Friday, June 04, 2010

No Gap

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.

34 comments:

Lucy said...

"...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" - if you don't know what you're doing at the end of the "gap", i don't think it counts as a "gap year", at least not by my definition.

"Gap years" are routinely taken in the UK between high school and university, or a bachelors and masters course - but usually only after being accepted onto the subsequent course, and deferring entry for one academic year - Usually in this year people will live with their parents and work for 6 months, then use the money they have saved to travel or volunteer abroad.

Anonymous said...

I'm a gap person. I took 5 years "off" before heading to grad school. I was working in my field, finding out what really excited me. I feel that there was a discernible difference in maturity and drive between me and most of the students who had gone straight through. While I am certainly envious of those people who have their PhD at 27, I always think that they have somehow missed out on life and a sense of perspective. Then again, FSP went straight through and she has tremendous perspective--now. This doesn't mean that I won't take on a grad student fresh out of college, in fact my first student could barely drink (legally). Is this a field specific thing? There are many opportunities for field/lab positions in biology but how many possibilities are there in the other sciences?

Anonymous said...

I am kind of non-gap year person. I never had any break during years of education, teaching as assistant professor in a college and then coming to a full time research. Then, after my second child, I found in a situation where I had to take some break (which turned out to be 2 years exactly) and you know what, I loved this time. No stress, no particular plan for the day and lots of fun time with kids. Now when I am looking forward to go back to work, I know I will miss this time and may even see this time as the best 2 years in my life. So, you never know who you are, until you get a chance to explore yourself.

Eilat said...

Great post! I would also add that many high-school students are simply not mature enough for college and a gap year, away from parents, working or learning about the world could be very useful. I am like you. I knew what I wanted to do from the start. But I was the exception among my friends and younger sisters. Most people spend the first year of college (and, often, beyond) trying to figure out what interests them enough to commit to a major and a career. Simultaneous with this, most college freshmen are exploring what it means to be away from home and parents, which usually means drinking a lot of alcohol and going to lots of parties, etc.
Unfortunately, the acts of searching for one's future calling and being drunk all day do not mix well.
People who are unlike you and me, and need time to figure out what they want to study, should definitely take a year (or two or three) off to DO something, and BE adults in one way or another. They should take the time to mature a bit and get the "freedom" thing out of their system, so they can go to college focused and ready to learn. I shudder at the thought of all that tuition money going to waste on skipped classed due to hangovers and general meandering about on one's parents' dime.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I'm genuinely curious about this statement FSP. What do you think is the general benefit to the department if you don't think that if affects you as an individual faculty member?

Female Science Professor said...

I think there should be 'diversity of experience' represented in a department, not just people who followed the exact same career path.

Kim said...

Yes.

I hope the "gap" concept also applies to people who take a break from school because they can't afford it, or because they had kids before they were done. I've never heard my students phrase their life experiences as a "gap year" (or 6), but I think that they learned a lot during that time.

Anonymous said...

The age confounder is tricky. My PhD advisor was very wary of taking on PhD students who hadn't spent any real time outside academia. My impression was that those who were interviewing for positions while still in undergrad had on average less originality and perspective, tending to emphasize their grades and their undergrad advisers' ideas. In fields where research is more independent (i.e., students aren't working on some large grant where the experiments have been more or less predetermined), intrinsic motivation and originality are supremely important. Some people have this already in undergrad, but time away from academia (at least in the specific field of PhD work) usually builds character in a way that's useful for the PhD. Maybe aging alone is enough. As a small aside, professional experiences outside academia often build communication and collaboration skills that can be hard (for some) to learn in grad school.

steph said...

"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."

OMG!!!!!!!!! I really think this is taking me back to watching that video about MTV and the rape culture that I watched in college (I can't remember the name). That is so insane! I really want to know what country this was in.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't think there is any point in making rules/generalizations about when someone is ready for grad school. I have advised excellent students who came straight from being undergrads and others who did something else first. I have (tried to) advise awful students who came straight from being undergrads and others who did something else first. There is no correlation between a gap and grad success; every person is so different in motivation and maturity, rules about this are pointless.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

I never had gaps per se, but ended up making a major professional switch at one point due to, in part, personal reasons, which I suppose did result in a small lag on the CV.

In hindsight, I wish I was able to take some time off to smell the roses, it just never worked out that way. I did, however, know what I wanted from the get go, but the path to it was not linear.

