12 Survival Lessons for Going Back to School While Working

Consider these lessons before going back to school while working.

My first semester of the MBA program at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) has ended. I received an A in Management 518: Legal Environment of Business and a C in Accounting 510: Financial Accounting. Fortunately, these grades even out to provide me with the 3.0 average necessary to stay off academic probation.

For all of you ambitious, tenacious ladies and lads out there whose goals include getting your MBA or going back to school in general while working full-time, take note of what I learned:

1) Even if you liked school, MBA classes are work.

I’ve always found school and college to be relatively easy. Sure, I had to put the work in, but as long as I went to class, paid attention and did the work, good grades came easily.

In addition, I was really looking forward to the MBA program. I was eager to learn about subjects like accounting and finance that have been so foreign to me throughout my journalism career. I like to broaden my horizons and learn new subjects, so with that kind of attitude, graduate school wouldn’t be any different, right?

Wrong. Going to school part-time while working full-time is a lot more demanding than going to school full-time and working part-time.

In college, I could do some studying during my part-time jobs. I lived on campus and could walk everywhere I needed. Plus, it didn’t matter if I showed up to class still reeking of alcohol from the previous night.

Now, I can’t do any studying at my job. I have a one-hour commute to class each way, and I would most likely be fired if I routinely smelled like booze.

2) Some classes you just won’t “get” no matter now how positive your attitude is toward it.

As I said, I was looking forward to learning accounting because of how integral and practical it is to any business. It was clear, however, after the first test came back with a D that accounting would be an uphill battle.

“OK,” I thought. “I just need to study harder for the next test.” So I did. What was the next grade I received? Another D.

Ouch. There were only three tests. Still, I studied the best I knew how for the final test and finally received a C, which brings me to my next point …

3) Even if the final outcome for your MBA classes seems bleak, keep pushing.

I was sure that I was going to get a B in business law and a C in accounting. So, believe me, the temptation at the end of the semester to take the “why bother?” approach to studying for the final exams was high.

But I resisted the urge, buckled down and studied just as hard as ever. And it paid off because …

4) The professors have final authority.

Again, even if you think you know the outcome of your grades, your professors always have the final authority. How you interact with them, your classmates and your classroom ethics speak volumes. If they know you’re genuinely interested and trying, they’ll be more willing to give you a nudge if necessary for your final grade.

5) Never underestimate the power of showing up and being accounted for.

There will be plenty of times where you’ve had a long, stressful day at work and the thought of going to class makes you want to jam a pencil through your eye. Resist the urge to skip class.

The professors know that most of the students are working full-time, have families and other responsibilities, so by showing up, you strengthen your commitment to the class. It’s another small act that reveals your integrity.

6) Ask a lot of questions.

You’re in graduate school. It requires you interact with the class. The professors want to clarify your misunderstandings and share their expertise.

I admit, I had trouble asking questions in accounting class because I felt so out-of-the-loop sometimes, I wasn’t even sure how to phrase my lack of understanding. However, in business law class, it was easy to ask questions because it was built into the format.

Again, the more you ask and participate, the more it shows your commitment to learning. And that’s why you went back to school, right?

7) Help your classmates.

I could never have gotten through accounting without help from a few of my classmates, especially when it came to the final project for accounting. That monster literally took me an entire weekend to complete.

Plus, you never know when you’ll need notes or help with assignments if you have to miss classes for whatever reason. The more you help others, the more you’ll get help when you need it.

And not to overstate the obvious, but the more people you meet and help, the bigger your network grows. The larger your network, the greater your opportunities.

8) You have to rearrange your schedule to include study time.

I struggled with this quite a bit at the beginning and didn’t really get a new schedule down until close to the end of the semester. Make no mistake about it: Going back to school is an adjustment.

The big question was, “Where can I find more time?” The answer, for me, was: weekend mornings/early afternoons. Consequently, this also meant I couldn’t sleep in or have hangovers on weekends anymore. Technically, of course, I could – and did occasionally – but it made doing work 10 times less productive and inefficient.

9) You will stress a lot.

Just embrace the stress. School and work and projects and tests and friends and family will ensure your life will always be slightly crazy. So the sooner you embrace your new, wild schedule, the less it will gnaw at you.

What helped me the most was to stop thinking about the grades. Again, this was another trick I learned at the end of the semester.

I told myself that there were no grades and to focus on going to class, soaking up as much knowledge as I could, studying and then just doing my best on the tests. For the final tests, my mantra was, “grades don’t matter; learning does.”

Wouldn’t you know? I did the best on those final tests.

10) You will need support.

Your new, crazy schedule means you will have to cut back on something. An MBA program requires more time and energy than you ever anticipated, and you can’t do it all. Don’t expect yourself to. Instead, enlist help.

I am lucky to have Mr. Man who did an amazing job making sure our home still looked reasonable and we still ate healthy meals.

If I was still responsible for cooking and cleaning on top of everything else, I think Mr. Man would have been dead by the second month of the MBA program.

11) Sacrifices must be made.

