Pivot from final exams leads to increase in organizational change leadership research

Contact: Chris Hybels

Dr. David Szabla

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—"The biggest benefit I get out of presenting at a conference is learning what other scholars are working on and checking how my own work fits into the broader scholarship in the field," says Western Michigan University's Mary O'Kelly, a doctoral student in the organizational change leadership program in the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology. "Completing the program with a high-quality portfolio of materials demonstrating a comprehensive suite of professional competencies is far more powerful than a passing a exam."

That's why Dr. David Szabla, chair of the department, developed the comprehensive portfolio model for students enrolled in the organizational change leadership (OCL) doctorate program. The model is an alternative to the traditional comprehensive exam and requires students to conduct research and develop and publish peer-reviewed journal articles or manuscripts presented at refereed academic conferences. 

"I didn't want our students taking traditional comprehensive exams. I wanted them to develop manuscripts and implement projects that were useful to them upon completing the program,” says Szabla.

The design of the comprehensive portfolio model was inspired by Dr. Kieran Fogarty, director of WMU's interdisciplinary health sciences Ph.D. program. In the program, Fogarty prepares students to use interdisciplinary research methodologies to address important questions in health and human services. Similarly, Szabla is challenging students to conduct research using various methodologies covered in his new book, the "Edward Elgar Handbook of Research Methods in Organizational Change", to examine and advance organizational change and transformation research. 

"Our comprehensive portfolio model is generating manuscripts developed by students and the University is gaining a presence at national and international management conferences," says Szabla.

Students in the program have reacted positively to the switch from traditional exams to research projects and publications. Sean Gaffney, an OCL doctoral student, says he believes the model allows him to develop and demonstrate the skills needed to succeed as a scholar-practitioner. 

"The model allows me to personalize the experience and focus on the areas I am interested in. I wrote my conference paper in an area that aligns with my teaching and research interest," explains Gaffney. “The portfolio also looks great on a CV, demonstrating to academic search committees that you have the background and experience to successfully move from student to researcher and instructor.” 


  • Vanessa Hills, OCL doctoral student, presents at the 2023 Midwest Academy of Management Conference in Chicago.

    Gaffney, S. (2023). Mapping the Literature of Resistance to Change: A Keyword Analysis. 2023 Southern Management Association Annual Meeting, St. Pete Beach, FL.
  • Hills, V.S. (2023). Pizza as the punchline: Reddit users’ perceptions of organizational pizza parties as employee rewards. 2023 Midwest Academy of Management Conference, Chicago, Illinois. 
  • Hills, V.S., & Viskova-Robertson, A. (2023). Technology acceptance and perceived impact on human sociability. 2023 Midwest Academy of Management Conference, Chicago, IL.
  • Hills, V. S. (2022). Updating interdisciplinary strategies for virtual dialogic communication: A conceptual model for the remote practice of Dialogic Organization Development. 2022 Midwest Academy of Management Conference, Detroit, MI.
  • O'Kelly, M., & Strock, M. (2023). A Facilitation Model to Leverage Organizational Paradox. 2023 Midwest Academy of Management Conference, Chicago IL.
  • Roehm, J. (2023). Putting Women Front and Center: An Integrated Literature Review of Working Women Post Covid-19 Pandemic. 2023 Academy of Management Conference, Boston, MA. 

For more information, read the abstracts on the comprehensive portfolio model projects website.


The Ph.D. program in the College of Education and Human Development with a concentration in Organizational Change Leadership is designed to empower the next generation of change leaders and scholars to revolutionize organizations and industries. Throughout the program, students engage in a rigorous curriculum that prepares them to become scholars and practitioners in the dynamic field of organizational change and transformation. Students gain a deep knowledge of cutting-edge organizational theory, advanced applied research methods and effective strategies to facilitate change within and across diverse organizations. By integrating theory with practical applications, students develop the skills necessary to drive meaningful and sustainable change in complex organizational environments and the perspective and disposition required to serve as leaders in their organizations and communities. For more information, visit the organizational change leadership doctoral program webpage.

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