Been there, done that.

After six years of grad school, there are a few things I've picked up from personal experience and a whole lot of time talking with other female grad students (AKA procrastinating). I've always wished there had been some kind of handbook about how to handle the whole world of graduate school, so I figured I'd start a friendly place to discuss what it's like to be female in grad school, and maybe pass on some wisdom too!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time off before starting grad school?

Well, that has to be the most self-explanatory title ever. Anyhow, today I thought I'd tackle the topic of whether or not it's a good idea to take some time off between completing your undergrad degree and starting graduate school. Yayness--right? Right? Okay, maybe not all that exciting, but believe it or not, this is the #1 question I am asked by students when they approach me about grad school. It may not be a make-it-or-break it kind of thing, but it certainly is important.

Now, when I think time off, this is what comes to mind:
(Do you have ANY idea how much I want to be in that hammock? Seriously, I sat there staring at it for like five minutes, full of all kinds of wishful thinking...)

Okay, back to taking time off. A lot of folks finish with college and swear they will never set foot in a classroom again. That's all fine and dandy, but it isn't everyone's thought process. For some of us, there's the knowledge that there's no way we'll ever get a decent job in our chosen field without a few more years of school. Others basically have to go to grad school to define their careers (doctors, lawyers, etc.). So, for those of us who toss our nifty four-cornered hats knowing we'll be heading back to campus, the question then becomes--do we take some time off between stints of educational torture experience? Now, there are quite a few personal issues that come along with this: family, money, experience, etc., which can all play into whether or not a person chooses to take a few years in the "real world" before venturing back into the classroom. At the root of this, however, is whether or not it's a good idea to do so in the first place. Will it affect your chances of getting in? Make an individual less marketable?

Well, to be honest, it can work both ways. Taking a few years off and working at your local burger joint probably isn't going to help in terms of getting your grad school application looked at (unless you are applying to something that has to do with opening your own burger place? I don't know, maybe there's a burger joint grad school out there somewhere?). Taking a few years off to get some experience in your field, however, is always going to weigh in the positive field when it comes to applying. It shows that you are knowledgeable about your field, as well as serious about what you want to do. Bonus points if you can get to know some good people in your field who can write you letters of recommendation.

The other thing that plays into this situation is the fact that when you finish your undergrad degree, the vast majority of students are still quite young (I'd just barely turned 21--yikes that was a while ago!), and even though you might not think so, that doesn't always weigh in your favor. The average age of graduating PhD's is 33, and it takes about seven years on average to complete this degree. So most students are starting at around 26. A few years older, a few more years of experience, and a few more years reaching "adulthood." Quite frankly I know very few graduating undergrads that I would want receiving NSF grants. If you are going to be making that jump right into the academic world, be prepared to be mature enough to handle it. (Okay, just to be clear, I'm totally not saying it can't be done, as I've seen plenty of very young graduate students, but there is a degree of maturity obtained in the early twenties that does help in terms of being a successful grad student. Capitalizing in this isn't going to hurt!)

Waiting a few years also allows for another important thing: finding out if you even like what you've chosen to do. I've harped about this before, but it's very possible to finish a BA or BS in something, get a job in your field, and realize you HATE it. (Eh-hem, speaking from total personal experience here folks, trust me.) Stuff you study in school isn't the real working world--imagine that! So, taking a few years to get your feet wet may help shape where you want to go, and help you make sure that's where you want to end up.

Sure, a few people don't ever go back because they lose momentum after taking time off. That's bound to happen. But, really, extraneous situations excluded, if you're really wanting to go back to school, you're going to do it. There are so many options out there to do so these days that it's totally possible, if you want it. But you better be sure that's what you want :)

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