For executive MBA participants, the flexibility to study part-time alongside a full-time job is a large part of the degree’s appeal. But balancing a return to school with a career is a daunting prospect for many, especially when family commitments are thrown into the mix.

Thandi Luzuka (pictured above) added an extra layer of complexity when she embarked on her EMBA while six months pregnant with twins. She enrolled at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in January 2020 and started a new job in a different industry and country while on the course. Luzuka, who is South African, was on maternity leave from a Cape Town investment company when she moved to Athens after starting the degree. She worked for the company from Greece alongside her studies, before joining Visa as a business performance director with a team in London and has recently moved to the UK.

“There are so many competing demands,” she says of the EMBA. “I’ve tried to achieve a sense of balance [but] that is elusive and stress-inducing. You feel like you never get to stop and there’s a lot at stake. It’s a lot of pressure and very little sleep. That takes a toll.”

Luzuka suspended her studies between January and May this year because although she had persisted with online classes after coronavirus had forced a switch to them, she found they did not suit her. “At first, it was a blessing in disguise because it meant I didn’t have to travel and could be close to the kids,” she says. “But the magic of the in-person experience was difficult to replicate online.” She remains on course, however, to finish in October 2022.

The pandemic has added to the pressures of an EMBA for participants. “It’s always been that way, but the difficulty was certainly amplified during Covid,” says Kelley Martin Blanco, senior associate dean for EMBA and global programmes at Columbia Business School in New York.

The self-selective nature of EMBA courses means attrition rates are usually low. But last year, some Columbia students were made redundant and could not finance their studies, while a larger number (about 10 per cent) than usual put their studies on pause or extended the programme to catch up on coursework. Blanco puts this down to the switch to remote teaching, travel restrictions and fears of infection, along with an increase in demands at work or caring responsibilities at home.

The change means career support has become more of a focus for EMBA course directors. “We are seeing more students transition into different careers,” says Blanco.

Arnold Longboy, executive director of recruitment and admissions at London Business School, says that although EMBA applications for this year have held up, the yield is down. “Fewer students are accepting their offers and starting the course,” he says, pointing to a drop in employer funding as one reason. “Students who typically would get funding are finding development and learning budgets have been cut.” The school has addressed the funding gap by increasing the scholarship pool for EMBA candidates by 55 per cent this year. Longboy says, previously, most funding was reserved for full-time participants without an income.

One positive outcome from the upheaval, he says, is that EMBA participants have become more resilient. “Success in an EMBA is about flexibility and being open to ambiguity. It’s about taking these setbacks and learning from them and growing,” he says.

The ziggurat at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School
Dreaming spire with an edge: The ziggurat at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School © Nikreates/Alamy

These qualities are something HEC Paris looks for in EMBA applicants. “It’s an important element of the admissions decision,” says Andrea Masini, the business school’s associate dean. “We check whether the candidate understands the challenges of an EMBA and that they have the support of their employer, which is critical to success in the programme.”

Good planning is vital, says Masini: the EMBA is a marathon, not a sprint. “The programme offers more opportunities than participants can possibly process,” he says. “I invite them to identify the courses and experiences most relevant to them and say no to the rest.”

Kathy Harvey, associate dean of MBA and executive degrees at Oxford Saïd, says students have been a key source of support and have worked hard to create a sense of community, even during lockdown, with virtual social events. “The camaraderie is really important amid the uncertainty and disruption of coronavirus,” she says. “These are very competitive people, but the important thing is that they work together.”

Another important part of the school’s support network is its executive coaches, who help participants clarify and achieve personal and professional goals, and act as a sounding board. “Coaching is seen as quite a bespoke development tool in the corporate world, so to offer it as part of an EMBA is a big advantage,” says Harvey. “We do increasingly talk about the importance of self-care to professional success.”

At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, students who feel overwhelmed can speak to a qualified mental health professional for help. “On average, we might lose one or two EMBA students each year due to high levels of stress,” says Karen Courtney, Fuqua’s associate dean of EMBA programmes and global teams.

She emphasises the importance of support from a partner, noting that embarking on an EMBA is a joint or family decision for many participants. Fuqua offers opportunities for partners and families to come to campus to meet the cohort. “The events provide wonderful opportunities for families to feel involved, connected and stay committed,” says Courtney. “That’s so important because an EMBA is such an enormous undertaking.”

Luzuka has no regrets. “It’s extremely challenging but, having gone through it, it makes me feel like I can do anything,” she says. “The difficulties of an EMBA are nourishing in their own right.”

Thandi Luzuka’s tips for participants

  1. For those with young children, seek out childcare, whether from family or a nanny

  2. Get creative with your time: consider studying at lunch or on the commute to work

  3. Instead of multitasking, carve out specific time for work, study and family commitments, and be strict

  4. Connect with classmates going through similar challenges for advice and support

  5. Do not be afraid to ask for a deadline extension from school, or an afternoon off work, if you are feeling overwhelmed

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