Studying a Part-time MBA in Singapore
Choosing a Part-time or Full-time MBA?
A part-time MBA is a good choice for people who prefer the security of regular income while earning their graduate degree. These are also usually locals who aren't relocating for a couple of years to a foreign university and are able to retain their jobs while taking night classes. For this reason, full-time MBA programmes tend to have a stronger international mix, with most locals being those taking a long sabbatical or sponsored by their employers.
Most people believe that a full-time MBA programme, away from work, will enable them to have more free time on their hands and therefore focus better on studying. While the focus bit is true, having more free time is a misconception as classes will be packed more closely throughout the week. This is how the full-timers graduate earlier.
While a part-timer will have to juggle, and often struggle, with work, school and family, the advantage is being able to immediately apply lessons in work scenarios and refining the process through class discussions and feedback from both classmates who are working professionals and professors who are usually also practitioners. The constant pressure means that like it or not, the mind adapts quickly to making informed decisions under real constraints. While you won't have much free time on your hands, your regular income means having the financial freedom to still splurge on stress-relieving dinners, pampering spa sessions or short getaways (if you can actually get away for a while).
The Part-time MBA at SMU
The Singapore Management University (SMU) offers an accelerated part-time MBA in 18 months. If you count in the self-study pre-course segment, add about two months before the term officially starts. The segment consists of three topics: 1) quantitative methods, 2) accounting, and 3) finance. If you don't manage to pass the online tests, the school will not allow you to commence your MBA course. I remember staying in on weekends and those long hot hours perspiring and squelching around on the chair in our humid Singapore weather trying to remember long-forgotten statistical knowledge from undergraduate days. This segment is important, however, as the course will assume that you have sound working knowledge of these topics and will move fairly quickly. The professors will not be amused to hear otherwise. Neither will you when the class moves on without you.
Part-time students begin with two core modules each term (that's 2 months), until they complete the eight core modules. During this time, the standard load is two night classes a week, plus project meetings. Thereafter, electives are free-for-all and each class will have a mix of both full and part-timers. During the elective phase, I had up to six modules in one term, in which my scores took a dip. It happened that those were the courses I'd really wanted to take. Otherwise, I don't recommend crashing your term (and life) like that.
SMU's business school is pretty vibrant with visiting researchers and industry practitioners frequently dropping in to share their experience. The CEO Talks and the Presidential Distinguished Lecturer series have also brought some interesting dialogues and roundtables. Some of these are lunch time talks so part-time MBA students can drop by from the office, pick up a brown bag and return to office straight after the talks.
My Life as a Part-time MBA Student (THE CONS)
Soon after the MBA course started, my social life evaporated. Perhaps I should first state that I sleep earlier than most. This means that most things need to be done before the last TV drama on Channel 8 ends. Even then, my bedtime became increasingly delayed from 10pm to 2am. I know of some part-time classmates doing all-nighters. This is more seasonal than daily but prepare for weeks at a stretch like this. If your job requires you to travel, good luck.
This is the time you will discover your true friends. The party crowd will drop you after a few rounds of "Sorry guys, I need to rush a project." Your good friends will understand when you say "Sorry, I'm just going to sleep in." Interestingly, I started to realise a need to socialise discreetly. If I I bumped into a friend while out with another, I'd hear no end of "Didn't you say you were too busy to catch a movie?? Why are you out with someone else??"
You will grow fatter, or at least flabbier. Many of us compromised our exercise routines, giving any available time to clearing the backlog at work, carrying out family duties or just recovering from that madcap schedule with the television or a good book. A classmate gained 7kg over a year. I gave up the dancing that I'd loved and saw my yoga gym membership go kaput. The long hours sitting down poring over reading material also meant more cellulite. I also thought my hair felt thinner than when I'd first started, and my sinus problems acted up more often then it ever did since childhood. With everything on electronic devices these days, a lot of time is spent staring at screens. Having done LASIK, I was terrified whenever eye fatigue prevented me from reading bus numbers. In short, you could have a lot of catch-up to do in the physical department after your MBA course. While it's tempting to let loose and binge at one of those drinking sessions, I cannot stress how important it is to eat healthily during this time.
My Life as a Part-time MBA Student (THE PROS)
If I haven't scared you off a part-time MBA yet, here's why I'd still do it if I could choose all over again.
