Sarah Stuart's 2014 Blog

Sarah Stuart, an MBA student and former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, reveals the challenges of the programme in a weekly blog.

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How to survive an MBA

05 November 2014

Russell wrote last week to say he's signed up for next year's MBA and could I please supply some survival tips. I think I know how he feels.

This time two years ago I was in a state of high panic, thrilled I had quit my job for two years of freelance work while I aimed for my first degree; terrified that I wouldn't be able to do it, having left school at 16.

It's difficult to remember now just how scary that was. I think I felt that if I put in enough work, anything was possible, unless I just didn't understand what anyone was talking about. That was the real concern.

So Russell, here's what I've learned about how to get by. Others will have different ideas and priorities. I know most of the engineers in my class sweated the writing and breezed through regressions. I thought my writing skills would help me succeed, but was swiftly relieved of that belief.

Making friends with your colleagues early really helps - you'll need them for motivation when the going gets tough and someone is always better at a subject than you are.

Ask for help.

Here are my top six tips for surviving an MBA. Ignore them at will.

1. Never drink the night before an exam.
It was Economics, a subject I thoroughly enjoyed but one that required all of my concentration. As social history it was incomparable, and our lecturer, Professor Tim Hazeldine, rewarded clever answers with muffins. I, however, turned up to the final exam tired and emotional. A friend's birthday the night before was not the right event for a 9am, three-hour written exam. I had left behind most of my notes. I had to ask for a pen. That was the longest Saturday morning of my academic life. I wrote like my life depended on it and only later did a fellow student point out the word limit on each question. I overwrote by hundreds of words - and sweated it until the marks came through.

2. Always re-read what you've written at 3am.
Finishing assignments in the middle of the night is one of my specialties. Not re-reading them the morning before submission is a mistake. That brilliantly original idea discussed in language both readable and insightful, but with an extra spark of your own literary genius, is usually a genuine mess next day. A 6am rewrite is always a good idea.

3. If you don't get it, get a tutor.
I dabbled in tutors for Accounting but, when that penny dropped, I needed them no more. In Finance, they were a help. In Quantative Theory, they helped me scrape through with a B. Best $20 per hour I ever spent despite their disdain. Give up your daily coffee to pay for one if that's what it takes.

4. Let your kids see you studying.
There has to be payback for all the family fun times you're missing. If you have children, this is it. Watching their mum or dad enslaved to their laptops and buried in textbooks is a great example of how hard work can lead to a better life (or at least general dissatisfaction with your current one). This may be the only time you're a proper role model.

5. Clever writing doesn't cut it.
I nearly cried after I got the most average of marks on my very first assignment - a Management paper that should have been right up my career alley. But that was the best first semester lesson I could have got. I realised that a sweet intro and clever little summary weren't going to cut it. Content, alas, really is king. There's no clever way to disguise not knowing what you're writing about. You have to put the work into the research, really read the academic literature and allow time for your own critical thinking. There are no short cuts.

6. When motivation is low, just plough on.
Each year I've hit a low spot, a period of three or four weeks when everything seems too much, when work is in the way of study and nothing is jelling. Last year that came three quarters of the way through the course, not in Supply Chain (which I was ready to loathe but found I loved) but at the beginning of Strategy, where the frameworks all blended into one and I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what there was to learn.

This year it's come at the very end, when finishing the two-semester research project seems impossible and all I can think of is The End when I'll be able to read a novel again at night.

Both times, ploughing on is the only course of action available. Last year the fog cleared and I got one of my best marks. This year, I'm hoping for the same. I'll let you know how I get on.