One thing is certain: when you start an MBA you will soon have an awful lot of work on your plate. Whether you are revisiting full-time academic life after years in the workplace, or studying part-time while juggling a job and a family, you are going to need all the study and time-management skills you can muster.
Luckily, most business schools now recognise the pressures that their MBA students are under, and are increasingly putting in place support systems to help them stay on top of their workload.
Some students also find that previous working experience has given them the management skills they need. Busisiwe Silwanyana, a full-time MBA student at Durham Business School, came to her course from a background in finance. "It quickly became clear that managing my priorities would be key to staying on top of the heavy workload," she says. "So I set aside time to sit down and draw up a running list of everything I want to achieve by the end of the week, and re-prioritise my list daily so that I can stay on top of things."
Choosing the right course for your circumstances is also important. Vicky Van Bouwel, head of the department of commercial sciences and business administration at the Karel de Grote University College, in Antwerp, Belgium, was able to study for her MBA while having her first child and holding down a challenging job in change management. That's because the European Institute of Purchasing Management's modular MBA programme, which she studied in Geneva, allowed her the flexibility to fit project deadlines around the many other demands on her time.
However she warns part-time students to avoid dragging out their studies for too long and to aim to keep to the standard time framework "to keep up their momentum."
On more intensive courses, students need to find their feet quickly. At the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, where students take a one-year full-time MBA, Dr Richard Barker, director of the MBA programme, says students learn early on how to work successfully in teams, as well as how to draw upon the people and resources available. "We also structure the course to make it manageable," he says. Heavy course loads come early on, while a later switch of emphasis to projects and electives helps to sustain the students' interest and energy.
Aston Business School MBA students are offered help with speed-reading and time management as part of their induction fortnight. "Often, at the beginning, they think they are not going to need it, but later they start to appreciate this," says Angela Edkins, MBA careers adviser.
Nottingham University Business School MBA students are also introduced to a raft of basics during their induction sessions, including where to find help with writing essays, and what is the role of their tutor. "All my tutees, for example, are told they can show me their work before it is assessed," says Professor Bob Berry, director of the MBA programmes.
"Very often they need to look at the question they have been asked to analyse and ask themselves: have I actually done what I've been asked?" Students might also need help with academic journals. "You look at the introduction and conclusion, then ask yourself, 'do I know enough?' If not, you look at the structure and figure out what else might be useful to read." For some, writing clearly and to the right length is difficult. But for students who run into serious difficulties, tutors are on hand to talk, and counselling is available. "Nottingham is tough, but supportive," says Berry.
At Cass Business School in London Julia Newall, a trainer for an investment bank, comes in to teach MBA students mind-mapping, note-taking and memory skills. She has an MBA herself. "What I teach is called Mind Skills, and it is all about how you can make the maximum use of your mind. For instance, a regular review system is the best way of helping your brain hang onto something. We also look at speed reading, and at the mental belief patterns that can help or hinder you."
At Manchester Business School, Andy Stark, director of the MBA programme, says students' biggest frustrations tend to be over glitches in the IT system, and, more seriously, about re-entering the job market – something the school addresses by specifically clearing space in the timetable for students to job hunt. "We also concentrate on getting them working in multicultural groups, and giving them lots of experience – both key elements of the course we offer."
Student Fred Abrard has come with his wife and family from France to take a Manchester MBA in order to switch from a high-tech engineer career track into management. He finds the course intensive. "It is important to make priorities, so you don't fall under the workload. I make time for my family in the evening, then work from nine o'clock to midnight."
The supportive atmosphere has helped him a lot. "There is a partner club at the business school. My family are always up here. My three-year-old daughter probably knows more people at the school than I do. Even my newborn is coming here. It helps to feel we are all in it together."
'Body language matters'
MBA students at Cass Business School are taught study skills throughout their course. Andy Hanscomb, 41, an HR director in the security industry, has welcomed this support.
"They offer a continuous programme, and in a one-to-one interview they explore the areas that you will find most beneficial, so that it's tailored to your needs. You get credits for doing it, and you have to write a paper on those areas where you've identified you need help, and whether you feel you've been successful in making progress or not.
They go into everything. I hadn't realised, for instance, how much body language and eye contact mattered. It's given me much more internal confidence. I could stand up in front of my CEO now and not be fazed by it."
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