The Toughest Challenges MBAs Face In Business School

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In your mid-twenties, you’re still trying to figure out who you are and where you’re going. Take your career. A few years out of school, you’ve probably notched your first promotion. Your superiors are singing your praises and making promises. With a few bucks in your pocket, you’ve grown accustomed to your toys and weekend adventures. It’s all going so right — except for one thing: Those nagging questions tugging at you every day.

Do I really want to do this job much longer?

How long will it be before I hit my ceiling?

Can I take the next step without going back to school?

Even if I go back, do I truly know what I want to do?


Jessica Davlin

Jessica Davlin

Returning to school is one of the biggest decisions you can make. Put it off and you risk being anchored, unable to shift roles or industries. Head to campus and you sacrifice a year or two of pay for an uncertain result and (potentially) a mountain of debt. That was the dilemma facing Jessica Davlin, a 2010 Duke grad who’d worked for both the FBI and the White House in cybersecurity. While the chance to join Team Fuqua to become a “leader of consequence” was a “no-brainer” for Davlin, the actual act of returning to campus was a leap of faith.

“It was very tough to uproot my life in D.C., say goodbye to my friends, and leave my comfort zone — all for an uncertain future,” she told Poets&Quants. In fact, the decision continued to hamper her transition to being a student during her first year. “(It) was stressful and challenging and there were times when I questioned if I had made the right decision. I loved the life I had before business school, so the uncertainty was unsettling.” In the end, Davlin drew on the grit and stamina she developed as a champion distance runner to turn around her experience. She channeled her love of public service into launching a “Spring of Service” initiative to connect the school with volunteer opportunities in the community. She became a COLE Fellow to guide first years making the same transition she had made. Ultimately, she landed a dream job as a business program manager at Microsoft.

Forget the tales of business school being a two-year job hunt filled with overseas jaunts and hazy weekends. MBA programs can be pretty rough — and not just those core quant courses. They are a daily practicum on ruthlessly setting priorities and managing time — key skills for aspiring executives. And business school is purposely designed to dispel a “go-it-alone” mentality, replacing it with a team-driven interdependency requiring relationship building and strategic compromise.

Such a steep shift can fluster any first-year student, even the top MBAs from the very best schools who comprise this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. That’s one reason we asked these graduates to share “the hardest part of business school.” With the next class of MBAs poised to hit campus soon, the same demands and doubts will undoubtedly strike them, too.

Ankur Goel

Ankur Goel


Chances are, being a student again is bound to be a shock to your system. Forget a boss telling you where to be and what to do. In business school, for better or worse, you are your own boss. And learning to manage yourself — before you manage others — is a cornerstone of the business school experience. That’s particularly true with the workload, explains USC’s Jordan Selva, no stranger to being busy after playing baseball and singing in chamber choir as an undergrad.

“The sheer amount of readings, projects, and meetings that took place during a five-month period was beyond anything I would have anticipated,” Selva notes. “Even though classes were only held in the mornings, I was on campus past 10 p.m. every night that first semester.” And that doesn’t even include extracurricular activities, networking events, and job hunting, according to Ankur Goel, who was a club president, student ambassador, student representative, and case competition maven at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mind you, dictating your own schedule has its perks. The biggie, of course, is choosing what you want to do. Alas, such freedom comes with a price: not having a paycheck coming in. That was the biggest test for Tyler Lorenz, who left a cushy management job in the foreign exchange market to become part of Texas A&M’s 2016 MBA Class. “Taking a 2-year break from the working world puts a huge financial strain on resources. Not letting this constant stress affect your work or relationships was tough.”