Embracing the Intermissions in Life

Nana Lee explains why graduate students and postdocs shouldn’t worry that taking a gap year will disadvantage them in their professional development and career.

July 11, 2022
A word cloud on the topic of the essay. The most prominent words are "gap year," "student" and "university."
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When I meet with students to discuss their professional development, they often bring up concerns about whether they can take a gap year or time off in between: 1) undergraduate and graduate studies, 2) graduate school and a postdoctoral fellowship or 3) graduate school/postdoctoral fellowship and the first job. Some questions I hear are:

  • Would taking a few months or a year off hurt my career?
  • If I want to remain in academe, would working in industry for a few months interrupt that momentum?
  • What if I take the year and travel and work in a foreign country?
  • What if I take some time to make extra money in a job that is not in my discipline at all?
  • How can I make sure I obtain letters of recommendation?

But, in fact, the underlying question they should really be asking themselves is “Why do I want to take some time away?” And if you are facing a similar decision, I recommend that you ask yourself that question, too.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Here are some examples of the reasons that students give me for wanting to take what I call an intermission in life.

  1. A close relative will be back home, and I want to spend some quality time with them while I work outside the academy before I leave the country for Ph.D. studies.
  2. I have to support myself and need to save some money for a year.
  3. I really want to work and travel in the country that my relatives emigrated from.
  4. I went straight from school to college to grad school with no breaks. Even my summers were filled with summer courses. I think my brain needs to take a break after the Ph.D. I want to take this time to carefully decide what I want to do next.
  5. I found an internship at a biotech business in another city where I have never been but which has always intrigued me.

Yes, It’s OK to Take a Gap Year

Starting from kindergarten, children in our formal education system are expected to progress one grade at a time. School grades are numbered in sequence from one to 12. Similarly, the university has its levels of freshman, sophomore, junior and senior, while graduate school has its own ranks of master’s and Ph.D. It’s been ingrained in students for years to keep moving onward and upward. No wonder they become nervous if they are considering stepping off the ladder. They’ve been expected to “progress” one level at a time their entire life, so they worry if they take a break, it will irreparably damage their advancement and success.

But I tell students, if you are able, all of the example reasons stated above are more than enough to take an intermission. Life is not a ladder. It is a path, a maze—with stairs or slides that go both up and down, doors that open inward or outward—and sometimes with lights that help you see where you are going. Everyone has their own pathway with their own discoveries and challenges.

Also, life is about much more than just academics, and formal education is part but not all of it. The optimal education is one that includes scholarship, mentorship and meaningful engagements so that you can become a thinker and creator of your own career/life pathway with your own unique inner voice. Such inner reflections bring maturity and purpose when you break away and take time off the ladder. You are not going to “lose momentum” or “fall behind” as long as you use this time to grow as a professional adult, whether through employment or a personal self-discovery.

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Here are some more details for each of the examples listed above.

  1. Spending quality time with a close loved one before you launch onto a major five- to seven-year Ph.D. commitment may be the only chance you’ll have to share such moments in your entire life. You can grow your relationship while strengthening your core competency skills as you work outside an academic setting. One example was a student who wanted to spend time with her closest sibling by working between undergraduate and graduate school, as he had been away for several years and would be in town for only a brief time before departing again.
  2. Some extra funds can help with the move to your next educational institution and/or during graduate school. In addition, a job can strengthen your people, teamwork, project management and communication skills. For example, I know a student who took a year to work in construction to strengthen his project management skills while saving money to help pay for his Ph.D.
  3. Becoming close to your ancestral history gives you the opportunity to discover why you think or do the things you do. An example is a student who spent a year in Asia, built her network and strengthened her translation skills to subsequently help an international firm with its Asian partnerships.
  4. Sometimes, taking an intermission from your formal education can help you discover what really motivates and drives you. One student used the time between undergraduate and graduate school to explore and determine the specific sort of research she wanted to delve into—instead of just drifting into a topic.
  5. An opportunity in another city can help you see how research works in a different place and system, which can enrich your scholarly experience as a thought leader moving forwards. One student took a biotech internship experience between her M.Sc. and medical school to see how research was performed in the private sector and to save money for her medical school tuition.

Thus, to answer some of the initial questions:

  • Would taking a few months or a year off hurt my career? Probably not, if you maintain connections with mentors and/or projects that are meaningful to you.
  • If I want to remain in academe, would working in industry for a few months interrupt that momentum? Probably not, as working in an industry research setting can bring a rich experience to your portfolio and significantly broaden your outlook.
  • What if I take a year to travel and work in a foreign country? Some programs exist in foreign countries for students or younger adults to travel and work. They can be a good opportunity to experience another country and its people—and can most likely help you grow.
  • What if I take some time to make extra money in a job that is not in my discipline at all? Any job that enables you to strengthen teamwork, communications, emotional intelligence and skills in equity, diversity and inclusion will help you become a stronger professional in the future, no matter what sector.
  • How can I make sure I obtain letters of recommendation? Before you depart, ask your supervisor and others to write a letter for a future application, if possible, as they will have a recent memory of your working experience. Keep the letters in your files so you can use them when you need them within the year. If you need recent dates on the letters for graduate school or a postdoctoral position that you’re applying for, send the letter back to your supervisor to refresh their memory and ask them to write a more recent recommendation.

My Story

Looking back on my own life, I did not take any longer intermissions than the summer breaks we were given between K-12, college and grad school. I went straight from high school to undergraduate, M.Sc. and Ph.D. studies. I even started my postdoctoral fellowship before I defended my Ph.D. and started a biotech job just a few weeks after my postdoctoral experience.

The break between my first and second biotech jobs was also just a few weeks. Apart from maternity leaves, I never took a gap year due to either financial or personal reasons. And that is why I look forward to my sabbatical next year, when I will be able to pursue projects outside my institution and embrace ideas beyond the horizon. I am finally taking a much-needed gap year. I hope to grow personally with some Nana time and professionally as an educational leader.

Students, once you start a professional job, it is more difficult to take a few months to travel or “try something different.” So if you have the ability to do so, consider it. If it works for your life and adds meaningfully to professional and/or personal growth, then it will be a fulfilling and worthwhile experience.

Recognize that, from the perspective of your whole life span, you will not be “falling behind” for taking a year or two outside the traditional classroom. You will still be growing in the experiential classroom. And that, in turn, will hopefully help give you more motivation and purpose when you come back, once again, to the ivory tower.

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Nana Lee is the director of professional development and mentorship and assistant professor, teaching stream, at the University of Toronto. She is also a member of the Graduate Career Consortiuman organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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