The gap year I intended to take between my Master’s degree and hypothetical Ph.D. is now going into its 4th year. Here’s why I’m not worried.
These days it seems like undergraduates are proceeding en masse to graduate programs shortly after completing their senior year of college. An abundance of undergraduate research opportunities and poor job prospects for those with “just” a bachelor’s degree are strong contributors. Admittedly, as someone who took this route and then burned out near the end of my master’s degree, I’d argue that the often-overlooked option of taking a year (or five) before jumping back in doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll fall behind your peers.
There are a myriad of reasons that play into the decision to take one or more gap years: the desire or need to pay down student loans, lack of experience or recommendation letters, family obligations, and so forth. Then there’s the uncertainty of deciding which niche topic to focus on for the next 4-6 years.
If you decide that you’re not ready right now, it doesn’t mean there’s no hope for your eventual entrance into a graduate program. While you’re trying to figure it all out, here are a few pointers on how to stay involved that will hopefully make re-entry into the dynamic world of academia a little bit easier.
If you live near a college/museum/research facility
Focus on the departments that are most closely related to your interests, but also pay attention to those that are not. Most seminars advertise openly to the public, so you can walk right in, grab a seat, and have your mind blown by the latest research. Just make sure you get there early in order to grab a cookie and …
Take advantage of any and all social settings to meet graduate students, post-docs, and professors. This is the best way to get a feel for different departments and fields. People will remember that you took the time to attend a seminar, even though no one knows who you are or where you came from (yet!).
Instead of simply walking up and introducing yourself, take the time to ask about their research and genuinely think about the information they share with you. Going outside of your comfort zone and inserting yourself in this type of community shows true interest and confidence that many recent graduates lack, which says a lot about your maturity and preparedness for graduate school.
Talk to administrators
Don’t overlook support staff; they know a lot about the going-ons in their department and can help you identify events that you should be attending. Ask if you can be added to a mass email list for special events so you don’t miss something important. Depending on their role, administrators can be very knowledgeable about funding opportunities for students, which makes a huge difference when planning out your graduate studies.
While labs often meet weekly to discuss the group’s recent work, many also set aside time to discuss papers. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate to meet two professors who encouraged me to attend their reading groups. This was a great opportunity to practice digesting and critically analyzing research publications with people who were much more advanced. Not to mention, it helped me develop relationships with those people (more networking!).
Regardless of where you live
Workshops/Open access training
There are many open access online tutorials aimed at developing entry-level skills. Code Academy, the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute , and many others make it convenient to learn skills that will boost your attractiveness as a graduate school or job applicant. You can also check out workshops for practical lab skills; my employer recently covered the cost of an out-of-state workshop because I was able to show that it was relevant to my work.
Subscribe to email lists
Sometimes your hard work and dedication leads to finding the lab of your dreams, or sometimes the lab of your dreams finds you. Researchers frequently post citizen science projects, lab openings, and project ideas to listservs to maximize their audience and sound off about relevant topics. Who knows, they might even ask questions that you can answer because of the unique set of skills you’ve picked up during your gap year!
Volunteering in a research lab is a great way to gain experience as an undergraduate and can sometimes turn into a paid position and even published papers. Don’t stop there! Pay attention to opportunities to engage in STEM diversity and education. Look for non-profits that need help organizing events or social campaigns; not only will you build leadership skills but you’ll pick up a unique perspective from interacting with people from all walks of life. Research funding organizations often look for evidence of community outreach in grant applications, and graduate programs want students that can bring their own funding.
Social Media: Twitter, Research Gate, LinkedIn, and so on
Social media is a powerful tool for connecting people with similar interests, regardless of location. Want to see which research topics are really exploding? Check out Twitter. Curious about which areas companies are hiring in? LinkedIn is a great source for career advice.
Taking a gap year is a great way to gain perspective and discover yourself outside of school. If nothing else, it will help solidify your decision to enroll in a graduate program while providing you with an opportunity to develop real-world skills. In my time outside of academia, I’ve built up a strong resume full of industry-driven research, teaching experience, outreach volunteerism, and a brilliant network that gives me confidence about my prospects for returning to academia. Regardless of your degree level, you can take steps now to prepare yourself for re-entry into academia.
Follow these tips to maximize your time outside of school so that when you do decide to jump back in, you take off with a running start.
Did I leave anything out? Feel free to add suggestions in the comments below!
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Segrott.