The Hardest Part Of An Executive MBA Program


Kevin Smith, Georgia Tech EMBA

Kevin Smith, Georgia Tech EMBA

Ask any executive MBA about the toughest part of the experience and you’re bound to hear words like these: Pressure. Sacrifice. Fatigue. While earning their degree, many professionals feel overwhelmed. At times, some wonder if they’re losing control. And many agonize over whether they’re losing touch with their families.

Indeed, the pace is unrelenting in an EMBA program. And sleep is a luxury, as everyone seeks that elusive balance between work, school, and home. “The intensity of brain power and energy it takes to work all day in an executive-level role and then come home and tax your brain most evenings with school is exhausting, yet exhilarating,” says Stacey Mueller, a recent graduate of Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management and member of Poets&Quants’ Best Executive MBAs of the Class of 2015. “But the fact that it comes to an end in less than two years made it manageable.”


Manageable maybe, but no less daunting. The executive MBA offers the best and worst of the business school experience. EMBAs, unlike their full-time peers, can continue to work and make money. Even more, they can immediately apply what they learn in class for a quicker return. But it can be a Faustian bargain. Think of an EMBA as a second full-time job. Suddenly, every moment matters. Rather than working with time blocs, you cobble together hours from commutes, lunches, late evenings, and weekends. That can take a toll on loved ones, first-and-foremost.

“The executive MBA . . . is an intense period in your life and one full of tradeoffs,” writes Flavio Palaci of IESE’s Global Executive MBA program. “Naturally, these tradeoffs extend to your personal life, and it’s very difficult when you miss important personal/family moments in order to fulfill and gain the best out of this learning experience.” Such tradeoffs often leave EMBAs with regret and guilt. “The hardest part of business school for me was sacrificing time with my significant other,” says Freddie Barela, a 2015 EMBA from Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. “While I worked hard to balance and juggle all of the great things in my life, I always felt like I was letting someone down.”

Arizona State's Scott Gates

Arizona State’s Scott Gates

For Arizona State’s Scott Gates, who worked as his company’s COO while earning his EMBA, family time sometimes got short shrift in his already hectic schedule. “We all enter the program with busy careers and social lives, and then we inject 20 to 30 hours of homework and 16 hours of classroom time. Those hours were not available in our schedules before we enrolled, and the only way we can accommodate the new demands is by making sacrifices in droves. For example, I routinely got only 4 or 5 hours of sleep at night just trying to keep up with all of my responsibilities. And, unfortunately, I lost a lot of weekends spending time with my family. There was many a Saturday where I found myself pushing away at a pile of homework when all I wanted to do was take my girls to the zoo or go for a family hike.”

An EMBA program doesn’t just alter family dynamics. It also recalibrates where and how students spend their free time. For example, Gates adds that his hobbies also went on hold. For the University of Minnesota’s Erin Dady, business school required her to curtail her social life. “I’m an extrovert who thrives off of happy hours with friends, family dinners, and large events. I had to put some of those social commitments on hold for two years.”


The requirements of business school often seep into students’ professional lives. Unlike school and family, where students have more leeway to make tradeoffs, in the workplace EMBA students are expected to excel regardless of how they spend their nights and weekends. Shanise R. Anderson of New York University’s Stern School of Business describes managing professional and academic deliverables as the hardest parts of business school for her. “I can recall one week late last year when I was responsible for creating and giving two presentations to C-suite management, one presentation for school, and studying for two finals,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, but I got through it!”

Anderson wasn’t alone. Peter B. Saba, who served as a general counsel during his EMBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, had to juggle school while leading his firm through bankruptcy reorganization. And the University of Chicago’s Sebastian Cerezo Montañez coped with both a son’s illness and a comprehensive turnaround at his company that included “collective dismissals, bank restructurings, plummeting revenues, rising costs, and fights between the shareholders.”

On the flip side, such struggles provide learning and growth opportunities, writes ESADE’s Shanmei Yu. “The hardest part of business school was working under huge pressure, especially in this EMBA program, while I struggled with my day job and was overloaded with homework and my family life. I had to be responsible for all of these things and sometimes I really felt helpless. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I survived and I grew.”

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