A graduating high school senior recently told me that she is taking a "gap year" before going to college or doing whatever comes after next year. "Gap year" is a nice, all-purpose term that can be used to describe a post-high-school, pre-everything-else year that some young people take before diving back into school or starting a job. The term makes the year seem rather alluring, possibly filled with adventure and personal growth experiences.
I have no worries about this particular young woman. She is very dynamic and involved in many activities. I am sure she will end up doing something interesting.
I applaud her gap year plans, even though I am not personally a gap year kind of person. I would have hated taking a gap year. I am too impatient for such things; actually, "impatient" is a nice way to describe what I am. I have never taken any "time off" to do anything else but be in academia as a student or researcher or professor, and that's exactly the way I have wanted it.
Oh, perhaps I would have benefited in some way from doing something outside academia for a while: volunteering in a school, standing on a street corner asking people if they have a minute for the environment, working on a cat ranch (they exist!). But I didn't want to. Once I took a course in my field of science during my freshman year of college, I knew what I wanted to do and I have never wanted to do anything else.
I reject the hypothesis that I would be a better person or adviser had I worked outside of academia, although I agree that it's good if a department has some faculty who have done so.
My personal rejection of the gap year concept doesn't mean that I look down on those who do take time off. I have advised students who had a gap year or six. That's fine. That's just not me. And I don't think I will freak out (too much) if my daughter decides to take a gap year when it is time for her to make decisions about her future.
The closest thing I had to a gappish year was a year spent abroad as a student. I did the backpacking through Europe thing for weeks at a time, living on $5/day, sleeping on trains, eating bread and cheese, meeting lots of interesting people, and realizing that traveling alone in some places was a really bad idea. I had a great time.
In between adventures, I went to my classes, of course; some were really good and some were really awful, but the entire experience was so exotic (big university in international city vs. small liberal arts college in the US), even the bad things were kind of interesting. [One exception: On the first day of a literature course, the professor announced that rape was the most heroic deed known to mankind and was much misunderstood throughout history. He was going to be our guide through rape scenes in literature, to explore the heroic elements of this act. I walked out of the class, dropped it, and took a course instead from a kindly old professor who loved architecture, art, and literature.]
So, I have been gapless, unless you count term leaves and sabbaticals. I guess these are sort of gap year-like in that they are for recharging and doing something different, in some cases in a different place. At the same time, they are not as open-ended as a "gap year" in which you don't really know what you'll be doing when the gap closes, so the comparison kind of falls apart there.
I think there are gap year kinds of people and non-gap year kinds of people. What is an excellent idea for some people would be torture for others. Whichever kind you are, I think it is important that we not make assumptions about the "other" kind: gap year people are not necessarily less serious than non-gappers, and non-gappers aren't necessarily one-dimensional monomaniacs who don't want to live in the "real" world.
8 months ago