Online and executive MBAs are becoming more common and widely respected as more professionals balk at the hefty price tag of regular degrees, and the opportunity cost of leaving a cushy job.
With many employers also supporting tuition reimbursements, and colleges becoming better supporting their online students, this is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
However, it can get lonely and many online students do not fully leverage the opportunities of an online MBA and often feel a little disillusioned at not being able to attract the networking groups that traditional in-person programs offer. All articles on how to make the most of an MBA seem catered towards those who have the luxury of doing their courses full-time.
So here are top 5 tips to help you make the most of your online MBA. If you are taking any other online degree, then fear not, these techniques still apply.
Why are they “secret” ? Because no one ever tells you, because “everyone” is supposed to know. But students never do, until its too late to do anything about it… So without further ado, here are the tips to maximize your online degree or MBA program.
- Time Management.
- Go beyond the minimum required coursework.
- Leverage LinkedIn to forge better connections.
- Tell your manager.
- Showcase your skills.
What makes me qualified to talk about online degree programs? I am 80% complete through my online MBA while holding a full-time job, and maintaining ~3.6 GPA. Received A/B for almost all my classes. Despite not taking any classes last summer, I am on track to complete my MBA in less than 20 months, since I started in Aug 2017. A lot of folks have asked me this question, so I figured a post might be helpful to others who don’t know me personally, and looking for the same info.
1. Time Management
If you are working full-time and/or have a family, then one of the first things you will notice is that you are pressed for time. BIG TIME. Do not worry, this is a skill you need to master as an MBA, and future manager. You will have to juggle and excel at working on multiple (and often conflicting) priorities, so it is best you learn this well now.
To me personally, studying was easy, finding time to do it was incredibly challenging. So how can you cope?
- First make a list of your daily routine. Include office hours, commute time, travel plans, kids’ activities, etc.
- Now assign time for studies. You may find that you need to delegate some stuff to your partner, older kids, or give up some items altogether. Or you may realize that taking 2 courses per semester is a stretch.
- Get creative. If you commute by train, can you read on the train. If you commute by car, there are software programs that can “read” textbook content as audio files, so you can listen in your car. Do you need to block 2 hours in the weekend when someone else can look after the kids, so you can head to the library to study in silence?
- Some employers are a little accommodating too. For example, one friend told me how his manager allowed him to book a huddle room for 2 hours per week, so he could sit and watch his class videos.
- I used to buy used bad-condition textbooks so I could literally tear off 10 pages of a chapter, and carry them around everywhere. So I could read while waiting in doctor’s clinics, connecting trains, once even in a serpentine queue in the post office. I had to bind these books before selling them back, others I donated. The “A” grades I received were worth the effort.
- Guard your time ruthlessly. Once you’ve found time for studying, do not use it for personal appointments, cleaning the house, getting a facial or any of the 101 things that we all have in our to-do list. Study time is for study ONLY.
- Create a calendar with deadlines for quizzes, discussions, papers due, etc. Keep additional deadlines 1 or 2 days before the due date, so you have buffer for completing them.
- Know the scores needed to make the grade. If your employer is paying partially or fully, know what is the cutoff. Some employers want a B+ or above, others will settle for a C or above. However, colleges also have a mandatory threshold for grad students, and you can go on probation or pay for recovery grade classes, if you receive less than Bs in too many classes.
- If your class allows, try to complete as much work in the first 2-3 weeks, so you have leeway to lose scores in the midterms and finals, which are typically harder. For my first class, I realized A-grade was scored at 95%! What????!! I lost 20 points out of 1000 in the first quiz itself, so I knew within 2 weeks that an A for that class was not possible. However, I did make it to a B (85%-95%) and thanks to an optional assignment, just scraped into the A-grade. Being familiar with your syllabi is crucial to get this done.
2. Go beyond minimum coursework.
This may sound ironical, given that finding time for regular work itself is challenging. However, you can still do it by being smart about your work and your time.
- For online discussions, if you have to post 2 peer responses, post 3. Most colleges have a smartphone app, so you can easily do this in small chunks of time (lunchbreak or waiting for a boring meeting to start).
- Look for responses that are completely counter to your argument, so you can really view the topic from a fresh perspective.
- Do try to work on at least a couple self-assessment Qs from the back of the chapters, and look it up on Google Scholar or regular Google. If in doubt, ask your teaching assistant or professor via email. Most of them will be delighted to help you understand.
3. Leverage LinkedIn.
This is no-brainer, but I despair at the people who still fail to follow it.
- Update your LinkedIn profile with the degree program you are pursuing. If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then for heavens sake create one.
- All major colleges have student groups, and alumni groups. Add yourself to both. Then contribute meaningful conversations, without spamming folks.
