How Evening MBA Students Strike a Work-Life Balance

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Kayla at the John Lennon Wall in Prague

There’s no shame in having a few romantic ideas about graduate school. Maybe you’ll spend a few late nights pulling leather-bound tomes off library shelves. Maybe you’ll settle comfortably into a corduroy phase. You’ll probably argue yourself hoarse getting a word in edgewise with your classmates during a latte-fueled, post-seminar debate.

But an evening MBA is a different kind of graduate degree. Most of these candidates don’t enjoy the luxuries enjoyed by full-time students. Many are at work by 9 every morning and only call it a day after class dismisses at 10PM. Not to mention their family and community obligations, and, not insignificantly, the necessity of preserving their own mental health.

When you’re in school, what does it even mean to have a life outside of school? It can be a tricky question to answer. Haven’t you chosen to dedicate your non-working hours to classes, assignments and overall intellectual rigor because you’re looking to change something about the life you knew before going back to school?

There is no one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf solution for MBA candidates looking to strike the right work-life balance. The better you know yourself, however, the better you will be able to anticipate and account for the inevitable frustrations and complications that come with your academic commitments.

Kayla Kotara and Cristian Hernandez are both students in the Energy MBA program at Neeley. They come from different backgrounds but both define themselves in terms of passions and priorities. They each have their own reasons for wanting to earn an MBA and to advance their careers in the energy industry, but Cristian’s and Kayla’s experiences do overlap. And in those common areas, prospective MBA candidates can find answers for how to overcome the pressures (some of them self-imposed) of simultaneously being a business professional and an adult learner.  

Think long-term.

Cristian is the father of newborn twins. Kayla is a backpacker whose travels have taken her from Singapore to Poland and the Czech Republic. Both Cristian and Kayla made special efforts to research their graduate school options and understand what their obligations would be before applying. And both can testify to the importance of giving serious consideration to how their MBA will help them to achieve their larger life goals.

For Cristian and his young family, the timing was right. “My twins are my motivation to get my MBA so that I can make sure they have a great life,” he says. “Obtaining my MBA will help me grow in my career and may also help me transition into another industry if need be.”

Kayla was likewise looking to seize an opportunity but with some specific job-related needs in mind. “I signed with ExxonMobil Controller’s when I graduated with my undergraduate degree. My career will include rotations through many of the different business functions of ExxonMobil and likely many of the different parts of the energy supply chain — upstream, downstream and chemical,” she says. “Since I love the energy industry and knew my career roles in a diverse energy company would always be changing, I felt the energy program at TCU would best prepare me for my future.”

Be a part of a support network.

Your education may be your responsibility. But, in learning, you are never alone. Don’t be afraid to ask your family and friends for help, and be sure to let your loved ones know there are innumerable ways they can be supportive — one of which is giving you permission to say “no” every once in awhile.

Kayla recalled how her friends gave her GMAT study guides and helped review her admissions essays. Her parents helped prepare her for her interview. Cristian says his wife encouraged him to build upon his experience as a contract landman and supplement it with additional academic training.

The key is to accept help when it’s offered and to structure your schedule so that you don’t risk burning out any one member of your network. And remember, your MBA cohort is a big part of that network. Be agile and make provisions to reciprocate when your classmates provide assistance. As Kayla puts it, “We’re all busy, just in different ways.”

Take whatever assistance your employer offers.

Your boss can be a valuable ally in helping you earn your MBA. For Cristian, that means leveraging his flexible schedule. “If I need to work on something for school, I am able to take some time off to complete the school work,” he says. Kayla, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about spending school time figuring out how to pay for her degree because her employer, ExxonMobil, is helping to finance her MBA.

What aspects of your education can you “outsource” to your employer? You might be surprised. Make time to ensure your manager remains informed of what your MBA program demands of you, and be proactive about making adjustments and offering solutions should conflicts arise.

Know your limits.

Kayla’s track through the Energy MBA at TCU is accelerated. In addition to work, travel and the upkeep of her backpacking blog, she’s also taking 36 credit hours in 12 months. Such an aggressive schedule isn’t for everyone. But Kayla knows she thrives when she’s overwhelmed.  And, through her travels, she’s learned she does best when her explorations lead her to confront challenging circumstances.

Cristian’s progress through the MBA is more “staycation” than adventure. He is gradually working his way through his coursework. “I am taking six hours this semester. Next semester, I am taking seven and a half hours.”

Different as their schedules are, both Cristian and Kayla offer examples of acknowledging and respecting personal limits. Be realistic about your habits and recognize what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past. Don’t torture yourself thinking that there’s an ideal timeline you have to stick to in order to avoid complete failure. If a schedule feels arbitrary or designed for someone else, trust your intuition and work at the pace that feels right for you.

Block out your time.

Your time is valuable. Your daily calendar provides one of the best ways to communicate to yourself just how valuable your time is. As soon as you get your hands on your course syllabi, translate that information into calendar format. Record your due dates and see how they line up with other deadlines. Blocking out your time by the week, day and hour will save you when things get hectic.

Kayla credits her experience with travel itineraries with motivating her to pay close attention to time management. “I have class Tuesdays and Wednesdays this term, and I also have a weekly Thursday night commitment,” she says. “Sundays and Monday after work are the days I dedicate to school work and preparing for the week. I also frequently use my lunch hour as a time to read for class. Always having that time set aside means I can be fully prepared for class each week.”

Cristian is already taking measures to balance his work and school commitments for next semester. “It will be interesting to see how the extra 1.5 hours affects my schedule,” he says.

Work hard, but make sure to reward yourself for your hard work.

When asked how he juggles all his responsibilities — managing oil, gas and mineral rights and corralling all the associated paperwork as a landman; raising twin baby girls; and being a loving husband — Cristian says he follows his own advice: “Keep your head down and keep working.”

Kayla admits that to “leave Fridays and Saturdays for fun” is an essential part of her weekly plan.

Whether fun for you means playing with your kids, backpacking, firing up the endorphins with a good long run or even taking a “power nap,” fun is not something school should make you give up. If anything, school should, like any other worthy endeavor, give you a new appreciation for those pleasures and help you to reach a new understanding of how they are like investments — resources for you to allocate and cash in with care.

Want to learn more about the unique career advantages offered by TCU’s evening-only MBA? You can request more information about our program offerings and begin your application by visiting the Neeley School of Business website.

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