As you may have noticed, I deviated from my posting schedule to gain more time to work on my final projects and tests. I had to make a difficult decision, and for now, work and school come before Tenacious Lee.

I also missed out on some really fun birthdays and other parties. I gave up more than a few Saturday nights to stay in and work on school stuff.

Just remember: The sacrifices are only temporary, and the payoff will be extraordinary.

12) You will feel an enormous sense of accomplishment when each semester is finished.

I still can’t believe I just finished my first semester of an MBA program taking on subjects like accounting and business law when I had no background in these areas whatsoever. Sure, I didn’t meet my goal to get a B in both of my classes, but at least I got a B average.

The joy of finishing something so mentally challenging and exhausting will give you a huge reason to celebrate.

The more difficult the goal, the greater the sense of achievement.

Have you gone back to school for your MBA or other degree while working full-time? What lessons do you have to share?

Other Updates

To further emphasize that “sacrifices must be made,” I’ve decided to cut back on my posting schedule to Mondays only. Now that I’m about to start eight weeks of torture known as Math 11: Business Calculus, I am anticipating that class requiring a ridiculous amount of my time and attention.

And in other happier news, happy anniversary to Mr. Man and me! One year ago today, we made our dream wedding come true followed by a dream honeymoon to boot!

This entry was posted in Career Goals, Goals, Life Lessons, MBA Goals, Stress Management Goals and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to 12 Survival Lessons for Going Back to School While Working

  1. Timory says:

    You are such an inspiration! Congrats on completing a challenging, yet satisfying (I hope) semester! Good luck with Math 11. Ugh … I would feel your pain, too, if I was about to take on a class like that. Love and miss you! Happy belated Anniversary!

  2. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Thanks so much, Timory! So far, business calculus is going OK, but today is my first exam, so that will be the real test (pun intended). Thanks for the anniversary wishes, too! I’ll be in touch … hopefully before business calculus is finished.

  3. Dimple Sharma says:


    This is my first visit to your blog. I must say, your article is truly inspiring. I am pursuing 1 year Fulltime MBA program from Europe. My goal was to do an MBA in 2010, but due to work load I did not get time to prepare. I managed to get a last minute admission, just a day before the program started. Time was too short, I was not prepared at all. Since the program started I am feeling very stressed out, though its a full time program and I am not working, it is difficult to read so much everyday.

    Your article inspired me to keep it going…….

    Thanks Again.

  4. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Thank you so much, Dimple Sharma! Yes, it is a lot of work. After the first semester, I actually decided to leave my MBA program. If you really want it, I know you’ll make it happen. If you don’t, there’s absolutely no harm in recognizing that it’s not for you. Good luck no matter what path you take!

  5. Larna says:

    Hi Laura,
    I just came across this post while looking for info on what happens if you get a “C” in an MBA program. Like you, I just received the awful news I of a C grade in Acct. It’s awful because it’s one of the first classes in my first quarter of the program. You’re right, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it, if you just don’t get it! And obviously I didn’t. I do regret putting so many hours into it though– it didn’t occur to me that perhaps the evaluation system of the professor is outdated and really poor, putting so much emphasis on testing and very little in all the other work done individually and in teams. Anyway, I’m trying really hard not to freak out because I think that in order to make that up I would have to get an A in all of my new classes. And as you know, “A’s” are very rarely given.

    So I want to ask you, how did you deal with that C and also, why did you decide to leave your program after the first semester?

  6. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Hey Larna,
    Sorry to hear about your C in accounting. What other class did you take during your first semester?

    I took business law and accounting. As you know, I got a C in accounting, too, but I got an A in business law. So my grade average was a B, or 3.0, which kept me off of academic probation.

    I decided to leave the program after the first semester for a variety of reasons. For one, it was going to take me almost four years to complete. Two, it was extremely stressful. Three, I had a couple important close people pass away within a couple months of each other and it was a reminder that life is short and was this really how I wanted to be spending my time and energy for the next several years? I ultimately decided it was not. In fact, I wrote a post about how I came to the decision: “My Stinging Smack From the Universe” http://tenaciouslee.com/2010/07/14/my-stinging-smack-from-the-universe/

    Are you still in the MBA program? How is it going?

  7. Larna says:

    Hey Laura,
    Thank you for sharing — graduate programs are so intense, they can suck the life out of you. I’m in an executive MBA program so it is tailored a little differently than the traditional full time program. It is as intense and it has its special challenges, such as shorter semesters that feel like pressure cookers. The good thing is that all the students in the program are professional adults so we’re all sort of in the same boat.

    I am going to stick it out because the lousy economy we’re in has forced me to further my business acumen. I’m hoping for improved professional opportunities at the end of this thing. I’m also hoping and praying for better class experiences than the one in Accounting — that was awful!

    Thanks again for sharing, I’ll be looking for your other posts. Peace!

  8. Laura Lee Bloor says:

    Thanks, Larna. Good luck to you with the rest of the program! It definitely should get easier. Just think: You were smart by tackling the hardest stuff first. Please keep me updated and stay in touch!

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