Is a Gap Year Right for Me?

More and more, students are taking time between their undergraduate degree before pursuing graduate education. Is this the right decision for you, and is it necessary for you to pursue your next steps? Read this post that I recently wrote for the Leadership Alliance to see what I think will help your training and the strength of your post-graduate applications.

Is “gap time” okay on your resume?

A common misconception among undergraduates is that taking gap time may be a blemish on a resume or negatively impact future applications. However, this is wrong: gap time is not a bad thing, as long as the time is used in the right way. Taking time for your professional development after you receive your bachelors is not looked at as a “break” or a “hole” in your record if you’re continuing your training. In fact, I actually don’t love the phrase “gap year” because the word “gap” implies that your training has stopped for a period. Instead, it can be an important extension of your training, moving from the academic world into the professional world.

If a gap year is generally a good thing, is it expected? Should you do this and why would it be a good idea?

There are several good reasons to pursue a gap year. First, you may want to explore the professional world to confirm that pursuing another degree is right for your goals. Imagining the job you think you want versus experiencing itt are two different things. Actually getting out and doing seeing a job like your prospective career can help you confirm if this is what you imagined it to be and what you really want.  I’ve seen several students think that they know what that next step will look like, work hard to pursue it, and then they realize it isn’t what they expected. This is not a bad thing to realize—it is just important to be as confident as possible in pursuing grad school before spending the effort to get there.

Another good reason to pursue experience after graduating is to enhance your application to graduate programs! More and more attention (I bet you have an article on this Will; do you?) is being placed on research experience above academics in graduate admissions, and in fact, at Vanderbilt, over half of our incoming class has had full-time research experience after graduating. You may simply need this experience–and a solid letter of recommendation from that experience–to be competitive at top programs!

Finally, another good reason for gap year can be simply that you want an academic break. That’s okay! The years of work that go into getting your Bachelor’s degree can be long and grueling. It is okay if you need some time to regroup, gain perspective, and have a bit of a “normal” life before jumping right into coursework again. However, a few words of caution: be sure you’re actually recharging so that when you start, you can be “all in”. Also, make certain that you are still putting in good effort to your experience so you will get a good letter. Finally, you may not want to share with admissions committees that your primary reason for taking gap time was for the break. Instead, explain all of the wonderful experience you are getting through this time!

What specifically should I do during a gap year?

There are several great options for a gap year. You could pursue work experience, either as a Research Assistant in academia or industry; You could pursue a postbaccalaureate position at the NIH; You could pursue experience in a NIH PREP program ; you could apply for a Fulbright ; Or you could consider a Masters. Check out my previous article  on the merits of each option. One major take away is that if you are doing research, make sure you are pursuing an independent project rather than working purely as a technician. Find a job where you are intellectually contributing.

In contrast to these options, gap time away from training or professional development activities may not be as attractive on your resume. Traveling, teaching, or volunteering may definitely be a good option for you personally, and if it is something you’d like to do, you should! Just be sure to follow this up with some relevant work experience to show that you are indeed committed to your path.

So, to sum up, rather than being negative, a gap year is often a positive addition to your resume if you are pursuing relevant experience and get a strong letter of recommendation. Consider it if you aren’t fully certain of your path, if you need more experience, or you simply want an academic break!

Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your discussion!

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