Categorized | Grad School

Timing is Everything

Posted on 27 August 2008

The phrase “a year off” passes through the lips of almost every graduate considering grad school, at one point or another. What’s the right choice for you?

There is a fog that generally hangs over many a recent grad, resulting from the need to take that first real step after 16+ years of preparative schooling. Some people may enter straight into the workforce, others enter directly into grad programs, and still others take some time off to decide which option is best for them. Here, some recent grads share their stories and reveal a variety of post-graduation experiences.

My roommate Nicole, for example, wishes that she’d taken a year off. A grad student in Spanish literature, she has been studying and preparing to teach for most of her life. But she wonders whether going straight to grad school was the best decision for her: “At the time, it just seemed easier to get grad school over with.”

She stresses that she’s enjoyed the experience – she’s met people with common interests who are just as dedicated in their studies as she has been.

At the same time, she can’t overstate how exhausted she feels: “Now that I’m almost done, I’m glad that I did it. If I had taken the year off, though, I might have regained energy to go through to a doctorate. Maybe it would’ve been more exciting to get into studying again after taking a break. Right now, I just want to be done.”

Furthermore, Nicole has become uncertain of whether she really wants to teach high school, as was her plan upon entering grad school. She’s put her goal of getting a doctorate in Spanish literature on hold for the moment. “It’s time to see what’s out there. Maybe I’ll hate it, maybe I won’t. But I don’t want to be 30, having done nothing but go to school.”

Will I Lose Momentum?

Jason, now a first year grad student at Arizona State University in astronomy and physics, took a year off after graduation and worked as a research assistant for a former professor. He says, “It was worth having the year off. I think if I came here right after college I’d have gone totally nuts by now.”

The fear of losing momentum is always a concern, but chances are, you’ll readjust fairly quickly – after all, you’ve been studying for 16 years. While Jason admits that it was tough to get back into the grind after getting used to more spare time, he quickly adapted to the academic environment. Plus, he learned programming skills on the job that have helped him in class. While he’s enjoying the academic setting, he still maintains that a break is helpful.

He says, “I think going straight through from undergrad to grad might lead to burn out, unless you are really mentally strong.”

Do I Have a Choice?

Of course, the decision to take time off will vary depending on the type of program you’re looking at. Knowing they probably won’t finish school until the age of 30, many aspiring doctors jump straight into medical school so as not to waste even more of their precious youth. You may not have a choice if you’re looking at business school – most top schools require you to spend at least two years in the workforce before applying because real-world experience is highly valued in the classroom.

In some cases, taking a year off can save you from a costly mistake. I can’t tell you the number of lawyers I know who went straight to law school, thinking that a JD would look good on their resume or come in handy down the road. Three years later, $100,000 in debt, they had little choice but to accept grueling 100-hour-a-week (albeit high-paying) positions as first-year associates. Some love it, others are miserable. Might be worth considering an internship at a law firm before applying, just to make sure it’s really for you.

Jen, a class of 2000 grad now studying cosmology on fellowship at UT Austin, does have one universal piece of advice on how to pick the right grad school: “Pick your school carefully, talk to the people you’re going to work with and make sure you’re doing something that sounds interesting.”

Grad school can reinforce your belief that you’ve found the right career, or it can do the opposite, perhaps suggesting another path. In the end, only you can decide what’s right for you.

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