Studying for an MBA as well as being in full-time employment is a huge task. The hours needed to complete each module to a good standard are tough, and the pass:fail ratio for examinations are not favourable to the less inclined, or those less able to sacrifice the time and effort. For me, there’s been some difficult lessons learnt along the way, which, had I known earlier, would have helped me plan my time better.
So what’s it like to study for an MBA part-time?
When I first started the MBA with the Open University I was most definitely in a very different place to where I am now. I was an officer (rather than a manager), good at my work and very capable. I enjoyed an active social life, and generally things were good.
Except, that is, for my ambition. I wanted to do and achieve more. I had applied for management roles and been knocked back on several occasions. I always ask for feedback (I’m genuinely bemused as to why people don’t ask for feedback; its free advice, why wouldn’t you ask for it?) and comments was generally similar: “You were a very strong candidate and you’re obviously good at your job, but we’re looking for someone with more management experience.” I could hear the words coming before the often sympathetic voice on the other end of the phone could finish the sentence. I got tired of hearing the words ‘potential,’ ‘capable’, and most of all: ‘lack of management experience.’
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there with exactly the same experiences.
So I decided to do something about it and enrolled on the MBA programme. Within a year of starting the course, I had a management job, and 2 years down the line I manage a team covering an area twice the size of any equivalent, providing frequent briefings to the Chief Executives, a good reputation and freedom to expand my team where the opportunities arise. To top it off, I’ve had a healthy 31% pay rise for my effort (which just about pays the tuition fees!).
In many ways, working and studying for an MBA go hand in hand. In fact, the course encourages you to apply the theories as you learn them, which has proved really useful. It gives you a chance to test academic concepts in the real world, and gain the benefits when they do work.
But this isn’t about explaining the benefits (there have been plenty), this is about explaining the challenges that I’ve encountered following the first 3 years on the course.
The first and most obvious challenge is that you have a job, probably, and that takes up a lot of time in itself. You don’t want to sacrificing your work for your studies, it would kind of defeat the point – applying and testing the theories in a practical setting and learning from that is one of the benefits of doing it part-time.
Since becoming a manager, my workload has vastly increased. That’s not only because of the changing public sector environment (everyone delivering more with less), but also because the responsibility means that it’s now down to me to deliver to the standard expected and meet objectives. Since taking on a managers role, I’ve found my working hours increase and often found myself preparing that briefing, or writing that business case over the weekend, guiltily glancing every now and again a the study material sitting next to me.
The weight of study
The second obvious challenge it that there’s plenty of studying to be done. I’ve found doing one module at a time has been manageable, but attempting to do 2 modules at once has been pretty challenging to say the least and it will not be something I will attempt again. There are plenty of fellow students covering two modules at a time, and I do not know how they find the time to do that.
There are some modules which are far more intensive than others, especially for people new to the subject (I’m looking at you Corporate Finance), and some which are less intense. It can make managing you free time difficult. For many of the modules, I’ve felt I’m doing the barest minimum to pass, it’s not a feeling I’m comfortable with. It is perfectly achievable to study for one module at a time and complete the course in the required 7 year timeframe.
Social life? What social life?
My social life has definitely felt the brunt of the changing work life balance. I tend to spend most evenings getting the required reading done, and at least two weekends a month hunched over my desk, cramming the coursework. It’s fortunate that I have a very supportive partner and some great friends who understand why I’m missing out on social events.
It’s especially hard in the weeks prior to coursework submissions and examinations, when you tend to forget there is actually an outside world and more to eat than delivery pizzas. It’s a bit like being back at university – I haven’t looked forward to the summer holidays this much in over a decade! Right now there is no-one that appreciates a couple of beers with friends as much as me!
Space it out, cramming is bad
If you are contemplating doing an MBA, really think about how you can manage your time efficiently. Setting time aside every week to study is a real must, but not something that I, nor many of the students I’m in contact with have managed all that well. We’ve all fallen into the pattern of blitzing coursework and the required study in the week prior to submission dates.
Work and personal commitments really can interfere with your studies, and you can fall behind quickly. I feel like I am forever behind, which means I don’t get the full benefit of discussion groups and online tutorials.
You have to prioritise if you want to make the most of it. I say ‘make the most of it’ because you can pass by cramming (well, it seems to have worked so far), but when you are spending so much on tuition fees, you are wasting a small fortune in learning by doing just enough and not getting the maximum benefit for you money.
I can honestly say, that since starting the course, I have massively benefited, both in a personal achievement sense and financially. I’ve not finished the MBA yet, and still have a little over a year left to go, but when I do get there I have even more plans up my sleeves.
Of course, these are only my experiences, and I’m sure others have different versions of events. As someone struggling to do all the required study and reading, I am always keen to hear how other people have managed their time. I know I have a lot to learn!