For three days each month, Anna Meleshina swaps her office in St Petersburg for a classroom in Oxfordshire. The 29-year-old group communications director enrolled on Henley Management School's MBA course in 2004, and now juggles her full-time job at Heineken in Russia with part-time study in the UK.
Meleshina doesn't want to take time out of her career, but she does want to accelerate the pace of it. She is among a growing number of professionals who learn while they earn. In a poll of 1,117 MBA graduates from international business schools, the Association of MBAs' (AMBA) 2005 Career Survey revealed that only 37% of respondents gained their MBA through full-time study, while 63% opted for part-time or distance learning, an increase of 27% since 1995.
The main appeal of the part-time route is that students don't have to put their jobs on hold. Part-time MBA programmes are designed to meet the needs of busy managers and can be taken over two or three years, involving either weekend classes or modular blocks. Figures from AMBA show that about half of all part-time students are fully sponsored by their employers, while a further 17% have a proportion of their fees paid, helping part-time students avoid hefty bills run up by full-timers.
Another advantage of the part-time MBA is that students can put their learning straight into practice. They can be in the classroom one day and then use their knowledge at work the next. Students also have the opportunity to customise their course and pick electives that are of direct relevance to their job.
'Part-time students can be even more demanding in terms of the programme being practically applicable, up-to-the-minute and directly relevant to the business issues they are facing,' says Graham Clark, director of the ecutive MBA at Cranfield School of Management.
There are downsides. Trying to cram in study on top of the day-to-day demands of your job is a tough task. 'It's a tremendous challenge and it pushes you beyond your limits,' says Marianne Vandenbosch, manager of the executive MBA at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), Switzerland's top business school. 'But it does teach you how to delegate. Students discover what they are really capable of.'
Your commitment will be tested by professional and personal obligations, as well as by sheer exhaustion. Says 40-year-old Thomas Muehlbauer, who enrolled on Henley Management School's part-time MBA course last year: 'I have three priorities: my family - I'm married and have two boys; my full-time job (55 hours a week); and my executive MBA. I have to balance all three and that takes a lot of discipline and organisation.' Zurich-based Muehlbauer flies to the UK each month for lessons and sits his exams at the British Council in Bern. When he's not 'commuting', he's working on assignments and admits that the schedule is gruelling.
There are ways of squeezing in study without disrupting your daily routine. Meleshina uses her three-hour flight from St Petersburg to London to catch up on notes and read through her MBA textbooks. If you travel a lot as part of your job, you could use the time sitting waiting in airport lounges to revise. Or you could go into the office a couple of hours early each day.
Part-timers must make the most of the hours they spend on campus. 'Students don't have as much disposable time to access the library or speak to faculty members,' says Clark at Cranfield. 'They have to plan their timetables more carefully.'
If planning isn't your strong point and if you are prepared to bite the bullet and leave your job, the full-time route might be a better choice for you. Students can concentrate on coursework without being stretched by other demands. 'You can immerse yourself in the MBA course for a whole year,' says John Glen, director of Cranfield's full-time MBA programme. 'That allows you to be a bit more reflective about what you are learning and gain a greater depth of understanding.'
You can constantly dip into books to build on your knowledge, and there are fewer distractions to compete with your time. Full-time students tend to be in their mid to late twenties and are usually looking to change jobs or industries.
The networking opportunities are another plus point of the full-time format. Studying alongside your peers day in and day out develops a healthy community and a strong support network. The social life on full-time courses is also arguably better. Students have more spare time to bond with their classmates and attend conferences or events, which are often tied to disciplines such as marketing or IT.
However, the intensity of studying full-time can exact a price. You may need to relocate to a new area or live on campus - not always easy if you have children. There is also the danger of becoming 'institutionalised'. Being out of a job for a whole year - two in the case of London Business School's full-time programme - means that students can very quickly lose touch with what's going on in a particular market or sector.
Paying for full-time study can put a real strain on the purse-strings. While financial aid is sometimes available in the form of loans, grants and scholarships, full-time students should be prepared to accumulate significant debt. They also need to account for the 'opportunity cost' of foregone earnings. This means curbing any lavish spending habits and adjusting your lifestyle.
An MBA is a certainly a substantial investment in terms of time and money. If you don't have either, you might want to consider a distance-learning course. This is the cheapest type of MBA; it requires only occasional attendance at workshops and you can spread learning over three to five years. But be warned: distance-learning MBAs rarely replicate the classroom experience - and the content offered by 'virtual' business schools is not always academically rigorous. For the most rewarding distance-learning MBA, choose a bricks-and-mortar institution with a full-time faculty and good administrative support.
Whichever programme you pick, make sure it fits with your own personal requirements, preferences and learning styles. As competition heats up between the business schools, we are likely to see even more versions of the MBA course springing up. As Paul Danos, dean of Tuck School of Business, has predicted: 'Every major MBA programme is going to have an alternative way of being delivered in the next 10 years.'