“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
– Albert Einstein
An MBA is a huge investment. Taking a year or two out of work to study in an environment with like-minded professionals is a vastly different experience than that of an undergraduate course. MBA students face new challenges and experience pressure on an entirely different scale. As a result, they often need to develop entirely new methods of stress management.
I graduated with an MBA from Hult Boston in 2015. Having grown up, studied and worked in Brisbane, a large but low-populated city, at age 24 I found myself sinking into a professional and social comfort zone. I decided I needed a change of environment. I felt the need to travel, but didn’t want to spend my time in jobs that didn’t match my career ambitions. I’d always considered an MBA for professional reasons, and now I had nothing to lose. Boston became my home for a year.
I knew this journey would present lots of challenges: making new friends; staying in touch with old friends; staying in touch with family; staying healthy; managing a student budget; learning to cook; understanding the accent, the local sense of humour and slang, etc. On top of these hurdles, I had three key points of pressure: making sure I got good grades; making connections; and getting a job after graduation. I’d always have these at the back of my mind when approaching exam time, the most stressful part of the MBA lifecycle.
As the course progressed, it became clear there were particular variables in my control which could make my conditions of study more conducive to valuable learning. I found that developing a routine tailored to my strengths and study preferences helped me manage these pressures. A typical day would look like this:
6am to 7am: Exercise
8am to 12pm: Study session one
12pm to 1pm: Lunch break
2pm to 5pm: Study session two
6pm to 7pm: Group meeting
7pm to 9pm: Relaxation (often watching TV with laptop in front for networking activity)
9 to 10pm: Look over notes from the day
Discovering my ‘study style’ meant I was better prepared to manage the stress inherent in an MBA. Here are some tips for discovering a study style of your own.
Swap it, don’t stop it.
Part-way through the course, I learnt that I was a procrastinator. Much of my procrastination arose from not having a steady plan, and often involved watching YouTube videos, spending time on social media, texting, eating, and performing low-priority tasks. But there were non-study habits that I didn’t want to compromise on, such as cooking and exercising: genuinely beneficial activities important for well-being.
I decided to employ the philosophy ‘swap it, don’t stop it’. Rather than compromising on the stuff that made me more productive, I would build non-study activities into my schedule, and essentially replace the habits that destroy my productivity. I set an agenda which included healthy habits such as cooking nutritious meals and exercising. These activities provided a break from my studies and stimulated my productivity. I also began to turn my phone onto airplane mode to minimise distractions during study sessions.
Stick to a schedule
One of my coursemates was adamant that he studied better at night. He’d sleep in ‘til midday on study days and arrive at the library after lunch to join the rest of the cohort – who were already half-way through their day of work. He’d then stress out because he’d feel behind schedule, and would have to work late whether he liked it or not. This stress would lead to further procrastination on YouTube and social media. By evening, he’d be super panicked, but would nevertheless repeat the same routine the next day. One day it got so bad that he slept in and arrived half-way through an accounting final.
Graduate school is not a place where you want to be panicked. Even if you’re a night owl, make sure you're prepared to make all of your appointments and make special preparation for assessments and exams.
Manage your environment
I’m a big believer that your environment impacts your capacity for learning. But before you can make any adjustments, you have to figure out what works for you. If you work better in a study group, choose a group of people whose style reflects your own. If you’ve tried working with others but find you’re better suited to studying alone, play to your strengths.
I personally need peace and quiet when doing creative tasks such as writing, reading or conceptualising. I prefer to discuss more technical work with teams of people because brainstorming allows me to understand the deep-rooted logic behind these sorts of concepts. With this in mind, I would typically work from home in the morning, since my mind is more in tune with creativity in the early hours. I would head to the library after lunch to tackle the more technical subjects, often with prearranged study groups.
All in all, I believe the most valuable lesson is to know yourself, your environment and understand your strengths and weaknesses. It pays to be attentive to the study style that suits you. With this awareness and a conscious routine, you’ll be on top of your the pressures of your MBA programme. Best of luck!