Business Schools

When Part Time Is the Right Time


Maybe a full-time MBA program isn't best for you. Chicago's dean of part-time programs offers some advice

Confused about whether you want to pursue your MBA on a full-time or part-time basis? You're not alone. In fact, over the past five years the percentage of GMAT test-takers undecided about which type of program they planned to attend nearly tripled, from 2.71% in 2001 to 7.9% in 2006.

BusinessWeek.com reporter Kerry Miller spoke to Kristine Mackey, associate dean for Evening and Weekend Programs at Chicago Graduate School of Business, to get some advice for applicants. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:

What are the major questions that should be going through someone's mind when they're choosing between applying to full-time or part-time MBA programs?

I think the first question is: "How happy am I in my job?" "Is my job enriching and should I keep it while I study, or is it not enriching enough?"

When you're cruising along in your job, you're loving your job, you think there's places to go and things to learn in the job, and you're still jazzed about it, maybe you don't want to get off the train. But when you're at a point where you're sitting in a sea of cubes and every day looks the same and you can't imagine where you're going next, then it makes a lot more sense to get off the train.

What full-time students are getting that the part-timers are not getting is the luxury of immersion. So a lot of that's lifestyle. "At this point in my life, do I want to get off the train and really immerse?" And then the second question might be money: "What does it mean for me financially?"

When is it generally a good idea to take on the financial risk and go to a full-time program?

I think it makes perfect sense for people who want to go into some industries where that boost is more likely to come by you going through all the traditional recruiting stuff, meaning investment banking and consulting, though I'd really caveat that with some sectors of investment banking. Because now, with all these new sectors coming up—venture capital, private equity—they don't operate in the same way. But traditional I-banking.

Do you see a lot of people who say: I'd love to do this as a full-time program, but I'm not willing to take on that financial risk?

There are a lot of people with families that are taking the risk and just getting off the train, but I do think it's a huge question. People without a safety net don't feel comfortable giving up that income. I think for a person with a lot of undergraduate loans, they're $120,000 in debt, for that person, I think there's a bigger question: "Can I give up the income and take another loan simultaneously?"

How does the availability of financial aid differ between full time and part time?

Loan aid is the same. There's more merit aid in the full-time, but merit aid is such a small portion of our overall aid in any graduate school that I don't think that's really as big of an issue. I know some of my students have run that analysis, saying, "Here's what I would get if I went full-time vs. here's what I would get on loan, plus my employer would pay half, plus I wouldn't lose my income," and the aid has to be pretty good for it to make a difference. It has to be pretty much merit aid and there has to be enough of it to make the financial analysis tip the balance in favor of full-time.

Is there a certain type of person who, money aside, would really be better served in the part-time program?

Again, I think people who are in a situation where they just love what they're doing and they can grow. I don't know if people realize what a rare thing that is. If you've got it and all you want is broadening, then don't give up.

Do you think that full-time is usually a better option for career-changers?

I think that you can do it either way. Because, really think about it, industry change is not just job change. For some people, that's no small thing, all the learning that you have to do to get up to speed. Some people can operate on less sleep and can operate pretty efficiently without structure. But I think if you need that structure and you think you'll do better in that environment, then I think full-time is probably the right place for you.

Are there any other groups of people who would probably be better served by taking that risk and doing the full-time program?

There are a couple of groups. First of all, again, if you're in a job, even though the paycheck feels great but you don't see how this is ever going to take you anywhere, or for whatever reason you find yourself in an environment that's unhealthy, you find yourself in an industry that's like topsy-turvy, going somewhere not positive -- for a lot of those people to get off is the right way to do it.

I also think it's right for people who want to go into some traditional Wall Street firms, where the way that they bring people into the fold is via the formal, structured, internship recruiting process. And then from that internship, they pick off the people they want to give full-time offers. It's still relatively common in certain sectors of I-banking.

In full-time programs you hear a lot about the importance of networking. Do part-time students miss out on a lot of that?

In the full-time program, it's a little bit more culturally ingrained—you'd be abnormal to not participate in that. And I think, in the part-time program, and we've studied our own students, it's kind of 30-30-30. Thirty percent are not participating in all that bonding stuff at all, and those people are just trying to survive.

They've got kids, they've got a hard job, they're commuting out to the far suburbs. Those people are struggling. So that 30% doesn't participate, by and large, at all. Then there's the 30% on the other end of the spectrum that are really participating in a way that's almost exactly the same as if they would have gone to a full-time program. And then there's the 30% in the middle who are kind of hybrid, and they're sort of cafeteria picking what they're going to participate in or not, and they're getting some of that bonding.

I do think it's more common and it's more expected in a full-time program, so if I'm really, really a shy person and I need that structure and I need that push and I think that's valuable, then maybe I'd be better off in a full-time program.

Are there any curricular components at Chicago that are included in full-time but not in part time?

Actually, full-time has to take 21 courses, not 20. The one course they take that's different, which also adds to the polish factor, is a course called Lead. It's a leadership development course, and it's a real immersion in the soft-skill world. For full-time students, it's mandatory. Everybody has to take it first year. It's optional in the part-time program.

One big complaint that a lot of part-time students have is that they don't have the same access to job placement and career services.

