Executive Education

All About the Cohort

For mid-career executives who may be heading back to the classroom for the first time since college, the cohort learning experience common to many executive MBA programs may be somewhat unfamiliar.

While undergraduate students and even traditional, full-time MBA students are more accustomed to choosing their own classes and course load, EMBA students often follow a curriculum as a group—they matriculate together and upwards of 20 months later, they graduate together. Love it or hate it, this team-based learning structure might prove to be the most important part of your EMBA experience. Here’s why:


Most EMBA program participants intend to use their degree to accelerate their career advancement. The potential, post-graduation leverage the degree could impart might seem to be the most important reason to pursue an EMBA. But many students—and even B-Schools—say networking among the cohort is one of the most-frequently cited top benefits of entering an EMBA program.

Within a cohort-based program, you will end up spending nearly two years with the same, small group of seasoned professionals from your industry and others. Often, you will complete some study abroad together. Given the specific demands of balancing your already-demanding work life as a senior or mid-level executive with night and weekend classes, you may find that you build close, personal relationships with your cohort who understand the challenges you face.

Down the road, calling on fellow members of your cohort within your industry may prove fruitful and give you an advantage over your colleagues within your organization who lack that additional network. You may also find that the members of your cohort from other industries can provide valuable insight and a unique perspective on issues encountered in your line of work.


Experiencing a cohort-based learning program when pursuing an EMBA can expose you to a wealth of diverse perspectives spanning multiple industries. Take, for example, the EMBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, ranked number one this year by US News and World Report. In this year’s class, more than 15 industries are represented, from consulting to health care to real estate. And with an average of 13 years of work experience, that’s a lot of group wisdom to tap into. Adding to this diversity, some 56 countries are represented in this year’s class at the Booth School.

But across the board, there’s one way in which diversity is poorly represented in EMBA programs: in the gender breakdown of most cohorts.

Continuing with the Booth School as an example, 75% of this year’s class is male. Only 25% is female. And while the Booth School does make an effort to promote conferences that empower female executives, that gender breakdown is common throughout most EMBA programs.

According to the 2014 Membership Program Survey of the Executive MBA Council, only 25.4% of EMBA program participants were women—a number that’s remained virtually unchanged for years. The underrepresentation of females is a problem with MBA programs as well. Back in 2000, a study from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business surveyed 1600 total MBA students and asked the women what they felt were the top barriers for females considering an MBA. They cited a lack of female role models, insecurity in their math abilities, a lack of support and encouragement from employers and the inherent upholding a positive work-life balance. Recognizing all of these issues, many schools are working to actively recruit women so that they can be better represented for a truly diverse cohort.

Real world applications

In many ways, the cohort-based learning experience common to many EMBA programs is more applicable to the working world than a self-guided curriculum that one completes as an individual. As a mid-career executive, it is vital to effectively work and communicate with others who represent a wide variety of perspectives and experiences. Furthermore, some high-level decisions within a corporation may need to bridge industries—and having spent many months with leaders of other industries in your cohort, you may find that you are better equipped to understand and execute on those decisions. Rarely in today’s corporate environment are we completely reliant on only ourselves to complete a project and allowed to pick and choose work that we feel inclined to pursue—so why have a curriculum that’s structured that way? Having an EMBA program structure that best represents the collaborative and diverse nature of our workplaces can ultimately be the most useful learning experience of them all.

About the Author

R. Kress is an Emmy Award winning journalist whose reporting and writing has appeared in national media from NBC News to the International Herald Tribune. She has covered news from cities around the world including Jerusalem, Krakow, Amman and Mumbai.