How to Survive and Thrive on an Online MBA

Expert tips on how to juggle jobs, life and study during a demanding degree

Online MBAs are frequently studied by people in senior executive roles, who juggle coursework alongside demanding jobs. The majority of participants are aged between 30 and 40 years, so they are older than full-time MBA students; many also have family responsibilities. The need to balance such competing demands means that time management is critical for success.

“There is no question time management, in the top three of skill sets, is a most essential competency,” says Shelbi Brookshire, assistant dean of MBA admissions at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Working professionals must be able to prioritize, delegate and even outsource across the competing demands of being a working professional and a graduate student.”

Happily, support is on hand at many business schools for those who will be balancing several priorities.

At the Smith School in the US, each MBA candidate is paired with a personal specialist who ensures end-to-end support from admission through to graduation. These specialists proactively reach out to students during critical points in the Online MBA.

“This regular and systematic activity keeps the student progressing toward graduation, uncovers challenges the student might be facing, and allows the support specialist to take action to assist at-risk students,” Brookshire says.

She also offers advice for how participants can juggle the Online MBA with their multiple responsibilities. “Ensure you have mobilized and educated a core group of individuals that can support you,” says Brookshire. “You should source at least two individuals per ‘bucket’ — work, family and school — who can provide assistance as you navigate your program.”  

Further to that, she recommends that incoming MBAs build smart study habits early and brush up on, or get access to, topics they haven’t had before or haven’t seen in a while.

Returning to studies after years at work

Returning to studies after a long spell in the workforce is exciting but can also be stressful and nerve-racking. The first module in the Global Online MBA at ESMT Berlin – managing in a connected world – has been specifically designed to ease candidates into studies gently, while also equipping them with the skills they need to be successful in the program.

It’s not easy, but with some planning and foresight, participants can combine work and study. “Create a routine that works for you,” says Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs at ESMT Berlin. “Successful students carve out time for their studies and block their diaries accordingly. For some, that’s an early morning study hour. For others, an opportunity to focus during lunchtime.”

On weekends, she says students need to think about how they will make space for study while still ensuring they have time for family and social life, hobbies, and interests.

Further pressure is added by ESMT’s strong emphasis on group work, which means students have to coordinate and collaborate with each other. So, it’s important to work with your team, not against them.

ESMT evaluates whether a candidate understands the challenge of the Online MBA and has support from their employer in the application process. Loades says: “Being able to demonstrate that you have given thought to how you’re going to integrate an average of 15 hours per week of study into your life is important.”

Employers can support candidates directly with financial support, paid study leave, and opportunities to apply what’s been learned immediately, as well as indirectly via unpaid leave and flexible schedules.

“Hearing that you’ve spoken to your manager about these matters and explored options helps demonstrate your commitment to the program,” says Loades. “It will also help your employer recognise how much they will benefit from your studies: you’ll deliver greater value to the business as you progress through the program.”

Create a plan of attack

In the MBA@Rice program, course times are designed in a way to ensure that students can still manage going to work, spending time with their families and studying at the same time.

George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, which runs the course, advises students to set up a designated workspace, and schedule time outside of class to study, prepare assignments and meet with their team for group projects.

“Each student has their own individual strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “Our most successful students think critically about their skillset and create action plans.”

Some candidates make connections with their classmates to develop an ‘accountability buddy’, a partner who can act as a sounding board and provide support throughout the MBA.  

It’s also important to create a plan for the semester with a list of deadlines and goals, Andrews says. “Students who map out their semester and create a plan of attack will find that they have more time in their schedule than they anticipated. It will lead to efficiencies in their schoolwork, and in their professional and personal lives.”

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