Ever wonder what it’s like to transition back to school after a gap of several years since your undergraduate studies? Do you ever contemplate not pursuing graduate school because you think you can’t do it all? Well, my classmate Jill and I are here to tell you firsthand how Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business has made our transition back to school smoother than seamless after gaps of 25 and 9 years, respectively.

General Concerns

Balancing a full-time job and a full-time MBA curriculum is cumbersome.

It can be cumbersome if you let it be. But if you stay organized and have the right support from your family and colleagues, this is completely doable. It’s all about effective time management, being focused, and making some progress every day.

Graduate coursework is difficult and stressful.

By design, the program is designed to grow you, challenge you, and stretch you. The coursework is advanced in many cases, but every course has a foundational component to help non-business majors build the necessary framework and concepts early so they can better understand the more advanced material as the course progresses. There are additional review sessions led by teaching assistants, and the professors at Fuqua are available for one-on-one appointments should there ever be a need.

There is no point transitioning back to school after I am a certain age.

You’ll be surprised at the diversity across Fuqua. The school fosters an environment where learning is a lifelong process so there is no such thing as “you’re too old for school.” Everyone is welcome here.

Jill and I are in the Weekend Executive MBA Class of 2020 and we have classmates with ages that range from 25 to 60 and work experience that ranges from 5 to 30 years. We learn so much from each other in terms of addressing problems from a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

Graduate school is expensive and it’s hard to recover a return on investment from a financial standpoint.

Yes, graduate education is expensive. Although we are only four months into the program, we can see the value of the education we are receiving. From the start, you have access to the career management team, and they are there to help you shape the vision for your goals and connect you to industry alumni who can help you realize them. Affording an education Fuqua can be daunting, but the school offers a wide breadth of scholarships and financial aid options that can help you take advantage of the opportunity.

Completing a graduate degree can take a long time and changes can happen along the way.

If you can juggle between family, a full-time job, and an MBA curriculum, you can handle any change in your universe. We have only completed one term, but we have seen classmates’ babies delivered, promotions happen, relocations occur, and other challenges. Your cohort starts together and stays together, and everyone is always here to support you including the Fuqua program team.

The rigor of exams and tests is not something I can handle.

Professors at Fuqua are very supportive and understand that the rigor and stress of exams are not for everyone. That’s why there is ample prep material given to everyone ahead of time and exams are usually open book and open notes. Now, what good is a test if it isn’t tough and tricky, right? Rest assured, the program is designed for everyone to succeed.

I am not that good at networking, so business school is not right for me.

Networking is a huge part of any good business school experience and that is part of the growth one receives at Fuqua. The best part is that networking is not forced at Fuqua. There are so many opportunities to meet incredibly smart people and the shared experience allows people to connect easily on so many similar grounds. Networking is not easy for everyone, but Fuqua is a safe practicing ground for that.

an directional sign for an academic policies, honor code, and learning partnership session during orientation designed to help MBA students transition back to school
Academics are stressed early and often at Fuqua

What It’s Like to Be Back in School

  • You are surrounded by incredibly smart people during residency weekends so much so that you always feel there is plenty of room to learn and grow.
  • Classes are a perfect blend of real-world practical knowledge and core management concepts, which allows students to start applying learnings in their jobs almost immediately.
  • Professors are well-connected industry experts and research-oriented. Therefore, they develop the curriculum for each course such that is it current and relevant for students pursuing graduate-level business education.
  • The program support team takes great care of every need during residency weekends, leaving nothing for students to worry about when they arrive on campus.
  • The balance of classes and workload is manageable with the many demands of a family and a full-time job.
  • Classes are 2.5 hours long with a 15-minute break included, allowing one to connect with other classmates and recharge with refreshments.
  • Technology is state of the art and hybrid sessions during the distance learning periods are led over Zoom’s best-in-class video conferencing software.
  • Options are available for textbooks to be received in hardcover or electronic versions.
  • Exams are usually open book and open notes with enough prep material provided so exams and testing aren’t as stressful for students.

Advice for Transitioning Back to School

  • Be confident in your ability to successfully complete the program, and that you will bring a special perspective to your team and classmates. Students have a wide variety of professional backgrounds and all are respected.
  • Get ahead of the technology options by knowing what works for you in terms of being 100 percent digital or having a mix of digital plus some forms of printed materials and pen and paper writing.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to complete any pre-program math prep admissions might assign and all coursework required prior to the first residency. Working 15 to 20 hours a week the month before orientation might be what it takes, but it will set you up for success. The expectation is clear that you will arrive to campus prepared so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the materials presented in class.
  • Be open to learning both in a curricular and real work, practical context at the same time. This will require patience, humility, drive, and focus.
  • Fuqua will be all about “team” more than anything so get to know your team early, learn from them, and ask for help when needed. They are there for you.
  • Have an open mind about everything and leave any predispositions or apprehensions at home. Once you are in it, commit yourself to it. Take time to get to know your classmates, blow off steam, and have fun.

We are only in our second term and have already started noticing changes in how we look at issues at work a little differently and creatively. The real testament is when colleagues at work say, “You have already started making a difference and you haven’t even graduated.” Fuqua is transforming us faster than we could have imagined, and through this blog we hope to convey why our transition back to school hasn’t actually been as cumbersome as we thought it would be. We love being in school!

Our Personal Statements

Monish

An MBA from a top-tier business school had always been a goal, right from the point I graduated high school. Being a little more than eight years into my career and having worked at iconic companies such as General Electric and Walmart, I had gained enough good work experience for it to be transferrable to a graduate business school classroom in a way that I could add value for my classmates.

Duke’s business education at Fuqua is second to none, and the values of the business school resonated with me personally. Transitioning back to school was nerve-racking at first, but what helped me was sheer determination and support from family and colleagues. I personally believe that once you set your goals and are relentless in your pursuit, there is no energy in the universe that can stop you from accomplishing them.

In just four months, I have had colleagues notice a difference in the way I tackle issues at work, and the best of the journey is yet to come. I love being in school around so many smart people and look forward to seeing my team and other classmates every month. One of the best decisions of my life has been to come to Fuqua.

Jill

Deciding to enroll in the Weekend Executive MBA program was a big leap for me, both personally and professionally. My plate was already very full as a practicing physician and health care leader as well as the mother of two teenagers. I worried about how this decision would impact my ability to meet my demanding work schedule and be there for my family.

Ongoing learning has been pivotal to my success as a physician. I felt as though I had reached a point where a business education was needed to meet my long term professional goals. Having been out of school for more than 25 years, the concept of going back was daunting. However, at age 51, I felt it was now or never, and I took the plunge.

I was very nervous, and no doubt graduate education has changed a lot in the past few decades. Fortunately, my love of learning and the outstanding peers and faculty at Fuqua made the transition easier than I imagined. Although I dedicate a significant amount of time to the program, I have been able to delegate and prioritize my work and fit it in. My spouse and kids have been incredibly supportive, and I am proud of the example I am setting for them. In just four months, I feel I am a more effective leader, and I am armed with new tools to make better decisions. I am very happy I decided to enroll and feel great about my choice.