By day, Quinn Woodard Jr. is an electrical engineer at Chevron Corp. By night, he’s an online student pursuing his MBA at the Indiana University—Bloomington Kelley School of Business, hoping to accelerate his career and develop new skills.
The Bakersfield, California, resident usually wakes around 5 or 5:30 a.m. and prepares to head to the office or drive to the site he’s assigned that day. Woodard doesn’t have much time to study during the morning or afternoon – that’s typically reserved for after work a few evenings each week.
When he returns home, Woodard might attend a live class session through videoconferencing, work on group projects virtually with classmates or complete other assignments.
“I go pretty late sometimes, just depending on when things are due,” says the 28-year-old, who also plans to earn a master’s in entrepreneurship and innovation through a dual degree program at Kelley. “And then I kind of recycle for the rest of the week and plan out what I have to do.”
Currently juggling two classes, Woodard devotes several hours on weekends to catching up on reading.
For online MBA students, juggling a full-time job and an education is typical given the flexibility of online education, experts say. Many select this route to either move up in their field or change careers.
William Christiansen, MBA program director and finance chair at Florida State University, which offers an online program, says because online MBA students come from various backgrounds, including business, their familiarity with different course subjects varies. That influences how much time they devote each week to classes.
“Time management is the key to success with this,” says Tara Lall, an online MBA student at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “And I think that looks very different for everybody.”
Regardless, prospective online students shouldn’t expect a light course load. Sherry Dunbar, an online MBA student at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business and a senior director of global scientific affairs at the biotechnology engineering company Luminex Corp, spends at least 20 hours a week on her program, she says.
Many online MBA students say they adhere to strict weekly calendars – especially if they travel for work, as many do. Take 35-year-old Diana Sharpe, an online MBA student at FSU. As a business development manager for L’Oreal, Sharpe often meets customers over a 180-mile span from morning through dinnertime.
Enrolled in one course this semester, Sharpe typically blocks off a night or two each week to study at the local library or in her hotel, she says – plus at least half a day most weekends, depending on her workload. She also sections off time to spend with her three-year-old daughter.
“I could easily be dropping the ball on any one – either family, or coursework, or work,” she says. “But when I dedicate specific hours to each, I find it just much more manageable and easier to be 100 percent dedicated to what I’m doing at the time.”
That’s simpler to do in certain situations than others, online students say. Lall, the USC student, says that by juggling her education with a full-time job in applications marketing, she didn’t have much time to exercise – so she purchased a stationary bike desk to use while watching recorded lectures.
Whether an online MBA program requires students to virtually attend classes at predesignated times varies with the program, experts say – something to consider when looking into an option’s flexibility.
Sharpe, for instance, transferred from an online program that had such requirements, to FSU, which was more self-paced and worked better for her schedule, she says.
Despite their busy lives, many online MBA students still find time to network with classmates – a crucial step to build a business career. Lauren Crawley, an online student pursuing an MBA and a master’s in business analytics in a dual degree program at Kelley, says some online student groups hold regular networking events; one geared toward women in business, for example, is hosting a virtual happy hour.
“It’s just an integrated, regular part of daily life,” the 30-year-old says of networking.
Many programs also have in-person requirements or opportunities to travel – another factor a prospective student should consider, experts say. Woodard, the Kelley student, studied business in Cuba.
Dunbar, the Maryland student, says she used vacation time at work to attend a three-day residency on campus. Students participate in community-building activities and complete an introductory course.
She also says what she learns each week in class is almost instantly applicable to her job, and vice versa.
“It’s kind of uncanny that something will come up in a meeting at work, and then we end up discussing that in class the next night,” she says.