How to Balance an Online MBA with Work

It’s possible to work full-time while earning an MBA — holding your place in the job market and working towards a promotion or career switch

One of the greatest challenges of studying for an Online MBA is balancing a rigorous curriculum while holding down a full-time job, as well as juggling family life and other personal or professional obligations. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded these challenges, but there are myriad ways students can find support to succeed in the MBA and beyond.

“Studying an MBA is an intense experience; there will be reading before every module and then a week of lectures, group work, seminars and discussions followed by an essay,” says Pietro Micheli, director for the Online MBA at Warwick Business School. “This will mean some late evenings, but the course is designed to be flexible so students can study around work and family commitments.”

The two-year course at the UK business school comprises eight required modules, four electives, a substantive piece of research and a dissertation. Each of the 12 modules takes approximately 100 hours, with a minimum 27 hours of live teaching.

Micheli says time management is key: “Plan for each module, when you can fit in the reading and when you can write the essay — what used to be dead time, like commuting, can now be used to study online. Make it a habit, part of your daily routine, not a last-minute dash.”

He adds that it’s important to keep your employer in the loop on progress through the Online MBA; they may give you time off to study, especially if you make the MBA relevant by orienting the essays towards problems your employer faces.

Students at Warwick can also apply for extensions to deadlines if there are extenuating circumstances, while they are often supported by their peers with the shared experience bonding them together and then forming a strong alumni network.

Different challenges for different students

While an Online MBA can be gruelling, there can be different sets of challenges, depending on the student. At the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, for instance, the average age of Online MBA students is 33, but the range is between 23 and 58.

“Early career professionals may find the actual MBA courses the most difficult to manage as they work through the program with less experience,” says Sarah Wanger, director of admissions for the Online MBA.

However, mid-level managers may be raising children and navigating promotional structures at work — making time-management the toughest test. Senior executives, meanwhile, may serve on boards or lead major projects and large teams. “The content of the courses may come more easily, but career management and navigating into the C-suite is most the pressing challenge,” says Wanger.

She reminds every student to be aware of such challenges and to build their support network before they enrol in the MBA. “There are personal supports to be addressed up front, such as anticipating childcare needs and getting buy-in from partners, spouses, family and friends so that they appreciate that this will take time and energy,” says Wanger.

How Online MBAs can offer flexibility and other kinds of support

Typically, Online MBA programs will offer a range of support for students, including one-on-one meetings with career coaches and academic advisors, for example.

In many Online MBA programs, flexibility may be built into the program structure, with students able to take on more or fewer classes each semester depending on their unique circumstances, such as if they are promoted at work and need to take time away to adjust to the new role, or move to a new geographical location.

The Gies College of Business in Illinois employs a “student success team” that guides students through these challenges and also adopts a flexible program for “creative scheduling”. Brooke Elliott, associate dean, says students need to understand how to manage competing priorities — and the choice may be highly individualized.

“I don’t like to talk about work-life balance, because to me, it implies equilibrium with an even scale, but sometimes there is no balance,” she says. “Knowing when to make sacrifices and triage is critical to success. You must consider your value system and be comfortable making tough decisions. Sometimes you might have to focus on education, and having a great team makes that easier.”

Resilience and adaptability have become even more important in the Covid-19 crisis, says Warwick’s Micheli. “Working from home and then studying from home can be mentally exhausting. Students need to build in time away from the screen, pursuing hobbies and other interests.”

Despite these difficulties, he is adamant that an Online MBA is worth it. “In the current climate, where the job market is likely to become very competitive during the recession, having extra skills and knowledge through an MBA can be an advantage,” says Micheli.

“The MBA will expand students’ horizons and allow them to understand and talk the language of other departments, such as finance, marketing and operations,” he adds. “This is vital when entering and applying for senior positions.”

Gies’ Elliott agrees. “Graduate business education can be challenging, irrespective of delivery format. Providing course material that students use in the real world, allows them to develop leadership vision for the future.”

That sentiment is echoed by the Kelley School’s Wanger. “Our students have certainly been successful, demonstrating that it is entirely possible to continue to work full time while earning an MBA — holding their place in the job market, continuing to benefit from promotions and remaining in the economy.”

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