Considering an MBA with Chronic Illness? You can do it!

The 3rd of December was International Day of Persons with Disabilities – and the UN’s theme this year was “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.” Catherine Merlo, current Full Time MBA participant reflects on this.

Throughout my first term at CBS, I’ve reflected on what it means to do a Full-Time MBA while living with a chronic autoimmune disease.

For those who don’t know, I have both Rheumatoid Arthritis and Sjogren’s Syndrome. When we moved across the world to Copenhagen, I knew the change would surface new triggers and necessitate adjustments. I was not expecting to have so many days during my first two months of business school with crippling pain, high fatigue, and most frustratingly the sludge of cognitive fog. It was a new environment at every level – country, culture, language, school, people, doctors – balanced with the intensity of the academic calendar.

MBA programs are high-pressure settings – filled with so much excitement and enthusiasm, and a “hit the ground running” energy that strokes the chords of your ambitious heart with purposeful coursework and networking opportunities.

There may be folks out there who live with chronic/invisible illness considering applying to an MBA this year or in the future. I want to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned this fall – and hopefully inspire you to think about what your MBA year can look like and believe in your potential to pursue one:

Energy: If being present for full days with intellectual focus, without long breaks are an achievement for you – celebrate that! You may not be the first person out of your seat and to the podium to network with a guest lecturer at the end of class – but this is not a sign that you are “not making the most of your time” or “seizing every opportunity.” Knowing the limits of your body, prioritizing your energy, and channeling it into getting your deliverables done is worth celebrating.

Networking: To that end – embrace LinkedIn, email, and rekindling connections when your energy allows it. In the first few weeks, I kicked myself for not immediately coming home from networking events or lectures and firing off connection requests with personal notes. How could I possibly let the opportunity pass? You will be surprised that a kind, reflective note even a few weeks later will have the same desired outcome. There is time and space for relationship building.

Relationships: There is a LOT of focus in MBA programs on spending social time with your cohort. My first week I was told by so many alumni “don’t turn down an opportunity to hang out with your cohort” or “these relationships are the most important part of this program.” It felt like a lot of pressure to push myself past my limits early on for the sake of bonding. I wish I’d paced myself more – and I’m still working on being ok with missing out. You may feel that your need for longer sleep, inability to drink, need to be in warm spaces (or whatever your situation is) will mean that you miss out on precious relationship-building time. Be honest with yourself about your boundaries – and also be honest with your cohort! Ask for hang-outs to be in accommodating places, find ways to be ok with tapping out while still “showing up.”

Advocate: Ask for accommodations early and often. Can’t do cross-training? Need leadership simulators to be indoors? Unsure about gripping a digital pen during an exam? Need extra time? Take all that great experience you have advocating for your health within the medical system and apply it to your program! It will pay off.

Needing extra time and space to rest, nurture, and heal may be essential to getting through the year – and finding a way to embrace and celebrate this has been key to my mental and physical wellbeing. MBA admissions teams put a lot of intention into creating cohorts full of engaging, diverse people committed to the group’s success. I can’t promise you that everyone will understand, but they will keep an open mind. Finding a way to advocate for yourself is essential to thriving.

Fellow spoonies, you CAN do an MBA, even if it looks slightly different than you envisioned.


To learn more about the Full-Time MBA (a.k.a The Copenhagen MBA): Click here to download the brochure

To book a meeting to have any and all questions answered: Click here to set up a virtual meeting or if you would like to meet on-campus: Click here for a coffee meeting