What is it Like to Study for an Online MBA?

A key part of the appeal is the built-in flexibility, yet studying remotely is not always an easy option

The pandemic boosted demand for Online MBAs, as working professionals became more familiar with remote working. But what is it really like to study for an MBA in a virtual environment?

A key part of the appeal of Online MBAs is the built-in flexibility, with video lectures, self-paced study and virtual networking all major pull factors. Yet studying remotely does take some adjusting to, given that many participants have to fit their studies around work and family commitments. Covid added to the pressure, though past and present students say they have no regrets.

Daniel Middleton, a recent graduate of Imperial College Business School’s Online MBA, chose the digital format because he did not want to give up his job and his salary to study full-time. He completed his Online MBA between 2020 and 2022.

“I was not in a position on put my career on pause for one year, so studying online in my own time was the perfect way to gain the skills and qualification I needed from an MBA, whilst also continuing with my day job,” says Middleton, an account lead at Google Cloud, the search company’s cloud computing business.

Choosing a business school that was the right fit for him was crucial, given that an MBA is a substantial investment of money, time and effort. “I was attracted to Imperial for its reputation as a world renowned institution and its reputation for online learning,” Middleton says, underscoring the importance of a strong brand, given that online learning is still in its infancy. 

“Do your research on both the education institution and the online education toolset,” he advises prospective students.

Another key attraction was the convenience of Imperial’s South Kensington campus in London, which is a short distance from his office at Google. Although online learning could be a global playing field, most participants live close by because they are more familiar with local business schools.

Still, Middleton was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of his classmates in the Online MBA. “My group work required me to work with a tech consultant, a doctor, an investment banker and a CMO,” he says.

The course enabled him to have much broader discussions outside the tech area. “For example, I can now confidently research my customers from a financial perspective using their annual reports, which isn’t something I could do previously,” says Middleton.

Immediately applying the learning from an Online MBA

For Monica Belle, the ability to immediately apply the concepts and skills learned to her current work environment was a key factor in her decision to pursue the online format for her MBA. She enrolled in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in 2021 and will graduate in 2024.

Courses such as “Managing Teams and Organizations” have proved beneficial as she evaluates how to manage her own team and how she can motivate subordinates to maximize their performance and productivity.

Equally important are the people she studied with, her fellow participants in the MBA. “My initial expectations were a competitive student environment,” says Belle. “I’ve found that my fellow students are very supportive and accessible.”

She says would-be MBA candidates should sound out the culture of the institutions they are applying to. “My advice would be to take the opportunity to talk with current Online MBA students who can share their experience in terms of course load, as well as the available resources and programs outside of the classroom.”

Building connections outside of the classroom

Alex Fattore also recommends that prospective students look for programs that give them the opportunity to build connections outside of the curriculum including professional clubs, networking events, and volunteer opportunities.

He chose the Online MBA program at Tepper because of the flexibility; it allowed him to keep up with the demands of his job, which requires frequent travel. “The in-person ‘Access Weekends’ allow me to be online, but not miss out on the networking aspect of the program,” he says.

Access Weekends are an immersive experience in which Online MBA students come to the Tepper campus in Pittsburgh to meet with faculty and classmates. This enabled Fattore to develop close bonds with fellow participants.

“The biggest surprise I’ve had in the Online MBA is the quality connections I’ve been able to make with my cohort,” he says. “Over the first year dealing with COVID restrictions our cohort was able to connect through alternative technologies and I’ve met a lot of great individuals in the program and have made lasting friendships.”

He has also applied what he learnt in the MBA to his workplace. “Since starting the program, I transitioned from an engineering role to a product marketing management role,” says Fattore. “I’ve had to quickly utilize the financial modeling and market analysis skills I’ve learned in the curriculum to drive pricing and new product introduction opportunities to make my business successful.”

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