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Dubai airport: perfect spot for a study break?
Dubai airport: perfect spot for a study break? Photo by Richard Allenby-Pratt—Getty Images/arabianEye

Getting an MBA while you’re on the road: How to pull it off

Aug 28, 2015

Dear Annie: I’m interested in hearing what you and your readers think about my chances of getting an MBA without leaving my current job. It’s complicated because I travel so much, usually three or four days a week, all over the U.S. and Canada. My boss has been asking me lately if I’ve given any thought to grad school. He (and almost everyone else in senior management at my company) has an MBA, so it would probably help my career prospects here to get one too.

I know lots of B-schools offer online MBA programs, so I could take courses without having to be in one place, and my company has a generous tuition-reimbursement program, so the expense is not really an issue. But I don’t know how practical it is to plan on earning a degree while constantly traveling. Any thoughts? — Rhode Island Road Warrior

Dear R.I.R.W.: You’re right that studying on the fly will present some challenges, but it can be done. Lara Martini, who is Microsoft’s director of commercial markets strategy for Latin America, finished her MBA last fall despite traveling more than half the time. (In fact, when I spoke to her, she was at the airport in Miami, headed for Bogota.) “Travel is really the main reason most of my fellow students and I were enrolled in online programs,” she says. “People have become accustomed to working remotely, so this is really an extension of that.”

Martini has spent the last 18 years traveling for business—including, in previous jobs, stints in Europe and the Middle East. Earning an MBA took her about two-and-a-half years of course work and independent study, mostly in airports and hotel rooms. A willingness to be flexible helped. Martini sometimes had to delay return flights home, for example, to attend online classes in airport terminals where WiFi connections were better (and cheaper) than Internet access in the air.

“When you’re traveling is actually not a bad time to study, because so much of it is spent waiting around,” she says. “And earning an MBA while still doing your job is a much easier decision than taking two years ‘off,’ and giving up two years’ salary, which gets harder the further along you are in your career. If you look at it that way, the ROI for an online degree is much higher than for the traditional in-person kind.”

The ROI on MBAs overall, by the way, has risen recently. Median salaries for new MBA grads will surpass $100,000 for the first time this year. If you decide not to stay with your current employer, the degree may make you more marketable as well. About 84% of employers plan to hire more MBAs this year, up from 74% in 2014, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Those trends help explain why online MBA programs are increasingly popular. There are now 162 of them, almost doubling from 84 in 2007, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Almost half (43%) of them reported seeing more applicants in 2014 (the latest figures available) than the year before.

If you do decide to pursue a degree in your current job, Martini has three tips for you:

Choose the right B-school. Rankings from U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review rate online MBA programs by criteria that include faculty qualifications and admissions selectivity. (Martini’s alma mater, the Kenan-Flagler School at the University of North Carolina, which calls itself MBA@UNC, is top rated on both lists.) Something else you need to look for, since you’ll be on the road is “a school that makes it easy to get in touch around the clock and on weekends,” says Martini. “You will need to be able to reach someone, about changing the due date on an assignment, for instance, at odd hours when you might be far away in a different time zone. So don’t neglect to ask about that.”

Be ready to plan ahead—but not too far ahead. When signing up for classes, Martini suggests, “think about when you’re going to be able to set aside blocks of time for studying, whether that’s very early in the morning or late at night. But, once you’ve started classes, make plans in one- or-two-week intervals.” You probably don’t know your travel schedule any farther ahead than that, “especially if you have many unpredictable trips at irregular hours,” Martini explains. “So it really isn’t practical to plan, for instance, a whole semester at once. Take it week by week.”

Don’t skip any chances to meet classmates in person. Just like traditional in-person MBA programs, the online kind offers “invaluable chances to make connections,” says Martini. “I’ve helped fellow students find jobs, and they’ve helped me out in various ways. Business school really is a fantastic opportunity to network.” Almost every online B-school expects you to show up in person now and then. (MBA@UNC, for example, holds quarterly gatherings called “immersions,” and the school requires that students attend at least two before graduating.) “It’s not always easy to fit these into your travel schedule,” notes Martini. “But do go to as many face-to-face sessions as you possibly can, beyond whatever the required number is. You’ll find that getting there is definitely worth the effort.”

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve completed any online degree, how did it compare to a traditional in-person program? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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