The real time commitment in earning an executive MBA

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 01, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

A “work hard, play hard” mentality is pretty challenging to maintain while completing an executive MBA program. Prioritization becomes key when trying to balance a 40- to 60-hour workweek in addition to 20-plus hours of studying.

Executive MBA programs are designed for experienced professionals—typically those who have worked for at least eight years and have served in a supervisory role. EMBA candidates usually remain in their jobs during business school since many of them will continue to rise in the ranks of their current organization or don’t plan to job hunt until after graduation. Life becomes a balancing act of work, school, and personal life.

“Every day is a tradeoff somehow,” says Leslie DeMoss, an EMBA student at the University of Chicago (Booth). DeMoss has twins who turn 3 years old in September 2021 and just started a full-time job with JPMorgan Chase after a decade spent with a Washington, D.C.–based defense consulting firm. “When you’re juggling a family, and a full-time job, and you’re trying to network, and school—something’s got to give.”

While no two EMBA candidates are exactly the same, they’re all determined, focused, and organized. Fortune spoke with several EMBA candidates to get their take on the true time commitment of earning the degree and how to stay balanced. 

Leslie DeMoss, University of Chicago (Booth)

Leslie DeMoss used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to start an EMBA program at the University of Chicago (Booth). It “seemed like the right time” for her with the outside world slowing down. She started Booth’s EMBA program online and now—living in the Chicago area—she is able to commute to campus for classes, which typically happen on Thursday nights, Fridays, and Saturdays. 

Days are long for DeMoss. She typically wakes up around 5 a.m. to get some work done early, and will bookend her day with more studying at night. She usually dedicates about 20 hours to 30 hours a week to EMBA-related work. 

“It’s definitely more than I thought it would be,” DeMoss says. “Everyone told me that the program was rigorous, and I feel like that’s a little ambiguous when you’re going into it.” 

A strong support system makes all the difference, though. DeMoss has a supportive spouse, boss, and classmates. She calls Booth’s program competitive, but not cutthroat. 

“Everyone wants to help each other out,” she says.

Brianna Day, Columbia Business School

Columbia Business School’s EMBA program requires a large time commitment, but Brianna Day came equipped with time-management skills that she honed as a former Division 1 lacrosse player for the University at Albany–SUNY.

In fact, the “teaming” atmosphere at Columbia is what drew her to the program. Day says one of the major benefits of Columbia’s EMBA is the way it sets up learning teams for students. Learning teams include four to six classmates who “help you navigate the experience” and provide time-management support. 

Day’s current employer, EY, has also been supportive. In order to enroll in the program, she had to secure a sponsorship letter from EY, which enables her to attend classes every other Friday and Saturday.

Day’s advice to prospective students is to really think about the networking opportunities an EMBA program offers. 

“It is absolutely a grind,” she says of the day-to-day aspects of the program, but adds that there’s a long-term goal. “If you put in the work now, it’s definitely worth your return on investment.”

Jay Roberts, University of Chicago (Booth)

Jay Roberts began his EMBA program at the University of Chicago (Booth) committing 30 to 40 hours per week on top of his already demanding full-time job, where he typically spent between 50 hours and 60 hours weekly. That lasted about four months until the second semester of his program began.

“That’s when I realized I needed to cut back and prioritize differently,” he says. “I can’t do everything, and I tend to take on too many things.”

The former naval officer and current consultant is based in the Washington, D.C., area. With a strong background in operations, Roberts was looking to sharpen his business acumen in other areas, like marketing and finance

Roberts still adheres to his military schedule, waking up each day at 5 a.m. He now limits himself to 20 hours of schoolwork per week, and prioritizes group work over individual assignments to make that attainable. Plus, he’s still working at least 55 hours per week.

“It’s very, very structured, and I make sure I hold myself accountable to the time frames I put out there,” Roberts says. He also has to factor in travel time back and forth to Chicago now that travel restrictions have eased.

The evenings after workdays Roberts devotes to schoolwork, though he saves one night a week to spend time with his fiancée. And often he forgoes socializing with friends to connect with classmates: “It’s healthy to have that still, but friendly outings every week isn’t going to happen anymore.”

Kimi Coy, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)

Kimi Coy used to live just down the street from University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)’s satellite campus in San Francisco, and would pass by banners advertising its MBA programs. At the time, Coy’s husband was in medical school, so there wasn’t a strong possibility of her going back to school full-time.

Now she lives in Atlanta and travels to San Francisco for her part-time EMBA program twice a month. To make it to class on Friday mornings, she takes the last flight out on Thursday nights. “That allows me to tuck my kids into bed and then head straight down to the airport.”

After touching down on the West Coast, Coy heads straight to her hotel for a restful four-hour night of sleep. She wakes up early Friday mornings to get in some calls for her full-time gig at IBM, where she serves as a sales leader. 

A full day of class starts at 9:30 a.m. West Coast time, followed by socializing with her fellow EMBA candidates. Before heading back to the opposite coast, Coy also has another full day of class on Saturday.

“The advice I would give anyone looking to do the program while managing a lot is: Plan. Plan, plan, plan,” she says. “It takes a village.”

Coy says she and her husband have the full two years mapped out on a calendar so it’s clear when she’s gone and he’ll need to be in charge of the kids. The time she spends at home—when she’s not doing her 20 hours of schoolwork per week—she tries to enjoy with family.

“It may seem overwhelming at first, and a ‘Whoa, can I do this?’ But believe in yourself and have confidence and set expectations,” she tells EMBA hopefuls.

Tasleem Rhemu, University of Chicago (Booth)

The time commitment in earning an EMBA differs among candidates, depending on their motivation, says Tasleem Rhemu, a University of Chicago (Booth) student. For example, someone who is more interested in academics may not spend as much time networking, and vice versa. 

Rhemu is there to experience it all, though. She does this by starting her days early, ahead of her full-time job, where she reports at 7 a.m. and stays until about 5:30 p.m. each day. In the mornings, she sends messages to classmates and makes business connections. 

Being based in London adds an extra element of planning for Rhemu. She’ll often use her lunch breaks to tune in to extra lectures, which her fellow students in the U.S. and Hong Kong can watch synchronously. In the evenings after work, Rhemu does schoolwork and plays netball, and her weekends are dedicated to spending time with her sister and niece. Rhemu encourages EMBA candidates to be clearheaded about why they are pursuing this degree.

“That helps a lot when you’re thinking about what sacrifices you’re making,” she says. “It does take a lot of time. You do lose out on time with friends and family. Unless you’re very clear as to why [you’re pursuing an EMBA], the sacrifices may not always seem worth it.”

Rhemu also spends extra time after class rewatching lectures to be sure her notes are in order, as she has dyslexia. That added effort is worth it, though.

“Anyone who wants to and really has a passion for either learning or making a change, or building that network, they can do it,” she reminds prospective EMBAs. “It’s not something that I’d say is beyond the reach of any of us.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.