Yeah. We just changed that, about a year and a half ago, and now they do. Our students now have full access to full-time recruiting. Number one, on the employer side, they wanted access to all of our students, and they didn't want to have to go to two separate programs to recruit. So recruiters and companies really drove it for us in a big way. Secondarily, the students were requiring it, because part-time students aren't all one flavor any more.

There's entrepreneurs, there's career switchers. It's a huge range of folks. We've gone through two cycles of this, and out of 1,500 evening and weekend students, we have approximately 150—about 10%—who participate in on-campus recruiting.

Why do you think that percentage isn't higher?

I think part of the reason is that the post-MBA jobs are not appropriate. Our average part-time student has five, six years of experience. And so they're in a lot of the jobs right now that would be considered post-MBA, entry post-MBA jobs. And so the jobs are not the jobs they would be looking for.

The other part of it is a lot of people want to stay with their employer and they just want the ability to move forward in a different way. I have a lot of folks who were engineers in a manufacturing facility who've moved over within the same company, over to finance or over to marketing. So there are a number of folks who are happy with their company, they're just looking for a broader role.

Are part-time students allowed to participate if they're being sponsored by their employer?

You're allowed to do it, but you have to get your supervisor to sign a letter to say they're aware that you're going through recruiting. So, in other words, like we're real happy to have it all happen, but it can't be fibbing. We don't want to be a participant in dishonesty.

How many part-time students at Chicago are employer-sponsored?

It was as recently as 15 years ago when about 80% of them were being paid for 100% by their employer. Now we only have 48% that are employer-sponsored. And that sponsorship ranges from $5,000 a year—which is one course—all the way up to full, and everything in between.

And even for those 48% who have some sponsorship, the sponsorship isn't what it used to be. It's gone the same way that insurance has gone. There's got to be some co-pay, the employer believes, or the student doesn't have enough skin in the game.

I think that's the biggest thing that has changed in the part-time world, and it's driven a consumerism amongst part-time students that was different back when your paternalistic employer would say to you, "Yes, you've been selected to go to school. All you have to do is show up."

If someone starts as a part-timer, do you allow them to full-time the second year?

We used to. And now that you can do recruiting together, we don't transfer any more. We also allow people to accelerate or decelerate their program, based on their life. So you start as a part-time, you lose your job, and you want to take a full load.

We also allow people to register for classes across both. So in the Thursday night class, you'll have a bunch of full-time students. On a Saturday class, you'll have a bunch of full-time students. And less so a part-time student can sign up in a daytime class. So because we allow all that flexibility anyway, the big thing that people wanted to transfer for at one time was recruiting. Now there isn't that barrier, so we don't allow it any more.

Why do some recruiters still avoid going after part-time students?

I think there are a couple of reasons. I used to be a recruiter—I was in consulting with KPMG for many years and I was part of our recruiting team from the business side. And I recruited everywhere.

I frankly think that two things happen with recruiters. Number one, you're biased by your own experience. So, for a lot of people, if I came out of a full-time program and I have that sort of pride in my full-time program, I'd prefer to recruit the full-time program. So I think some of that is just tradition and recruiter bias. I also think that because full-time students have more time to work on soft skills, they tend to be more polished, traditionally polished, if you will.

What would your advice be to part-time students on how to overcome that?

I say this to students at the beginning of every quarter at orientation every time around, and I don't know how many of them listen. But I say, you don't have as much access—either by time or by circumstance—to improve those skills. And those skills are vitally important.

And I have seen some of our part-time students make a tremendous commitment. I just think it's a little bit tougher to do as a part-time student, to easily achieve that soft skill transformation.

I've also heard from full-time students that they don't really want to mix with part-time students.

Yeah, there is some of that. I don't know why that is. I think a lot of it is we have about 30 student clubs in the part-time side. And full time has about 60. Almost all of them fully mix, and the ones that don't are the big industry groups, where they kind of sense that they're competing with each other.

The investment banking group and the consultant clubs don't mix, and they each have their own club and there's some competition, there's some competitive spirit. And on the full-time side, some elitism, which I think is so goofy in today's world, but I understand where that came from.

Are there common mistakes you see in the applications of part-time students?

I'm amazed by the number of applications I see on the part-time side where the person has never set foot in the school, never spoken to anybody at the school—they're just kind of lobbing in an application. Another thing I say to part-time students is that because you're busier, you think the people on the other side are saying, "Oh, well, you're busy so it doesn't matter as much, the quality of your essays, the quality of your recommendations." And that's really amiss.

What's your best advice for someone trying to decide between going to B-school full-time or part-time?

I'd say talk to a lot of the people that are doing it. If you're considering both, talk to people in both. Sit in classes in both. Most of us are cognizant of our surroundings and the people we're sitting with.

And, again, when you're sitting at a table in a conversation with a group of people that are doing a full-time experience and also a group of people that are doing a part-time experience, you're going to get a sense for what they have to do to make it work, and you'll get a sense, I think, for where you belong. I think administrators aren't as valuable a resource as students themselves.

Want to learn more about part-time vs. full-time programs? Join a BW.com live chat with several experts on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at noon EST. For full details, go to http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/content/jan2007/bs20070129_019867.htm


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