I also agree that, as far as graduate students go, those who take some time off after Bachelors and do something else bring generally extra determination and maturity into their graduate experience and are more focused. I think this holds simply because people who come back to grad school after a gap do it because they want to and their mind is in the right place. This is of course not to say that you cannot have the same maturity and determination without the gap, I have met a number of highly motivated BS grads who do phenomenally in grad school. But I must admit that a fair percentage of very young, no-gap students diffuse into grad school simply because they don't have a better idea of what to do and they are hard to work with because they lack the proper motivation... I'd say maturity and focus are key, and some people need to explore to get to that point.

Anonymous said...

I am not at all a "gap year" kind of person and went straight from high school to college to grad school. I did take time away from the bench after I defended my thesis to be the primary caregiver for my daughter. I felt that the lack of gaps up until that point allowed me to be a little more flexible when I needed it. This is probably a reflection of my personality (too many gaps would have made me anxious) and so I wouldn't necessarily advise others to follow the same path.

Anonymous said...

I see far too many kids in university here for no other reason than they "are supposed to be". Those ones really needed a gap year. Some would have realised that they don't want/need to go to University others would have realised they don't want to be fry cooks. Still others would have become excited about learning after seeing a little of the world.

I am really in favour of it. Those who could do with out it most often do something really exciting and worthwhile during that year anyway.

The likelihood that a high school graduate is really ready for adulthood is small. This can be one way to move them in that direction.

Alex said...

In hindsight, I wish I was able to take some time off to smell the roses, it just never worked out that way. I did, however, know what I wanted from the get go, but the path to it was not linear.

OMG do I know what you mean. I've never taken a break from the academic path. I've done a lot of offbeat things within the academic path (e.g. teach at an unusual school, work on unusual projects, do a research project in an unrelated field, become involved in various volunteer organizations) but I've never really gone away and then come back.

There's a part of me that would love nothing more than to take a sabbatical from science altogether: Pare back my lifestyle, live cheap, work odd jobs (maybe by the beach?), meet interesting people, and never even mention to them that I'm a scientist with an advanced degree. However, I know that if I stepped away I would immediately start coming up with ideas for things I want to do, and then I'd miss my job.

Narya said...

I've had a number of gaps thrust upon me--I started college in the spring semester (wait-list, because I was late in applying . . .). I worked for five years between college and grad school (which helped me focus in incredible ways when I did go to grad school), and then there was the 18 months of unemployment between grad school and a completely non-academic job (because there weren't any academic jobs), and the multiple career changes since then. So, even though I wouldn't think of myself as a gap-year person, I have had to be one.

I also found that many of my fellow grad students who had some time between college & grad school had more interesting things to say and typically were more sure they wanted to be in grad school, instead of continuing to go to school because they were good at it and it was something to do.

John V said...

Gap years are not a big problem, but in my field, geophysics, I view them as an indication of indecision. There's little reason one cannot figure out if a career in research is desired from undergrad experience, which now most often includes several research projects.

If one wants a break from school, or changes one's mind about majors, careers, or a fit to a particular program a time or two, it makes it more likely one will again change one's mind in the future. Some people operate that way, and very well, but it can presage challenging mentoring and research group planning.

Clearly, given my prejudice, I took no gap years.

Trabor said...

I took a gap year or six before starting grad school at a very prestigious university. My gap time was filled with travel to exotic places, working in various labs, a museum, NGOs, etc. Lots of fun stuff. But I distinctly remember in our grad school orientation, the very famous professor in charge announced that the department would never ever accept any grad student over 27, because they obviously would not be serious, ambitious students. I was 27 at the time, and that comment really freaked me out.

But now I don't feel like I am any older than my peers. Maybe I made up for lost time, or maybe 6 gap years is not so uncommon....

Anonymous said...

I think you definitely should have taken a gap year to work on a cat ranch.

Anonymous said...

for those of us married, with kids, a mortgage, bills up to the ears...is it too late to take a gap year?? I really feel like I could use one right now...

when I was young and commitment-less enough to be able to take a gap year, I felt no need for one and was more concerned with charging full steam ahead into fulfilling career ambitions. Now when I really could use one to recharge my burnt-out batteries, I can't.

So to all you young (or at least untied-down) ones out there, I would advise taking a gap year while you still can. This may be your last chance.

Anonymous said...

There is no correlation between a gap and grad success; every person is so different in motivation and maturity, rules about this are pointless.

Not buying it yet, though I'm sure there are lots of individual exceptions. We need statistics.

Anonymous said...

