Online Extra: Where Are the Business Courses?

Even in entrepreneurial fields like medicine and architecture, many university programs leave students unprepared for the management challenges they'll soon face

By Suzanne McGee

Those who spend long years and heaps of money learning their professions, such as doctors and architects, often find that their training has omitted one important point: how to become an entrepreneur. While in school, most of these budding professionals probably don't see themselves as businesspeople. But by mid-career, many find themselves owning or managing enterprises.

The American Institute of Architects says about 31% of its members are sole practitioners. An additional 29% work in firms with 2 to 4 employees, and about 75% in firms with 9 or fewer. The American Medical Association estimates that 30% of physicians are in practices with 10 or fewer members, and that 11% are in practices of just three or four doctors.


  You'd think those numbers would give deans and administrators pause. After all, if chances are high that a large portion of the student body is going to end up owning a business, shouldn't a little background in entrepreneurship be part of the training? Many professionals, such as architect Elizabeth Murphy, think so.

"In architecture school, you were offered a business course that revolved around contracts, but heaven forbid that you be taught to market yourself or the business. That was seen as something almost undignified," says Murphy, who with architect Lauren Burge is the majority owner of Chambers Murphy & Burge, an Akron (Ohio)-based restoration architecture firm. Murphy says she tried to get into marketing classes while she was in college, but they were always full.

Most schools don't see a problem. Deans point out that graduate school curriculums are already jam-packed. Who in their right mind would add more coursework to already overburdened medical students? Says Jay Chatterjee, a professor of architecture and dean emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, & Planning: "These are intense programs as they stand. If we added something more, it would have to replace another program -- and then the question becomes what can we cut?"


  But some schools are starting to respond. At Kent State University in Ohio, offerings in the architecture program have been expanded to include seminars and workshops on office and financial management, leadership and ethics, and real estate development. "We were seeing young architects tell us three or four years after they finish their education that they wish they had a basic business knowledge beyond just how to word a contract with a client," says James E. Dalton, interim dean of the school's College of Architecture & the Environment. Kent State is also launching a joint MBA/M. Arch. program -- 15 years after the proposal was first raised.

At Harvard, a joint MD/MBA program began in September. In one third-year seminar, students gather weekly to discuss the management issues and decisions they witness in their hospital work. Says Stan Finkelstein, director of the joint degree program and a faculty member of the Harvard MIT Division of Health, Sciences & Technology in Cambridge, Mass.: "We had about 30 people who wanted to get into the class this year, but we were limited to 17."

That in itself may be encouraging, as most students -- unlike Murphy -- don't realize how important business issues will soon become. Chatterjee says that given the choice of an elective architecture course or an elective business course, most students opt for the former. He says his college's cooperative education plan, in which students get credit for working in the field, is one of only a handful of efforts to introduce students to the business realities of life in an architectural practice. But the vast majority of professionals still learn the business of their profession the way Murphy is: on the fly.

McGee is a freelance writer in New York

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