Mornings can be rough. Between fighting a losing battle with the snooze button, getting the kids ready for school and trying to rediscover your lust for life in the bottom of a coffee cup, just getting to work on time can be considered a personal victory.
But most of us don't attend Rotman School of Management's morning MBA program. While regular joes are trying to scarf down Corn Flakes before they turn soggy, a group of hardy souls is busy soaking up two hours of intensive business education before they even get to the office for their day jobs.
As the first program of its kind in Canada, Rotman's morning MBA program is a 32-month journey that allows students the flexibility to further their education while retaining the ability to draw a paycheque. But it takes discipline.
"I'd say the majority of the class wakes up between 5:30 and 6 in order to get to class by 7," said J.P. Sado, a 28-year-old Torontonian who is halfway to getting his MBA.
As a product manager at energy services company ShawCor by day, Mr. Sado has wanted to get his MBA since he graduated from Queen's University in Kingston with engineering and economics degrees in 2008. But as it so often tends to do, work got in the way and resulted in him being relocated to Cincinnati and Calgary before he finally ended up back in Toronto a few years ago.
"I felt I'd likely be here for a couple of years and felt I should take advantage of this tranquility in my movement and work on an MBA," he said.
In its eighth year of existence, the Rotman course involves students taking core courses for the first year and a half, generally on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 7 a.m. until 8:59 a.m., allowing them to get to their jobs for 9:30 a.m. or so. The last half of the program then turns into electives, where students can pick classes more tailored to their needs and interests. There are also three full-week intensive classes scheduled within the first two years of study, along with tutorial sessions, some of which are optional.
Rotman, located at the University of Toronto, also runs a similar evening program for those who prefer their education at dusk.
"I don't think there's much play," says Elizabeth Duffy-MacLean, the managing director of Rotman's morning and evening MBA programs. "You become ruthless with your time."
As a recreational hockey player and a recently married man, Mr. Sado is no stranger to endlessly juggling his schedule. Currently on course to obtain his MBA in 2015, he says the morning was the best time of day to get his studying in before the other areas of his life started to monopolize his time.
"I'm a morning person, and thought that getting into school when my mind was fresh and I could dedicate the time and then go to work where my schedule was less predictable and apply the things that I'd learned was a great option," he said.
That seems to be a theme for many in Rotman's morning MBA program, whose students have an average age of 30 and an average work experience of six years. Mr. Sado considers his scheduling struggles far easier than some, though, noting that many of his classmates have young children to prioritize on their already crowded schedules, as well.
On top of that, the program appears to offer little respite, operating almost year-round with a couple of weeks off between exams and the start of the next year over the Christmas period and another week or two around Labour Day. However, once they get into the elective portion of the program, students are offered more flexibility, and because the morning runs almost in a parallel with the evening MBA program, those unable to make a class in the morning can often make it up at night.
But evenings aren't a good option for some, so for them mornings are the only way to go.
"The morning MBA was really [the only solution] for me because I'm a [competitive] ballroom dancer and there is no way I can get my dance teacher to go to a 7 a.m. ballroom class," said Katya Kudashkina, a classmate of Mr. Sado's.
Originally from the small town of Angarsk in Siberia, the 29-year-old switched from an engineering degree she started in Russia to an undergraduate degree in computer science at Ryerson University in Toronto after moving to Canada seven years ago. But once she'd started work at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Ms. Kudashkina had a change of heart.
"I wanted to move more toward the business side and I'm slowly pursuing my path," she said. Her studies at Rotman have helped, allowing her to move out of the IT department a few months ago and into a senior analyst role that allows her to employ her new-found business skills.
Although Ms. Kudashkina admits she wasn't a morning person when she started at Rotman, she says she now enjoys being an early riser, and credits her company for supporting her through the change. It's a decision, she says, that has earned her the respect of her peers at work.
"I actually heard from a vice-president that they consider me … a role model because in my company, the company is really fast-paced, it's a growing environment and there are a lot of demands in terms of work and time," she said. "You have to be very good at managing your time so you can do schoolwork and you can still be successful at your job."
Ms. Kudashkina's preference for early-morning education is one that is borne out by her fellow female students. According to Rotman's figures, 39 per cent of the most recent morning MBA class is comprised of women, well above the 30 per cent that is the industry average for MBA programs. As Ms. Duffy-MacLean explained, the class two years ago was made up of 50 per cent women.
"I wouldn't say that historically it's a function of identifying women in the market, it seems to have been one of those lovely consequences of having a good idea where we recognize that there might be some people for whom the lifestyle challenges in the evening were such that they couldn't get away from either work or home," she said.
The next cohort of 60 for Rotman's morning program has until June 3 to apply. Classes begin in August.
The University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business once had a similar morning MBA option but discontinued it in 2011, as students preferred evening sessions, a Haskayne spokeswoman said.
But the idea for a morning program seems to be catching on south of the border, too. Ms. Duffy-MacLean said she was recently contacted by American University in Washington, D.C.
"Once they'd heard about what we were doing here, they gave me a call," she said. "They thought, based on their market and the lifestyle there, that this would make a great opportunity there. …
"The interest is there, there's just not an awareness, it's just not one of those traditional thought processes. We've had people say to us, 'If there wasn't a morning program I couldn't have done my MBA.'"
It's an idea that Rotman expects to grow as word spreads of the benefits and flexibility presented to those with the hunger to pursue an MBA without giving up their careers, or their caffeine.
"Coffee is definitely a familiar smell when you're sitting in class at 7 a.m.," Mr. Sado said. "It takes a while for participation and general remarks from the group to pick up. I'd say people's brains aren't fully awake yet but I'd say by 7:30, 8, everyone's pretty engaged and it's not too bad."