less relevant to the digital careers that the students will be embarking on after they finish school. The relevance of the theory that I teach, however, will fade less quickly than the relevance of my stories.

Key Takeaway: Business students benefit from some of their professors having real world experience, as long as those professors can integrate their personal experiences with more general theory.