How family-friendly is an MBA program?

BY Shannon FitzgeraldJuly 14, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Pursuing your MBA once you are a working parent might feel technically possible, like organizing the D-Day landing at Normandy. But in reality how doable is it to pursue an MBA while juggling the rest of life?

Thanks to a variety of options, such as part-time or online programs, an MBA can actually be somewhat family-friendly. Though some parents are able to undertake a full-time program, including single parents, the majority of MBA students with children likely have a partner and continue to work, pursuing their degree in a part-time program. It’s not easy, but there are some silver linings to getting your MBA as a parent. 

When Zeeshan Mokarim started in the University of California, Berkeley’s weekend MBA program in 2014, his daughters were 5 and 6 years old, while his son was 8 months old. On the evening of his graduation from the Haas School of Business three years later, his father stood to toast Mokarim’s achievement. “Your name is on the degree,” he said. “But at least half of the credit goes to your wife.” 

It’s a family affair

Parents who pursue MBAs stress the importance of getting partner buy-in because it truly is a family affair, and while the student’s life will change, so will that of his or her partner. Single parents will likely need a comparable support system.

The parent getting an MBA will not only be gone during class, but also for study sessions, group projects, extracurricular meetings, program-related events, and social functions—and some of these obligations pop up without advanced warning. When the MBA student is home, he or she will also be less available, likely studying or catching up on work. 

“There is no balance, this will mean they take on quite a bit of responsibility,” Mokarim, a supply chain lead in technology, says of the partners of MBA students. “You will miss birthday parties, you will miss family gatherings, but it will be worth it.”

If your children are old enough to communicate, you can (and should!) also get their buy-in because they will notice that Dad is not always there for bedtime or Mom can’t make every soccer game. Ashley Martin, a health care executive and mother of three boys, ages 10, 8, and 4, felt it was unimaginable to go back to school when her children were younger because she would miss milestones, like their first steps. 

Martin enrolled in Northwestern University’s Kellogg evening MBA program in 2019 and finished in 2021. “I do realize now that my children are older, they are fully aware I’m gone, whereas when they were babies, they would have had no clue,” she says of her decision to wait.  

But there’s a less-obvious benefit of being in school, as Martin has realized with her sons: “They are seeing me set a goal, I’m working to achieve it, it won’t be forever, and I hope that is more impactful for them. And I hope they remember that, versus me not being there for dinner or putting them to bed.” 

Indeed, parents who go back to school say they appreciate that they’re modeling values for their school-age children. Mokarim would save his lighter reading assignments to do in tandem with his girls. “I would sit with them at the dining table where they are doing their work, so they can see education is an important part of life. You don’t just go when you are 18 or 20 or 22 and then you are done.” 

It takes a village (to get your MBA)

Parents in MBA programs also benefit from their broader community. No matter how much more a co-parent, if there is one, takes on at home, parent MBAs cite the additional support of a larger circle as instrumental to success in an MBA program. That might include extended family who help with the kids, supportive work colleagues who accommodate your new schedule, and fellow parents who make sure your kid gets to ballet along with theirs.  

Community support includes your student peers. Particularly in a part-time program, where students are typically a few years older and employed, everyone is juggling full lives. The group-work emphasis allows for the ebb and flow of effort and participation among individuals in the group. At Haas, Mokarim says, it was understood “there will be times where you have to depend on your other teammates, and then they will depend on you.” 

When considering schools, Martin understood that in an environment of high achievers, it was important that she choose a program with a supportive, and not a cutthroat, culture. “I feel like I can be my authentic self, and I can say, ‘Guys, I have soccer, any chance we can move this time?’” She describes the default attitude among peers as cooperative and accommodating. “I don’t feel nervous or like I have to hide the fact that I have children.” 

For parents looking at B-school programs, talk to as many current students and alumni as you can to get a true sense of the culture and if it will be a place where you can succeed amidst your other commitments, not in spite of them. “You want to ensure you will be happy there and that you will have the benefit of that network after school,” Martin says.

Networking: Should you go to happy hour this month?

Everyone knows networking is the intangible asset of an MBA program. Otherwise, you’d just sift through accounting-based valuation on your own time. Even so, when planning to start an MBA program, parents tend to focus much more on the known quantities like classes and studying as they strategize their time management and less on the social opportunities, extracurricular activities, and events that will also be a part of their program. 

“Ignorance is bliss,” Mokarim says, laughing. “Going into the program you don’t know what to expect and that you need to make time for these things.” 

Martin and some other parent students saw an opportunity when they started at Kellogg, which had an established parents club only for full-time students. They started the Evening & Weekend Parents Club at Kellogg, connecting all the parents in the part-time program, partnering with other clubs, like Women in Business or their full-time counterparts, for certain events, and also serving as a resource for part-time students who are about to become parents.

The members of Kellogg’s E&W Parents Club compare notes on professors or a class’s workload, but also crowdsource for advice on family museum memberships or share babysitter recommendations. 

Making it work: It starts with a shared calendar

A shared calendar with all the school and family commitments goes a long way. However, parent MBAs find even more ways to minimize a program’s disruption and maximize its opportunities. 

Like the homework he did with his daughters, Mokarim saved case studies for side-by-side reading with his wife, an avid evening reader. Martin began taking public transportation to work when she started at Kellogg, converting two hours of driving into study time. And when she’s at class in the evenings, her husband and sons are tackling the catalog of Marvel movies, “which is of zero interest to me, but it’s their thing,” she says. “That’s been a fun thing to see them create their own dynamic while I’m doing school; so he’s supporting me by coming up with their own traditions and routines.”

Start now

Parents who pursued MBAs emphasize that not only can it be done, but there’s no “good time” to do it, which is actually good news. “I wish I had done it sooner,” Mokarim says. 

There will never be that right time, Martin adds. “But I would just reassure someone, ‘If this is something you truly want to do, you have a family, you can make the time, and it’s definitely achievable.’” 

The bottom line is, go and don’t look back.