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Rail industry focus for DBA student

Engineer Alexander White describes his part-time DBA programme at Alliance MBS as the “perfect bridge” between industry and academia.

Alexander works as Chief of Planning and Development for the Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR) company in Canada and is in the second year of his programme studying Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the rail industry. He visits Manchester up to three times a year to attend a week of workshops and lectures, liaise with his academic supervisors in the Accounting & Finance division, and meet up with his DBA cohort.

He says he is using what he is learning all the time back in Canada. “I have already found the DBA immensely useful in my day-to-day working life, in ways that cut across a range of areas. For instance, in addition to the higher-level research, it has helped me in numerous practical ways such as compiling statistics and analysing data, and in areas such as preparing reports for the correct audience.

“At TTR I’ve been particularly looking at improving operational and maintenance practices, so I’m trying to base my decisions on data and developing KPIs to determine the success of what we are doing. Because I am an engineer by background, ultimately I am very interested in applying the knowledge and skills I’m gaining in practice.”

Before starting work for TTR in 2011, Alexander’s specialist area of study was civil and environmental engineering, and particularly hydrology, completed at Cornell University in America. After working in the field he completed a Masters programme on urban development and development economics in Germany and Italy through the Erasmus Mundus Programme. At TTR he started in project management before moving into business development and PPPs.

TTR, which is jointly owned by the Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway freight companies, operates the main passenger rail terminal in Toronto and Alexander describes it as a “de facto PPP”. “It is a perfect example of the practical cooperation between the public and private sector in infrastructure delivery and operations, and this is an area that has always interested me. As part of my DBA I have also been studying the UK rail system which is another very interesting case study for work in this area.”

He says he has always had a strong interest in applying theoretical concepts in practice, and a few years ago began looking for ways to research the rapidly growing PPP industry further.

“I wanted to do something research based while maintaining the connection to practice. I looked at similar programmes all over the world, but the big differentiators about Manchester’s DBA programme were that it is part-time, which enables me to go back and forth between industry and academia, plus the high calibre of the faculty working in the field, including my supervisors.”

Alexander admits there are challenges with such a part-time programme and says you have to be very disciplined. “Balancing the work with study is definitely the greatest challenge and it can make time management challenging at times.

“Another factor I have also had to contend with is a cultural one within my business. The rail industry is very traditional and blue-collar where many staff – including senior management – have not attended university. That can make a DBA a harder sell but the proof is ultimately in the pudding. You have to show the day-to-day benefits it brings to the company.”

Given that each DBA cohort only meets up a few times a year, Alexander, as his class’s representative, says it is crucial to maintain a strong sense of community within the group as much of what is learnt in the programme comes from your colleagues. “Social media has a very big role to play in our cohort’s success. For instance everyone in the group regularly keeps in touch via WhatsApp to discuss assignments, research and generally see how we are all doing.”