Darden Admissions and the Network of Executive Women (NEW) student organization recently hosted a virtual session featuring strategies and insights on balancing work, life and school while pursuing an MBA as a working professional.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on everything from when to pursue an MBA to engaging key stakeholders as you embark upon your MBA journey and more. The panel featured:

  • Christine McLean (EMBA ’18), Principal Customer Success Manager, Tableau
  • Aja Sae-Kung (EMBA ’21), Legal Counsel, Axiom
  • Olivia Brice (EMBA ’19), Senior Principal Success Architect, ServiceNow
  • Rachel Smolkin (Class of 2023), SVP of Global News, CNN Digital Worldwide

To review the full conversation, be sure to check out the recording of the session below, and read on for a few of our favorite highlights from the discussion.

Curious about how students seemingly manage to do it all? When it comes to balancing work, life and school, they rely on a few key strategies for making it all work. We’ve shared seven takeaways from the panel:

1.There is no perfect time to pursue an MBA. Instead, think about windows of opportunity. There will always be something competing for your time, and as we all know, life does not become less complex!

2. Take the next step. Going back to school can feel like a really big decision, but it doesn’t have to be. The decision to pursue an MBA is made up of lots of smaller decisions, and Breaking the process down into manageable steps will give you plenty of opportunities to check in with yourself along your MBA journey. In the words of our panelists, just take the next step. And then the next step. No matter the outcome, you will learn a ton about yourself, and you’ll definitely meet some interesting people along the way!

3. It’s not about balance. It’s about prioritization. “Balance” is probably an unrealistic aspiration for any working professional MBA student. However, prioritization is critical, and can be a powerful tool.

What is most important to you? This is a key question to ask yourself before starting an MBA program, but it is also an important question to reflect upon during your course of study. Your priorities may differ from your classmates’ – and that’s totally okay! Run your own race and focus on what is most important to you. If and when you encounter tough choices and make trade-offs during the program, it’s helpful to have your finish line in mind.

4. Priorities will shift throughout the program. Sometimes monthly. Sometimes weekly. Occasionally daily. The biggest challenge for any working professional student is that their most important commodity – time – is also their most limited.

You won’t be able to do everything all the time, and students learn quickly that there are some weeks when school is the priority. And there are other weeks when work and personal commitments are the priority. As a working professional student you will realize that nothing is unimportant, but everything isn’t equally important at all times.

Accepting these kinds of limitations (i.e. I can’t do everything, be everything, be everywhere, etc.) can be difficult for high-performing, high-achieving individuals (for example, MBA students) to accept, you’ll soon realize that this is part of the journey for every MBA student! Which brings us to our next point…

5. Asking for help is an important leadership skill. It’s fair to say that no one gets through an MBA program alone. That is particularly true for students who are working while also pursuing their MBA. It can be hard for very successful people to ask for help – after all, this is not something they may need to do in other areas of their life. However, a working professional MBA program will give you plenty of opportunity to practice this critical skill.

Believe it or not, asking for help is actually a common point of connection for students, and the culture of the Darden program is truly one of collaboration and support. All students are assigned a Learning Team of 4-5 classmates before the start the program, and these students freely offer their expertise and assistance to classmates. Everyone is progressing towards the same goal – graduation – and they want to make sure all of their classmates get there too.

6. Engage your support network early. And often. Once you know you want to pursue an MBA, begin talking with the important stakeholders in your life. Bring them into your MBA decision and help them understand why you want to take this step and what it will likely mean for your time and availability.

Highlight how you will grow and develop during the program. One of the big surprises for Darden students is that they not only become better employees, contributors, analysts, managers etc. as they pursue their MBA. They actually become better people, and the program experience affects how they show up in every phase of their life.

And, once you start your program, don’t just communicate, over-communicate. Check in often with your key networks – at work, at home, in your personal life. Share your Darden experience with them and say “thank you” as much as you can. Behind every working professional MBA student is a team of supporters who make it possible for the student to have this experience.

7. Give yourself some grace. Nobody is perfect, particularly not when doing something as challenging as a working professional MBA program. Focus on what you can control, and remember that there is value in everything that comes with the program – even the messiness. The program will push you, but it will also expand what you believe is possible for yourself. And that is the true power of the Darden MBA experience.

The session was the latest installment in an ongoing series of partner events between Darden Admissions and NEW. Join us for these women-focused events in April:

Q&A with Current Students
Co-hosted by the Network of Executive Women (NEW)
Wednesday, 13 April | 6:00 p.m. ET

Working Professional MBA Formats Virtual Women’s Chat
Co-hosted by the Network of Executive Women (NEW)
Thursday, 14 April | 12:00 pm ET