We management professors are very conscious of the "professional school" label given to colleges of business, law, medicine, engineering, nursing, and education in diversified universities – universities in which some clinical fields, like psychology, may be part of the college of Arts&Sciences, and thereby on the other side of the divide. (At my alma mater, clinical psych is in A&S, and counseling psych is in the College of Education.)

Though a few verbal grenades are tossed over the divide each semester, schools on both sides generally co-exist tolerably well. What are the differences between them?

One is that professional schools students enroll, shall we say, for reasons other than the simple love of knowledge.  This doesn't mean MBA students are all, as the A&S folks would have it, greedy and willfully ignorant.  My own international MBA students aim to help their home countries by bringing home useful professional skills.  Nursing students are particularly likely to be in it for the mission and not the money.

The second difference is in the average time horizon implicit in the faculty's research. A&S faculty may be given carte blanche to work on research that will benefit society sometime between 30 years from now and never.  But many of them become interested in applied, short-term problems. Business and engineering faculty, on the other hand, work on problems that industry and society face now, or will face in five years' time.  This doesn't prevent some (like my own PhD advisor) from working on problems with a 30-year payoff horizon, or from starting movements with names like management science and engineering science.  The difference between professional and A&S faculties is only an average difference.

It is not that one is "scientific" and one is "professional."  A PhD biologist certainly thinks of him/herself as a professional researcher. The bishop and the actress both claim, correctly, to be professionals. The professional boxer practices "the sweet science," one with generalizable and empirically tested principles.

It is not that one is "pure" and one is "applied."  In the 1930s, Gödel's theorem in logic was as pure as driven snow; by 1980 it was a guiding design principle for commercial products in artificial intelligence.  In 1895, atomic theory was as pure as it gets.  We all know what happened fifty years later.  Pure research rarely stays pure.  Thus, the pure-applied distinction becomes merely a matter of average time horizon.

One wag defined a professional as a person who can always be relied upon to do the predictable thing. Universities - even "professional practice universities" like one with which I am now affiliated, which has only graduate schools of education, psychology, law, and management - have no business producing graduates that fit this definition.

A more interesting definition of professional is a person who has, together with like-minded individuals, pledged to do certain things for non-economic reasons. For example, lawyers pledge to uphold the Constitution – even, presumably, when it might pay not to.  MDs pledge to do no harm, engineers to build safe structures, and so on.

This is why it's troublesome to have economists in business schools. Economists take the descriptive theory of unconstrained equilibrium and make it normative, that is, they tend to believe that nothing should "distort" the balance of supply and demand that leads to minimum prices. Professional standards constitute exactly this kind of distortion!  If business schools are to be professional schools, they must teach constrained equilibrium.  Banish the economists to A&S!

In sum, professional schools:

  • Work on problems that have an average horizon of 3-7 years, and  

  • Set forth non-economic standards of behavior.

I look forward to conversations within the Scientific Blogger community concerning whether 3-7 are the right numbers, concerning what the "standards" notion implies for real-world issues like whether  Wal-Marts are good for communities, concerning what we teach international students in an era when globalization tends to drive management decisions to a low denominator, and so on.  I hope my colleagues in this community who represent psychology, nursing, and the other professional areas will contribute views pertinent to their own subject areas.

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p.s. The results are in. I posted two articles on Scientific Blogging about cost accounting. In one, I announced (or, if you will, admitted) up front that it was an article about cost accounting; no such announcement prefaced the other. A week later, the article that just dove into the subject was read by 800 people, and the one with the warning by only 350. I declare statistical significance, and will refrain from labeling postings with key words that anyone except a cost accountant would find off-putting.

As a young mathematician, I found out the hard way that nothing stops cocktail party conversation faster than saying "I'm a mathematician." (Well, "I sell insurance" stops it faster, but that's about the sole exception.) Here's how to recover: Preface almost any statement at all with the phrase "As the bishop said to the actress." "As the actress said to the bishop" also does the job. Anyone who does not laugh outright will rub their chin and worry that the joke was too subtle for them. I learned this from reading the novels of Leslie Charteris, and it works.