Business School with a Family

Early on in 2009, my wife gave birth to our second child. As I held my daughter for the first time, a mix of emotions came over me. On one hand, I was as happy as could be. The Lord had already blessed me with a son, and now He was blessing me again with a beautiful little girl. But on the other hand, I felt a tremendous sense of nervousness. You see, the day before my daughter’s birth, I found out that I had been admitted to HBS. As exciting as getting that news was, it brought with it a guarantee of large scale, disruptive change for not just me, but for my family as well. Up until that point, the change had all been hypothetical; now it was more or less set in stone. Roughly seven months after my daughter’s birthday, I would be transitioning from the active duty Army, moving my now family of four to a new city where we knew no one, enrolling my son in a new school, going from generating an income to living off of student loans and starting a full-time graduate school program while my wife stayed home with our daughter. As I gazed into my daughter’s eyes, the gravity of my decision to pursue an MBA after the military and the effect it would have on my family hit me like a ton of bricks.

I suspect that this feeling of nervousness is common among many of you who have or who will soon have families – and rightfully so. But after graduating from HBS this past May, I can say that the two-years at business school were two very enjoyable years for both my family and me. Many of my friends (both students and spouses) will also tell you that they too thoroughly enjoyed their time at business school. Financially, everything worked out just fine (see my previous post on financing your MBA), I had a lot more time to spend at home than when I was on active duty, and my wife and I were ultimately happy with the decision we made. So was all that worrying and nervousness for naught? I would say unequivocally “no”. It certainly guided us in preparing for the transition. That said, we could have most certainly done things better along the way – beginning in the pre-matriculation period – that would have made our lives easier and somewhat more enjoyable. Below are a few of my lessons learned for making business school work with a family:

Before school:

  • Reach out to other new admits with families, especially if your school uses a section/cohort/cluster approach to the first year. In most top-10 business schools, 5% or less of the incoming class will have children, and the all-consuming first year section experience will make getting to know parents outside your section exceedingly more difficult. And if your section is like mine and has only one student with children in it (me), not knowing anyone else in your class who shares that common bond with you can be problematic. Your school will likely set up a Facebook page for the new admits that should be a useful tool to help you identify other parents in the incoming class. Working on building those relationships before school will make those first few months all the more enjoyable for both you and your spouse.
  • If you’re considering putting your child(ren) in daycare or preschool, be sure to apply for those programs as early as possible. The good programs on or near your school’s campus will fill up very quickly. If you wait until you actually move to the area, or wait to do it a month or two prior, it will most certainly be too late. Even if you’re waitlisted, being #2 or 3 on the list is much better than being #22 or #23.
  • Join your school’s partners’ (a.k.a. spouse/significant other) club email listserv. In the time leading up to matriculation, emails will be sent regarding job openings at the university or in the community in which your spouse may be interested. They’ll also send links to welcome documents and other useful information guides that will help make your transition go more smoothly.

At school:

  • Once you get to school, really get involved with the partners’ and kids’ clubs. My wife and I were a bit lukewarm in our involvement early on and wish we hadn’t been. These clubs are a great way to meet and really get to know others in your class who are married with children. Depending on how active you were during the pre-matriculation period, you may have already corresponded with some of these individuals and can thus continue building even deeper relationships. Nevertheless, both clubs are very active and are always planning something (family activities, partner outings, play dates, etc.). Put simply, they are great resources for you and your family and I can’t say enough about them. Think of them as a family readiness group of sorts.
  • Treat business school like a job. I got better at this as time went on, but wish I had been more thoughtful about time management in the beginning because it really does make a world of difference. I’m convinced that the best way to be successful both at home and in the classroom is to treat business school like a job. You know your class schedule for the entire semester at the beginning of each semester and can (and should) therefore plan around it. I highly recommend devoting 30-45 minutes every Sunday night to mapping out your schedule for the next week. I used my Microsoft Outlook calendar, but any scheduling system will work. Start with blocking off time for family commitments and work your way down the priority ladder from there. But more importantly, stay committed to your schedule. Doing so will make your life easier and significantly less stressful. My guess is that you’ll be surprised at how much you can actually get done in a day if you’re thoughtful about and committed to your schedule. One caveat about being intentional with your time is that it does tend to remove spontaneity from your life. This is a tradeoff that you’ll have to make, especially in the fast-paced business school environment where it seems like there’s always something going on because there is always something going on.

Fortunately I’m not the first (and will surely not be the last) person to attend business school with a family in tow. The advice offered here only breaks the surface on how to make the two-year business school experience enjoyable for both you and your family. Reach out to alumni who started business school with families to learn how they prepared for and handled things once school actually began. Once at school, talk to classmates with families to learn their tactics for balancing school and home and strive to continually get better at it. With a little pre-planning, creativity, and commitment, I’m confident that you and your family will fondly look back on your MBA experience with tremendous satisfaction.

- Rob C., Guest Blogger and Co-Founder of MilitaryToBusiness: Consulting Service for Top Performers.