How I Fit an Online MBA Into My Life While On Active Duty

In 2017, the Department of Education reported that 62 percent of undergraduate students were working full or part-time jobs in addition to their studies, and 28 percent had at least one dependent. The idea of working full time while earning a degree may seem daunting, but finding a balance between work and study is becoming a little easier as colleges and universities continue to offer online degree programs with greater frequency.

Technology touches more parts of our lives than ever before. Students need learning options that reflect the increasingly digital world we live in, and online degrees — particularly online MBA (Master of Business Administration) degrees — are gaining in popularity. According to data from more than 4,700 colleges and universities in the United States, more than 6.3 million students (mostly undergraduate) were enrolled in an online course in 2016, up 5.6 percent from 2015.

One of the most attractive features of an online education is the convenience, an important consideration for active duty service members who want to further their career goals while honoring their commitment to the armed forces. Unlike part-time programs that may require you to physically attend class one or two days or nights per week, an online program allows you to “attend” class from wherever you and your computer are, meaning you can be deployed or traveling and still be enrolled and working toward your degree. An online degree conforms to your schedule, making it an attractive choice for fitting higher education into your busy life without dropping any of your commitments.

Another benefit of an online education is the cost. Overall, tuition for an online program tends to be lower, and the elimination of student residence housing and commuting costs can add up to big savings as well.

The benefits of pursuing an online degree at a glance:

  • Flexible schedule that allows you to complete coursework on the go
  • Ability to “attend” class from anywhere with an internet connection
  • Reduced tuition cost and no additional housing or commuting fees

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online MBA?

Most online MBA programs can be finished in under two years. The online MBA degree from National University can be completed in 15 to 17 months, or at whatever pace you choose.

Candice Harden, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, received her MBA through National University’s online program in June of 2017, after completing her coursework over a period of about two years. The flexibility of the NU online MBA program allowed her to work toward her degree while juggling 40 to 60 hours of work as an active duty service member and caring for her growing family (she had three children when she started the program and gave birth to two more before receiving her degree). “It took me a little bit longer than if I was able to do it non-stop, one class per month,” Harden says. “You know, life gets in the way.”

She credits the flexibility of the online program with allowing her to carve out the time she needed to complete her degree in the midst of a very full work and home life. “Working the long hours that you do as an active duty service member and finding the time to finish all of the school assignments, the papers, the reading, and everything in between can be challenging. Doing it online, you can work around your schedule. You can get all of your assignments and your reading done on the weekend. It makes it easier if you work during the week. You can adjust things,” she says.

Harden completed most of her schoolwork on her laptop, anywhere from 15 to 30 hours per week depending on the class. “Wherever I could find the time and space,” she says. With such a busy schedule, having the ability to complete coursework whenever and wherever was crucial to her success. “At the end of the day, you get the kids into bed, then you read a little bit or you do a discussion or two —just wherever you can,” she adds. “Sometimes we would be traveling, and my fiancé would be driving, and I would be typing a paper.”

What to Expect in the Online MBA Program

Online MBA programs cultivate the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue or further a career in business and to adapt those skills to an ever-changing employment field. In general, students in theNational University online MBA program focus their study on concepts and practical tools in the key areas of:

  • Accounting
  • Economics
  • Data analysis
  • Finance
  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Team-building
  • Quantitative and qualitative decision-making
  • Creative problem-solving

The NU MBA program is designed with global and domestic marketplaces in mind, and students have the opportunity to specialize in a particular discipline if they desire.

Harden remembers a project that allowed her to apply the ideas and skills she was learning in a practical way. “We were in a team and had our own company. From start to finish, we were selling shoes all over the world. Rather than writing a paper or just reading some material and discussing it, you immersed yourself in the entire scenario and you saw your efforts put into place…you had to work together, or it wasn’t gonna work out at all.” This was an invaluable lesson, which easily translated to her professional life.

If It’s Online, How Interactive Is It Really?

You may wonder how much contact there will actually be with professors and other students in a fully online program. In the NU online MBA program, students are assigned a faculty advisor that is available to guide them through the program and assist with any program or career-related questions that arise.

For each class, there are discussion boards that keep you connected to your faculty and peers. Harden was able to participate in at least two to three discussions per week, posting comments of her own and replying to comments made by other students. She also regularly engaged with her professors online, asking questions and getting help with assignments as needed, and her courses generally included a weekly video chat or a lecture. “It’s not just a free-for-all; ‘Here’s a book, here’s the material, go learn,’” she notes. “There’s a set schedule.” The program offered Harden the right balance of adaptability and structure.

Why an MBA?

For Harden, an MBA was a natural choice to help hone the talents in administration, leadership, and management that she developed working as a lab technician during her 15 years in the Air Force. “It gave me the skills I need to further my career,” she says. Retired from the Air Force now, Candice has a thriving career in quality assurance for the Virginia State laboratory and is excited to keep applying her new skills to the position.

For graduates like Candice, an MBA can translate into a number of  career advantages, such as:

  • A higher salary. According to data from the Financial Times, average salaries for individuals who have completed an MBA are up 12 percent since 2014, and MBA graduates always at least doubled their salaries within three years of completing their degree.
  • A skill-set that can be applied to many industries. An MBA degree can translate easily into jobs in industries such as health care administration, finance, operations management, market research, and more.
  • Networking opportunities. According to surveys, approximately 50% to 60% of MBA students and graduates reported that they found a job through networking.
  • The potential for career advancement. An MBA is attractive to new employers looking to fill management-level positions or can give you a leg up for a promotion with your current employer.

Advice From a Recent Graduate

Pursuing an online MBA is a big commitment, with a potential big reward, but it is important that you are realistic about the challenges you may face. Having a support system, whether that is a supportive partner, family or friends can be invaluable when you are tackling the challenge of completing an online MBA as an active duty service member. “Luckily, I had a very supportive partner who could help me through everything,” Harden says. She recommends sitting down with your loved ones and having an honest talk about what it will take to get your degree. Taking the time to explain your decision to pursue an online MBA degree and what that will realistically entail can help make the experience smoother for you as well as your family and friends. If everyone understands the realities and expectations, they will be better equipped to deal with them effectively as they are happening.

Harden also recommends being open and honest with faculty about your situation and any issues that arise. “You need to have open lines of communication with your professors. They are very understanding, they understand that life happens. If you have problems, just work with them, and nine times out of ten it will work out,” she says.

But most of all, Harden advises students juggling their studies with the online MBA program along with their work as active duty servicemembers to stick with it. “Keep at it. It’s hard but it’s worth it in the end. You may feel like quitting but if you just keep putting your mind to it, you’ll succeed,” she says. “I never thought I would finish but I did, with five kids, working full time. If I can do it, you can do it.”

For more information about the National University Master of Business Administration degree, available online, please visit our program page.