When Deirdre Corley decided to pursue an MBA at MIT Sloan, she faced two life-changing challenges: mastering business school while expecting her first child. Deirdre shares her thoughts on being a Sloanie and mother-to-be, how the MIT community helped her achieve work/life balance, tips on what classmates can do to support other expectant mothers—and strategies for navigating the journey with a baby onboard.
What made you decide to pursue an MBA?
Prior to coming to MIT Sloan, I majored in engineering and worked in consulting and then at Amazon for five years. Having majored in engineering, an MBA seemed like an obvious path to strengthen my business skillset; however, throughout my career I was surrounded by a lot of really talented people with and without MBA's which made me go back and forth for a while on whether I wanted to pursue an MBA. In the end, I decided it was the right path for me because I believed it would strengthen me as a leader in the long-term, give me a safe space to try new opportunities, and allow me to hone in on the career path I want to pursue long term.
Why did you choose MIT Sloan?
The combination of the the technical credibility of MIT and Sloan being an amazing business school made it a great match for me. I love the entrepreneurship focus at MIT and how integrated Sloan is with other schools across the university. I was excited about being able to explore entrepreneurship and other university resources in addition to MBA classes throughout my two-year journey.
Was it difficult navigating the first MBA semester while pregnant?
Being thrown into a new setting is difficult even when you’re not going through personal changes but for the most part the Sloan community was really supportive which helped me navigate the first semester. I also feel lucky that I started Sloan a few weeks into my second trimester of pregnancy. I was really sick through my first trimester but in my second trimester, I had a surge in energy and started to feel like myself which was great timing for getting through the first half of core semester.
How are you feeling now?
Like most people who come to Sloan, I’m used to operating at a pretty quick pace. I tried to keep up that pace through the first half of the semester but now I’m in my third trimester and definitely slowing down. I’ve had to focus on prioritization and being honest with myself about what I can realistically do during my first semester and what I can push to my last three semesters while still getting everything I want out of Sloan.
For example, I decided not to do any recruiting until January when I have some time off. Trying to recruit plus navigate the core semester, meet new people, keep up with my doctor’s appointments, and jump into clubs was too much. Keeping your own personal priorities in mind no matter what journey you’re on is definitely a key to getting the most out of your Sloan experience.
How has the pandemic impacted your work/life balance as a mother-to-be and a student?
My doctor restricted me from air travel until I have the baby due to COVID-19 which added stress in not being able to visit my family and added to a general feeling of isolation that I think has been difficult for a lot of people during this pandemic. But as a student, MIT has done an amazing job getting us on campus and keeping things safe so we’re still able to have some limited socialization. I feel safe being around my classmates because they’re being tested regularly and most are extremely COVID-19 conscious.
What did you wish you knew before coming to MIT Sloan?
That it’s all going to work out. I was pretty overwhelmed when I found out I was expecting only a few days after putting my deposit down at Sloan but I realized somewhere along the way that the first semester is overwhelming for everyone. Whether you’ve moved from a different country, you’ve left a promising career path, or you’re expecting a baby, everyone has made some type of major life change to get their MBA no matter who they are; major change is a hurdle that everyone has to navigate.
Once I got to Sloan and started to settle in, the anxiety started to dissipate and I recognized that it’s completely in my control to have an amazing experience at Sloan and get everything I want out of it. Even if there were times when I felt that I wasn’t social enough or involved enough in extracurriculars, I realized there’s still 18 months to explore!
What’s your advice for women thinking about getting an MBA that also want to start a family?
My advice would be don’t let fear hold you back from going after both. I am a natural worrier and before I decided to go to business school, I worried a lot about if getting an MBA would require me to hold off on starting a family. I didn’t find a lot of examples I could look to on how to navigate starting a family and getting an MBA but in the end I decided that getting an MBA and starting a family were important to me and I would make it work.
Once I got into business school and got pregnant, I realized all of that worrying was wasted bandwidth. Getting an MBA and starting a family is 100% doable with the right support and if I hadn’t decided to get an MBA, I probably would have been worrying about the perfect time to step back and take maternity leave at work.
Since I found out I was pregnant, it has surprised me how clear my priorities have become which has helped me make it all work. Whether you’re working or in school, becoming a new parent requires some lifestyle changes but in the end you’ll figure out what’s most important to you and make sure those things happen.
I think women often underestimate how resilient they are and the things they can accomplish. If you want an MBA and to start a family, set your mind to it and you will be amazed what you can achieve!
MIT Sloan is all about community. In what ways have you experienced that community support?
One other woman in my class is also expecting a baby, due three weeks before me, and we go on ‘pregnant lady’ walks regularly. It has been great to have somebody to talk to who’s going through the exact same experience. Even if it’s just one other person out of a class of 450 people, that’s all you need to have a support group. There is also a Parents @ Sloan group where people share information and advice which I’m sure will be increasingly helpful for me once I have the baby in January.
Any hobbies or fun things that you’ve been doing to keep you sane?
Exercise has always been important to me so I try to do walks every day to keep sane. I also do my best to keep a positive mindset and be grateful. Business school is something that I always wanted to do and having the opportunity to go to an institution like MIT is an amazing honor. Even though there are things that are different about the experience than I expected - like navigating the pandemic - I try to focus on all of the good like getting to meet amazing people from a host of different backgrounds and taking interesting classes from renowned faculty. There are a lot of positives- even in 2020!
What would you want other people to know about expecting mothers or parents who are going through this same journey?
I would say you need to get to know the person on a personal level and really understand how their journey is going because everyone is different. When I first started at Sloan, someone tried to generalize my experience by commenting that it was going to be hard for me to slow down and that I would be more tired than other classmates due to my pregnancy. The person might have been well intentioned but I felt that comment was short sighted without knowing me personally and understanding my specific circumstances.
My general piece of advice would be don’t make assumptions, get to know the person, understand what they specifically are going through, and have some empathy. Everyone’s experience is different and taking the time to understand someone’s individual journey will help you in supporting them.
In Memory of Finnegan ‘Finn’ Michael Deane.