Firstly, you learn useful stuff and get good exposure through talking/ listening to a wide range of people from different industries. Even if it cannot be applied to your own industry at this moment, it does open your eyes to why/ how things are run in certain ways and gives you ideas for new possibilities. For people who need a refresher of their BBA, an MBA will not only give you that but add practical applications that give you new eyes in your work. For example, a financial statement is no longer just a series of credits and debits, profits and losses. I can now read it as a coded paper of opportunities and pitfalls and relate them to the company's strengths and weaknesses in specific areas with practical considerations. Do personal investing? This will help you refine your portfolio!
Secondly, you will meet course mates from all walks of life, some with fancy titles and personalities. Besides the networking effect, you will no doubt work closely with them over a significant time period, and come to see how each performs under the same conditions of stress. After working with a variety of slackers, "smokers" (slang for people who confuse with smoke and mirrors) and others who really put their noses to the grindstone, you'll quickly realise the substance of a man lies in his character, not his title or outward appearance. The effect of this is being able to look beyond appearances and gain a deeper appreciation of values and substance over fancy titles and dressing that are sometimes used to good effect in negotiations. (The SMU MBA has a course on negotiation which bolsters your confidence with knowledge of principles and tactics used in such settings.) For the slackers and smokers out there, you should know that you will be judged by your peers throughout the MBA course and that your course mates will likely be in key positions in the near future. It therefore makes sense to be quality contributors. On top of all this, you make some really good friends whom you trust, having been through MBA adversity together.
Thirdly, as a result of the constant intellectual stimulation, your mind becomes highly critical. You see clearer through smoke and mirrors, and also question the status quo. It is common to question the professors as well as you synthesise your existing knowledge with new/ contradicting information. If you question your bosses, I suggest you do it politely. You'll also listen better and suspend judgment until the facts are in. Simply put, you now happily challenge yourself to achieve better outcomes through novel solutions. Knowing both what you know and what you don't know is highly empowering. It will serve you well in pursuing specific knowledge on your own in future. Beware of becoming impatient with those around you though and remember to not to indulge in business school lingo. Most of the world, including many business school graduates, doesn't appreciate that.
Last but not least, do tell your office mates about your MBA undertaking. This is certainly not an excuse for you to do less than your fair share of work. However, it does bring you a good measure of respect if you can manage both seamlessly. The majority of my course mates seem to do this just fine, including those married with children. A number of them also received job promotions or changed employment with more attractive terms midway through the MBA. I would attribute it to good work done rather than the glamour of an MBA. If your office is aware of your MBA undertaking, and you have been a good performer, they will also more likely consider and plan for your career progression more actively.
A New Meaning to Time Management
Once upon a time, if I had many things on my list, I might not know which to start doing first. These days, my list is so full I sometimes don't know which to even start thinking about first. Before our MBA course started, the school emphasised rethinking time management as energy management. It is not the time but the amount and quality of energy spent. Spending 20 hours on a paper is useless if it's not productive. Punctuating that time with a 20 min jog that boosts productivity by 100% and shortens that time by half is obviously superior.
For a part-time student with a full-time work commitment, me-time becomes an important item that you need to set time for. Otherwise, you can burn out and kiss your MBA (and your life) goodbye. I've had to explain to my mother countless times that watching the television or doodling at the dining table doesn't mean I'm very free and doing nothing. I am in fact seriously recovering my energy for the next lap. It doesn't mean that she should ask me to peel the vegetables or tell me to make myself useful by sweeping the floor.
Is it Worth It?
Yes, an MBA doesn't come cheap but if you manage to get a scholarship, even a partial one like what I received from SMU (no strings attached), the fruits are worth it. Your learning is not limited to the courses taught in school. Offline discussions with fellow course mates often branch into a myriad of topics and it is great fun exploring diverse scenarios (including nonsensical ones) in a safe academic environment, which doesn't penalise in real terms if you make mistakes. Indeed the schedule is intensive but there are also plenty of school-organised opportunities for recreational activities that many MBA students do participate in. Some of these are with the alumni and are often awesome get-togethers. Given that you've lost half your social circle, these opportunities are much appreciated.
I guess an MBA course attracts a certain type of people who know what they want and are prepared to see it through. If you are such, and are at least partially motivated by knowledge, not just fancies of astronomical post-MBA salaries, you will probably find the process enjoyable like I did. I wish you good luck!