For richer, for poorer

Couples on the same course aren't as crazy as you'd think, says Martin Thomson
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The Independent Online

"How many couples' pillow talk revolves around an analysis of shareholder value? When you commit to study for an MBA at the same time and on the same course as your partner, inevitably your home life is taken over," muses film distribution consultant David Bristow. He and his wife Eve, whose career was in financial training, decided to enrol on a distance-learning MBA from Henley Management College. The course lasted over three years, in parallel with their jobs and lives.

"How many couples' pillow talk revolves around an analysis of shareholder value? When you commit to study for an MBA at the same time and on the same course as your partner, inevitably your home life is taken over," muses film distribution consultant David Bristow. He and his wife Eve, whose career was in financial training, decided to enrol on a distance-learning MBA from Henley Management College. The course lasted over three years, in parallel with their jobs and lives.

When they made the joint commitment, the Bristows, then both in their 30s, were at similar stages in their careers and looking for the boost that the qualification would provide. "In many ways, it was easier for us both to do the MBA," says David. "It can be a real bonus to share the ups and downs of the course with a soulmate who appreciates what the other is going through. This meant that we avoided the tension points that many couples experience where the non-studying partner can feel neglected. We were able to share ideas and work out problems together, bringing our different areas of expertise and perspectives to the course content."

According to David, Eve was the motivating force behind applying. "However, I suspect it was dogged determination and fear of failure that ensured we both completed the course," he comments. Eve adds: "The moral support element was crucial. I probably would have faltered if David hadn't been there for me." The Bristows admit to a spirit of friendly competition in completing assignments on time so as not to lag behind their partner. "Thankfully for the sake of our marriage, our final marks were identical," David reflects.

Part-time MBAs call for a more intensive commitment of time. This in turn means that couples embarking on the same course have to be highly tuned to the other's needs. Four months into the two-year Cranfield executive part-time MBA, Sophie Wildsmith, then a research director for a pharmaceutical company, discovered that she was pregnant. The fact that her husband Alan, a business manager in the recruitment field, was at the same point in his studies meant that when she was unable to attend seminars, he would return with copious notes to share. This level of back-up enabled her to stay on track throughout the pregnancy. Five weeks after their first child, Jolyon, was born, Sophie was back at Cranfield sitting her exams. "Of course, it is very different experience, finishing off an MBA with a young baby. I could not have got through it without all the emotional and practical support I received from Alan and also from the tutors and my mother . Looking back, I would say that our relationship has flourished and the experience has brought us closer together.'

Couples who leave their jobs and homes behind to enrol on a full-time residential MBA course in tandem may escape the pressure of trying to balance "normal" life with study. However living and breathing an all-consuming MBA experience together for a year or more on campus can be a real test. "Our friends thought we were insane," said Robert Rakowitz from the United States. With his partner, Jessica Eliasi, also in her 20s, he recently took 13 months out from his job in finance to study for the International MBA at Instituto de Empresa in Spain. In their case, the relationship provided a key anchor point as they adjusted to the culture shock of studying in another country. "Sharing this major life event on a day-to-day basis gave us the chance to grow closer together," says Robert. For this couple, who even got married during the course and who eventually aim to start their own business, one of the high points of the MBA was the chance to work together on a joint business plan project. "This was not an entirely rosy process," admits Jessica, who now works in the City of New York's marketing team.

"There was a lot of pressure on us to complete our tasks on time," adds Robert. "Frankly, there were times when we got on each other's nerves, but it was a lot of fun."

How do business schools view couples who aim to study on the same MBA course? "We are always keen to receive applications from couples where both are suitably qualified in their own right," comments John Glen, who runs the full-time MBA programme at Cranfield. "I should add that every applicant is considered on his or her individual merit and there can be no relaxation of the normal entry criteria in terms of GMAT test scores or experience. Studying together can produce important advantages in terms of mutual support. Having said that, it is important that couples do not spend their time on the course living in each other's pockets. We deliberately place each partner in different learning teams so they can build up their own network of friends and contacts among fellow students. On balance, if both feel the time is right to study for an MBA and are equally strong candidates, it can make a lot of sense to do it together."

Couples' checklist

*Make sure you are both prepared for the inevitable financial sacrifices and curtailment of social life.

*Create your own carefully delineated study space. Don't try to share a computer.

*Agree ground rules for sharing domestic tasks to avoid resentment.

*Develop separate friendships among your fellow students.

*Think very carefully before both enrolling for an MBA if you are planning to start a family at the same time. Will you have the necessary support mechanism in place to cope with childcare and intensive study?

*Discuss both partners' career aspirations before completing the course. How will you react if you are both offered the job of your dreams but in separate cities?

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