How to Get an MBA Without Losing Your Mind, Family or Job

Security leaders share their experiences in getting an MBA once your career has already started

Ann Garrett, CISO of the North Carolina Office of Information Technology Services

I got my MBA more than 10 years ago. My son was 11 when I graduated. I had a full-time job. I don't know how we did it.

This was in the late '80s and early '90s. Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., had started an MBA program for working women. (Since then, it's grown to include men.) You had to have a couple of years' experience in the workplace. I had gone to two big universities for undergraduate work, and I figured if I was going to get through the program for an MBA, I would need a small, nurturing environment. I wanted to make friends and have a little tea and sympathy with people who had the same problems I did.

I discussed it with my husband and my son, who were supportive. I did make some changes. I had been working as a manager of a product line of government financial systems software for a firm called Infocel that was later bought by EDS. I realized that if I was going to go to school, I couldn't do both. So I found a less demanding job with North Carolina State University on an IT project, and I promised my new employer that I'd be there for at least two years. I outsourced housekeeping and laundry, and I rarely cooked. But I never missed a ball game and hardly ever missed a class. It took me a little over two years, taking two or three courses a semester and some summer school.

My life was like, put my son to bed, make a pot of tea and stay up from 10 to 1 because the house was quiet, then get up at 6 in the morning and get my son on the school bus at 7. I'm a night person, which helps. Even now, if I've got a big project, I'll go home and sleep on it, then wake up at 2 in the morning and go upstairs to my office and solve my problem.

There were moments when I was depressed because I couldn't do everything that I wanted to do. There are times that you're almost ready to just sit down and cry. But I liked my job. I enjoyed school. I had a good home environment. The sun, the moon and the stars aligned.

Right about the time I was graduating, an opportunity came up in the North Carolina state government for a management position on a statewide IT project. Within two weeks of graduation, I got enough of a raise to pay for my education. I've never had anything pay back that quickly. I went and said to my husband, "See? Every single penny we spent, it's coming back—in less than a year."

In some ways I wish I had gotten my MBA sooner, but I think if you're a working mom who wants to go to school, you're better off waiting until your child is over 7 years old—they say that's the age of reason. I also think my going to school set a good example for my son.

I don't think I would have become a CISO without an MBA. You have to show you have qualifications to get to a C-level position, particularly if you're a woman or a minority. That's just the way it is.

When I retire, I want to get a PhD in economics. I also want to write fiction someday. Honestly, I do not believe education should ever stop. We're never too old to learn anything.

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