5 tips to finish your MBA as a working professional

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Not every successful graduate student pursues a degree right out of undergrad. Many people with a master’s degree spend years – sometimes even decades – in the workforce before getting their master’s. Of course, most can’t afford to leave their careers and have to study while continuing to work full- or part-time.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s easier than ever to obtain a master’s degree as a working professional thanks to distance education programs, flexible work options and modern organizational tools.

1. Choose an online program

Online MBA degrees are arguably the most convenient and flexible options for working professionals. To start with, they provide a much looser schedule. Students have more flexibility to pick and choose an agenda that suits their existing lifestyle. They’ll also likely have an easier time meeting on-campus requirements than enrolling in a traditional, full-time program. Plus, online students are not limited to the higher learning institutions near them. A student in Montana, for example, has their pick of schools across the country and can receive a quality education without having to relocate.

An online MBA affords far more freedom than a traditional degree, but you will still have to prioritize. For instance, coursework isn’t exactly go-at-your-own-pace as you are still beholden to a scheduled syllabus and exams. Plus, you still need to balance school and work. This requires you to determine which is most important. There’s no right answer – your choice is entirely up to your current circumstances and future goals. Keep in mind, however, that prioritizing work and family to the detriment of school can not only hinder your academic progress but could also leave you unprepared for the advanced career you seek.

You might have reservations about enrolling in an online program, fearing your education won’t be as comprehensive as if you’d chosen to attend on campus. However, the latest research from the Online Learning Consortium found 90 percent of students believe online courses provide an experience comparable to or better than a standard classroom. In addition, according to the center’s 2015 Digest of Education Statistics, the number of graduate students enrolled in distance-education programs rose from 16.5 percent during the 2003-2004 school year to 36 percent the during 2011-2012 year.

Over-the-shoulder view of a woman sitting with a laptop, her hands on the keyboard.

2. Consider freelancing or flex hours

If your company allows it, consider asking for flex hours as opposed to a traditional work schedule. As the U.S. Department of Labor described them, flex hours allow workers to arrive at and leave work at different times. The exact specifications vary among businesses – some allow employees to work a set number of hours at any time of day, while others simply add a little flexibility around the beginning and end of a shift. For example, a company could require employees to work eight hours per day but only schedule them for six, giving them the freedom to make up the remaining two hours on their own time.

The freedom granted by flex hours gives you some leeway balancing your work and school life. Instead of driving to work during morning rush hour, for example, you can spend your breakfast studying, then avoid the traffic and arrive at your desk two hours later. Flex hours also improve your attitude toward your job, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review, which helps prevent burnout and can allow for peace of mind.

Alternatively, you can switch from a traditional job to being a freelancer. This way, you can truly work on your own terms and are not beholden to working eight-hour days just because of business traditions. If you can complete your work in six hours, you can stop without jeopardizing your job and focus on your studies.

The idea of self-employment might sound intimidating, especially if you’re out of college and already well-established in a traditional career. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, freelancing is more common among older workers than younger ones. In fact, rates of self-employment appear to increase with age. Adults 35 to 44 years old were slightly more likely to work for themselves than individuals 25 to 34, and so on. College-age students and recent graduates had the lowest rates of self-employment.

Still, you might be concerned that switching career hinders your chances of admission and your future career opportunities. However, as long as you have several consecutive years in business, you’ll likely have no problem getting admitted. In fact, becoming a freelancer might elevate you in the eyes of admissions staff and your future professors. Managing yourself is like managing a business, and it’s fair to say this feat might impress the school’s faculty. Also, being in control of your own freelance company while obtaining your MBA means you can apply the executive-level decision-making concepts you learn in school to your career immediately.

3. Limit travel for business

In examining the results of the National Household Travel Survey, the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded Americans take over 405 million long-distance business trips annually. Most of these travelers are between 30 to 49 years old and work in technical, professional or managerial fields. Though not exact in every instance, this is a profile similar to that of an older student achieving their online MBA while still employed.

Traveling for business is great for your career but not so helpful for your studies. If you’ve ever traveled for business, you know how much it hinders productivity for the day. Your working hours are cut dramatically, and it’s not uncommon to lose an entire day. No matter how well you prepare, it’s almost impossible to get work done during the act of travel itself. Even if you bring a laptop and try to get work done on a plane, you can’t use the device during check-in, security, takeoff, landing or commuting to and from the airport.

Furthermore, according to the DOT, the majority of business trips are taken by car, eliminating the idea of working while traveling altogether. Most destinations are within 250 miles of the traveler’s place of employment. At an average speed of 60 mph, a 250-mile trip takes slightly more than four hours.

A navigational app on a smartphone.

If these statistics sound all too familiar, you may be traveling too much for work to focus on your studies. Ask your supervisor if you can cut back on the business trips, perhaps by sending another person in your place or by hosting more video conferences. Enrolling in online courses makes it easier to obtain a degree as a frequent business traveler, but you still run the risk of being unable to access your computer during a critical time. Even little things like finding a place with internet access can be difficult when you’re traveling, making it hard to complete assignments and tests.

4. Keep yourself in line with tech

If you haven’t explored the world of productivity apps, now is the perfect time to start. These handy digital tools help you maintain order, keeping your documents up-to-date and sending notifications so you don’t miss important deadlines. Look for apps that sync through the cloud and are available across multiple devices – smartphones, tablets and even smart watches. This makes it easier to work in different environments.

For example, instead of using Microsoft Word or an online portal to type your homework, use the note-taking app Evernote. This tool is available for smartphones and tablets and through your browser, and each change you make is automatically saved and stored in the cloud. Therefore, you never have to worry about forgetting your term paper on a flash drive. If necessary, you can also type up assignments in Evernote on your mobile device while on the go, then copy and paste the text into your school’s online portal once you get back to your computer.

RefME is a great app for collecting and citing research. Simply download the app onto your mobile device, find a book with the information you need and scan the barcode. RefME automatically pulls the information it needs and cites the book according to the editorial style of your choice. The app also provides a Google Chrome extension so you can easily cite web pages.

5. Use your time creatively

Even if you use the previous tips to the best of your ability, there will still be moments where you feel like you have no time to accomplish anything. During these instances, you’ll have to do some creative multitasking. Catch up on your reading when getting your car fixed or while on an exercise bike. Take your dog to the dog park and bring your laptop to write papers – if you’ve done all the research ahead of time, then the lack of internet access will be beneficial in keeping you from getting distracted.
If you have children, get them involved. Ask them to teach you something they learned in school during the prior week, and then return the favor. It’s common knowledge that explaining things to someone else helps you retain information.