Before starting my MBA, I worked full-time for a company that required me to be on call or work at company events on weekends. My husband was going to school full-time and working part-time, and we had to plan to make time for each other on days off. Still, adding to an already hectic schedule was worth it. I knew an MBA in marketing would help round out my undergraduate degree in journalism and seven years of experience working in content, social media, and digital marketing.
By enrolling at the Zicklin School of Business at CUNY Bernard M Baruch College, I started on the path to becoming one of the 13.1 percent of U.S. adults with advanced degrees. Though the MBA itself is relatively young, it ranks as the most popular postgraduate degree in the U.S., with 25 percent of graduate students now earning MBAs, according to Fortune.
Like others pursuing this degree, I weighed the prospects of completing my MBA though a part-time, full-time, and online program. In the end, I ended up experiencing a bit of each format. Here's what I learned during my two-year journey as a part-time turned full-time student squeezing in as many online and hybrid classes as possible.
While it may think that opting into a part-time program will paint you as less serious or less committed to your education than your full-time peers, the pace you choose won't make you an outlier. In fact, you'll be part of the majority. According to the Council of Graduate Schools' (CGS) data, of over 250,000 students who enrolled in business graduate programs in Fall 2016, 49.8 percent completed their degree full-time while 50.2 percent opted part-time programs.
I went to grad school about six years after finishing my undergraduate degree, and the transition getting back into academia took time. After graduating college, I found the free time that came after a workday so exciting. For years, I filled it doing what I enjoyed—volunteering, spending time with friends, playing tennis, reading, and watching my favorite shows as late into the night as I wanted. Giving up my free nights (and eventually weekends) for classes, commuting to work and school, and homework was something I wasn't eager about.
I took two classes during my first semester. Here's what my schedule looked like:
Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays
When I switched to taking classes full-time, I plugged every homework assignment, essay, mid-term, and group meeting into my calendar, color-coded by theme, with reminders for the most critical deadlines to stay on top of everything. In a part-time MBA program, I could keep track of assignments and readings easily. I felt like I could absorb the material better rather than feeling like I was getting through things to cross off my to-do list.
One benefit of full-time programs is that they tend to group students by cohort, or group of peers who moves with you through your program. Cohorts can be a plus for many reasons, one of them being the network you build. While I got to know many of my colleagues, my main focus was on getting through my coursework, so I'd have time for my full-time job and other obligations outside of school. I'm sure I could have overcome this issue had I made more of an effort, but my program didn't offer as many networking opportunities as its full-time counterpart. And when it did, they often happened during the day when I was working, or at night when I was in class.
As you can see from the first-semester schedule I listed above, I had three free nights a week. On days I did have class, I only had one. Sounds great, right? My schedule may have seemed open as a part-time student, but I still missed out on the social, sports, and volunteering commitments I maintained before losing two free nights a week.
Eventually, I decided to complete my MBA full-time due to its maximum tuition fee per semester policy. That is, tuition maxed out at 12+ credits (full-time status), meaning I'd pay the same if I were taking 12 courses, 14, or 16—you get the picture. One semester when I'd been thinking about increasing my course load, a colleague informed me she took between 13-14 credits to save in costs. This incentive, plus the chance to finish school within two years instead of three, was a motivator to make the switch.
By becoming a full-time student, I was able to graduate in two years instead of the three to four I'd initially calculated. I continued to work full-time and managed to stretch my schedule by cutting out most free-time activities. I also tended to eat more prepared foods rather than cook at home. While it took a lot of effort—like having to get permission to take a few required classes out of order and working part-time in an accounts payable team to have the field experience necessary to do so—I wanted to graduate within two years.
As mentioned above, my MBA program had (and still has) a maximum tuition fee per semester in place. Students enrolled now, for instance, pay $725 per credit up until 12 credits. After 12 credits, students save $725 per credit. There are other costs to consider that can add up as well. My program, for one, charges general administrative fees every semester. Take the "academic excellence" fee, which is asked of students to invest in school academics and research programs, need-based aid, and faculty. This fee is $750 a semester for part-time students and $1,000 for their full-time peers. It might help part-time students save money in the short-term, but it costs them more the longer it takes them to finish their degree.
Completing an MBA while working was one of the most stressful times of my life. I still had a job that required me to be on call and work weekends, which made it stressful fitting weekend classes into the mix. Once, a professor called me out for texting during an early Saturday morning class. Instead of messaging friends, I was responding to work emails about an issue that had come up during the hour I was in class and not able to be fully on call. I also found myself getting by on five hours of sleep to fit in all of what my job and program required of me. I tend to need eight to nine.
The most frustrating moment as a full-time student was when I decided to pay to have my laundry done, thinking it would free up extra time for school. It seemed like a good idea until about half of my wardrobe went missing at the dry cleaners. I was reunited eventually—and I went back to doing my laundry myself.
Over a few months and several midterms and finals, I traveled to five weddings across the country—two of which I was a member of the bridal party—and attended bachelorette parties, one of which I hosted. While hosting, I went out with friends until 3 am, crashed by 4 am, and woke for an 8 am commute to school to give a final presentation with classmates for a business communications class an hour later.
Fortunately for me, school, home, and work were all within 30 to 45 minutes of each other. At the time, I worked in an office where people tended to log longer than the typical eight-hour day. I often felt guilty for leaving early to make it to class, finding myself responding to work emails during my commute, in between classes, and sometimes even in class. When online courses were available, I saved time and the mental stress of leaving work before my colleagues did.
My online coursework could be done independently at my own pace. Mostly, it required me to watch videos, complete readings, take online quizzes, and respond to forums—all on my schedule. I still had to coordinate with my classmates to join calls or Google Hangouts, but I had a lot more flexibility. I needed it, too, with all the other things that were going on at work and in life.
I'll admit that some of my online classes were pretty easy, but I didn't seek them out for that reason. I wanted to learn and have the flexibility to do so on my schedule. A couple of my online professors assigned comprehensive projects to work on throughout the semester, two that I still refer to any time I want to put together a business or marketing plan. As for the others, I don't remember what I learned, which speaks to my limited effort.
During a few online classes, I never saw my professors or classmates face-to-face, online, or in real life. In others, our professors took the time to put together lecture videos, and we were encouraged (and sometimes required) to complete group work online and in person. Those who want to collaborate and form strong connections with others may feel isolated if they don't put effort into getting to know their professors and peers.
Will a part-time, full-time, online, in-person, or hybrid MBA program be best for you? With the increase in online MBA programs, your path to completing your degree offers with more possibilities than ever before. What matters most is that you choose a format that lets you complete your program feeling confident to make your way through your career—and wherever it happens to take you.
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