Surfing the learning curve

There are some big differences between studying for an MBA and for a first degree, or indeed between an MBA and other forms of postgraduate degree.

One difference is that for a large part of the time you are learning as a member of a mutually supporting or self-help group rather than by solidarity study. This is to a large extent true also of distance- or open-learning and the faculty will encourage you to form such a group with people living near year. The other big difference is the sheer amount of work involved on an MBA programme. If you have done a first degree you will be aware that it is quite possible, if you are fairly bright, to get a good second or even first without a huge effort and without attending boring lectures or those held too early in the morning or too soon after lunch. This is simply not the case with the MBA. The work keeps on coming at you in the form of reading, preparation for group and individual assignments and case studies, as well as actual lectures. The universal opinion is that if you don’t keep up with it all, you are soon left hopelessly behind. It is not something you can put aside and swot up on at critical points.

So what happens if you are ill or if, as happens with part-time or distance-learning programmes, you simply get swamped with the demands of your day job? Your first line of defence in that case is the self-help group mentioned earlier. "We try to see that no one fails," is a widely repeated comment, and members do help each other with lecture notes and with coaching if one individual in the group misses a class or preparation for an assignment or has difficulty in an area where another has experience and expertise. It is for this reason that many schools are extremely reluctant to give exemptions to those who, because they already have a professional qualification in a particular field, see no reason to take that part of the course – besides which, experts often discover they knew less than they thought they did when challenged by an intelligent fellow student from another area of endeavour. Finding out that they knew less than they thought they did about their own subject is a reaction reported by many MBA students.

On distance-learning programmes, too, your tutors should be able to advise and help you in these circumstances – provided, of course, you tell them what is going on. With the increasing flexibility of programmes, your tutor might, for instance, suggest that you drop out of that part of the programme temporarily and join another group at a later date.

However, the heavy work commitment right from the start of the programme does give rise to a number of suggestions from students in the light of experience and in some cases with the wisdom of hindsight:

  • Brush up on knowledge and develop computer skills before you start. The knowledge area that is most often quoted is statistics. Keyboard skills are the other important technical thing to develop. There are plenty of people around business schools who will spring to your aid with software problems – indeed many of the schools have a helpdesk in their computer suite – but no one can help you churn out pages of word processing, although, in fact, there is more to it than that. Students report that the appearance of your written work also matters. You get better grades for a well-laid out, attractive-looking document than for one that simply consists of slabs of indigestible-looking typescript. It has also been noted that case studies, a key part of the learning process on MBA programmes, are being increasingly presented in a form that presupposes considerable familiarity with IT skills – most notably online.

  • Don’t underestimate the workload. It has been suggested that students taking a distance-learning MBA should think in terms of 12-15 hours per week of study, in other words an additional day and a half per week over and above your daytime job. If you have a partner or a family, make sure they know and will go along with what you are letting yourself (and them) in for. They will not be seeing much of you until you have completed the programme and if you need to give them some of your quality time, make sure you all agree with the agenda for that and for the time and space you need for studying. Some spouses say that MBA stands for “Married but away”.

  • If you are on some form of part-time or distance-learning programme, make sure that you get at least moral support from your employer and your immediate boss. This is obviously somewhat easier if they are sponsoring you, but it by no means follows automatically. On the contrary, there is a disturbing amount of anecdotal evidence that employers are not as understanding as they should be about the need to go easy on your workload at times – especially before examinations – or about the logistics of attending a part-time course, such as the fact that you may have to leave the office early on certain days of the week, especially if you have some distance to travel. It is therefore a good idea to get your immediate boss, as well as his or her superior, involved by encouraging them to visit your chosen school on an open day. Many also advocate that you should endeavour to enlist the support of a company mentor or personal champion during your course.

  • Before you sign up for an MBA programme, consider how it will fit in with your career and with what you know of your employer’s plans during its duration. Are you likely to be relocated or moved to another job which could clash with your studies? Is the person who is championing you likely to go on being able to do so?

  • If you have any personal commitments, such as fixing your flat or your car, attend to them before you start. You will not have the time thereafter until you have completed your course.

Source: Adapted with permission from The Official MBA Handbook,

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