Studying for an MBA means learning to multi-task

Holding down a job and spending time with your family become increasingly difficult when you start an MBA
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The Independent Online

It is with good reason that the MBA is known as a macho qualification. In addition to the cut-and-thrust of classroom debate, there is the information-heavy syllabus to absorb, a task that requires students to invest significant amounts of time both in and out of the classroom. But even this, it appears, is not enough of a challenge for some.

"It sounds melodramatic to say you do not have any time but physically there are just not enough hours in the day," says Andy Hancock, who is combining an EMBA at the University of Southampton School of Management with running his own business, Excedo Travel, a luxury adventure holiday company. "At busy times I start work at 7.30am, finish at 8pm, start my MBA studies at 9pm and finish around 11pm," says Andy, 28. "You do have to make sacrifices – in this case a social life. And buy a dishwasher because there's no time to do any washing up!"

Andy signed up for an MBA to enhance his job prospects in the UK after eight years of working overseas for a leading holiday company. But then he was talent spotted when the BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Great British Holiday Experience, filmed him setting up a new hotel in Turkey.

"The financial backer of Excedo saw me on TV and contacted me because he wanted a travel arm to go alongside his existing corporate events business," says Andy. "I warned him I was already signed up to do an MBA and he was totally supportive."

Andy started the EMBA in September 2007 and Excedo started trading five months later. "There are a lot of hours involved in setting up a business but the MBA workload comes in peaks and troughs so I am managing to fit the studying around work. Luckily I'm a single man so I can be selfish with my time. There are friends on my course who have two kids and a husband and they're getting up at 5am to study because that's the only spare time they have."

Those who do have family commitments face a constant struggle to fit everything in and retain their sanity. Alain Khoury, CEO of Paris-based IT consultancy SNK Intertrade and an EMBA student at ICN Business School in Nancy, France, found that something had to give. For the first five months of the programme, Alain freed himself from professional commitments every other Friday and personal commitments every other Saturday but, as the months went by, the hours of personal study required to keep up with the course workload began to tell.

"How do you find time to carry out an EMBA, run a company and take care of your family when you have exhausted all sources of energy? Knowing that I couldn't change the EMBA workload nor make any more concessions on my family life, the only alternative was to reconsider how I was running my company," he says.

While unable to handover his CEO functions, Alain, who founded the company in 1994, decided to delegate the technical consultancy role he still played. "I chose to reduce my personal revenue and company turnover to free up additional time for the EMBA," says Alain, who remains convinced the short-term sacrifice will pay off in the end.

Many MBA students combine their studies with demanding jobs and, far from treading water in the workplace while tackling their studies, decide to seek out additional responsibilities and challenges. Accountant Claire Baty, for example, signed up for an MBA with Manchester Business School Worldwide while holding down a job that required 70-hour weeks and frequent trips overseas.

"It was quite tough to fit everything in," recalls Claire, now 32. "The MBS programme was very flexible which meant I could leave the studying for a couple of weeks when things got really busy and then cram it all in when work calmed down again."

Completing the course took a lot of organisation and self-discipline. Claire set up a spreadsheet to structure her studies – "a typical accountant," she laughs – and she booked into a hotel for several nights in order to write her dissertation free of all distractions, husband included.

It was a tough schedule and, at times, dispiriting. "It can be depressing when all your friends are going away for the weekend and you can't go because you have to study. You have to keep your mind on the end game."

For Claire, the end game was a long sought-after promotion. "I'm now group reporting manager for a media company, where I've got a department of 40 people underneath me ," she says.

There is, it seems, a common checklist of skills for those planning to juggle an MBA with running their own business or climbing the corporate ladder: excellent time management skills, an iron will and plenty of stamina. An understanding spouse and a dishwasher are also helpful.

'You have to multi-task, fill every minute and stay busy'

Bemi Odunlami, 29, has just completed the fulltime MBA at Lancaster University Management School while working as a self-employed locum pharmacist at the weekends and managing a portfolio of buy-to-let properties.

"I'm not sure I would recommend working while doing a full-time MBA as it's been really tough to fit everything in. I’m constantly busy and always on the phone. But I wanted to stay liquid and not completely run out of cash. It meant I had some peace of mind because I had an income whereas some people on the course were starting to worry about their finances and the impact of the economic downturn. The property management business is not too time-intensive: it's more a question of making phone calls and sorting things out if there are any problems at the properties. But as a self-employed locum pharmacist, I wouldwork 9am to 6pm on a Saturday and then work all evening to catch up on the studying I should have been doing during the day. You have to multi-task really easily, fill every minute and stay busy. You also have to be really disciplined. After lectures at6pm, people tended to hang around chatting for an hour, which is a really valuable part of the MBA experience, but I would have to limit myself to 15 minutes and then be out of there because I always had something pressing to do elsewhere."