- A lot of professors, assistant professors and teaching assistants are also on LinkedIn. So connect with them, by adding a note about the class you took with them. Professors rarely refuse.
- Look for classmates and alumni who work in your industry/ company/ area, and invite them to connect. Make sure to add a note about being fellow alumni. Perhaps you could even ask them which courses they liked or found most challenging. Most folks are very generous on LinkedIn.
- Add your LinkedIn url (customize them please) to your signature, and add the link to all the emails and conversations you have in school. This includes introductions (every class will have this), posts. Don’t add to peer responses, if you feel hesitant, but definitely include in emails and group project conversations, etc. Online learning platforms don’t allow this very easily, so I had it pasted as a note on my desktop and manually added it to every introductory conversation. If this sounds creepy and self-pushing to you, let me add that I have completed 8 classes with 3.6 GPA and till date no one has ever called me out on it. The 50+ classmates who connected with me on their own, was totally worth it though.
- For introductions, read through what others are doing and saying. Even if they are not in your location, do say hi, and request to connect. You never know who will be able to help out whom. For example, I was able to connect 7 of my classmates from different courses (3 pairs basically) because they lived in same area, and 2 worked for the same company and location, without knowing each other. Many others have helped me understand concepts and with homework when I was struggling, and one motivated me via daily LinkedIn messages when I was feeling completely overwhelmed.
- Aim to connect with at least 5 people from each class. Plus, like all LinkedIn connections stay connected beyond the class. Send them hello for New year or Thanksgiving and congratulate them on role changes, birthdays and so on.
- If you work on folks for group projects, then do send them a request to connect beyond the class. These folks are at least a good source for skill endorsements and recommendations.
4. Tell your manager.
- Irrespective of whether your employer is reimbursing your course or not, do tell them about the course. Tell them your hopes and expectations from the course. Most of us do hope for a promotion, and salary hike, so having your manager in the loop helps.
- Do not tell your manager about your MBA as a threat; and definitely do not use it as a hostile negotiation tactic. Instead tell them that you are looking to improve your skills and how you hope your new skills will help you increase your value in the team. You may be surprised how happy your manager is with your proactive nature, and may even offer you additional projects to help you apply your skills.
- If possible, tell your manager before or during the application process itself, as they may be able to tell you about partner universities, or help you connect with others who have taken similar courses. My manager (at Nasdaq) did tell me about a great subsidized program, at a college right across the street, although I finally ended up joining a totally different program. However, he did introduce me to 2 amazing colleagues in unrelated departments who were also pursuing executive MBAs (diff university). Their tips helped me navigate my program more efficiently.
- Keep your manager updated about courses, so he/she knows how you are doing and all the fantastic skills you are picking up! You don’t really need to tell them exact grades if you don’t want too, but if you got good ones, TELL. Believe me, it will come up in conversations with his peers and seniors, and you will be glad to have a positive note worth sharing.
- Obviously, your work should be priority over the degree, since your pay depends on it. But should a problem arise, your manager at least knows you have other deadlines, and may help you when you are crunched during an important final. Don’t make it a habit of it, or your manager may question if you really should be pursuing the course, or if you really have the ability to take on additional responsibilities.
5. Showcase your skills.
This is crucial, yet I am amazed how many people never bother doing it.
- LinkedIn allows you to add courses, so add ones that will probably work as keywords. This is apart from your educational qualifications. For example, my profile lists data analysis, financial accounting for managers, and strategy management. As a strategy/risk analyst, these are quite relevant. This is aside from the MBA that is listed on my education section.
- You will be doing projects for courses, so add a summary in the projects section. If your classmates are on LinkedIn, tag them as well. This helps to boost your profile.
- This article from Udacity graduate Nirupama, has excellent tips on how to make the most of project-based courses. It was written for MOOCs, but translates very well for courses from online degree programs.
- Add skills. LinkedIn allows you to allow up to 50 skills, so make sure yours are the most relevant and important, from the perspective of your current role, and the role you want to get into. Plus, you can ask your classmates to endorse you for these skills, as they know firsthand that you worked to learn them during the course. Remember to return the favor to them as well. I normally endorse the top 5 skills, and ask them if there are specific ones that they want to bubble up to the top. (LinkedIn has some sort of algorithm, so the ones with the most votes, generally show up on top. You can re-order manually)
- Ask classmates to add recommendations.
- Ask professors/ teaching assistants to recommend you, if you did particularly well in class. I did have one professor who said he doesn’t recommend people on LinkedIn, since he has thousands of students, but he did send me a very nice email note, and agreed to serve as a reference source should I need one. Not ideal, but quite helpful.
Those were the tips that I found most helpful to ace my MBA, and hopefully should make the journey easier for you as well. So study well, and enjoy your program!