I don't think students who had gap years should be viewed as un-serious or indecisive. It could be that they are more open minded, eager for new experiences, and gutsy. Aren't these qualities valuable in scientists too?

even if the gap year does stem from indecisiveness about life - so what? I would rather that a person deal with indecision by taking time to think about it rather than rushing to a decision prematurely based on someone else's schedule.

I didn't take any gap years and I regret it. I just didn't have the money since as the first member of my family to go to college, let alone grad school, I was under a lot of pressure to start earning and supporting my parents and younger siblings as soon as possible. But if I did have enough money I would have.

Kevin said...

We get a lot of re-entry students in our program, ranging in ages from late 20s to early 50s. Many are coming into the program after years of computer programming in industry. Some of them have been great PhD students, some have struggled with the lifestyle changes of being a student again. Overall, the success rate on this small sample (one department that favors admitting re-entry students) shows no correlation between age and success.

PUI prof said...

I really like the idea of students spending a year (or so) in another culture. Anything less than that is just touring. Students who have been innundated in world views other than their own have a significant advantage in life/career, IMHO.

John V said...

Three questions are conflated here. Is it a good choice to take a gap year? and are grad applicants with a gap year in their record strong candidates for admission? and are grad students with gaps less successful the non-gappers?

I'd argue that most who start a "gap year" never come back to graduate studies. The small fraction that do probably are the ones most motivated to do research, and may often be among the more capable of the gappers.

Further, as only a small minority of applicants are admitted, and (in my experience) a smaller fraction of gappers than no-gappers, it reveals little about the wisdom of the choice to take a gap to compare the success rates of admitted gappers and non-gappers.

quasihumanist said...

I don't like the terminology 'gap year'. It implies that all of your life you were destined to be a scientist and the time you didn't spend in academia was just some anomaly, a temporary deviation from your true path.

For those of us who seriously were indecisive or seriously wanted to do something else for a while, the language we use should honor that. We should simply say 'We did X for a while, and then decided we would rather be a student instead.'

hkukbilingualidiot said...

PUI prof, I don't really agree with your perception that spending less than a year in another culture is just touring. A lot can actually be gained by about a week or so. I have done all that sort of travelling. I've spent a year in a foreign country, working, and I've grown up in two different countries in two different continents. In addition I have also spent considerable time travelling around a continent. From my experience a week is pretty much enough to get a good idea of a culture, if you choose to avoid touristy places. I guess what I'm trying to say is it's not the time you spend in a culture that's important but rather how you choose to learn about it.

Anonymous said...

I had two gaps in my undergrad. The first was one semester immediately post-high school. I worked for my Dad that year and found out just how much I couldn't wait to go to college.

Even when I went back to college I was still way too immature to take college courses. I took another "gap" year 1.5 years into college after transferring (a second time) to a university that was definitely not right for me while taking on a load I couldn't handle, subsequently dropped out, and worked (only to get fired from 2/3 of my jobs) while drinking/drugging my brain cells and liver away.

One year later I left that life and cautiously started back at my old university again.

It worked out. Micro bio PhD student at Big Huge Midwestern Research University and am now mature enough to have the strength to get through a hellish first year and bounce back from some academic difficulties without too much alcohol abuse. :-)

Anonymous said...

I nearly took a "gap year" in between high school and college, simply for financial reasons. My parents were preoccupied with their divorce and refused to fill out financial aid paperwork. I'd been accepted at a university and had received some scholarships for tuition, but not enough to cover fees, books, etc. My parents suggested I find an apartment somewhere (they'd moved into places of their own) and work for a year to "save up" for uni. I KNEW that if I didn't start uni then, one year would turn into ten years. I started uni and got through it with a bunch of crappy jobs, sometimes eating nothing but a pack of ramen a day.

So from my perspective I find it sort of astounding when young people take "gap years" between high school, college, grad school. Vacations are fine, but a whole year of nothing? You never know when disaster will happen (funding cut, your program closes down, illness, whatever), so you ought to pursue your goals while you can.

Anonymous said...

Gap years are not a big problem, but in my field, geophysics, I view them as an indication of indecision. There's little reason one cannot figure out if a career in research is desired from undergrad experience, which now most often includes several research projects.


Conversely, when I see how intellectually immature the 22-year-old and 23-year-old students coming straight from undergrad are compared to the 25-year-olds and 26-year-olds who worked a few years, I would make the completely opposite generalization. In my experience, those older students are much more likely to complete their PhDs, and much more likely to be able to work independently of their advisor as they near completion.

I'm sure this is field-dependent, though. In my field (computer science), working as a software engineer or something similar for a few years is generally good preparation for research. There may not be equivalent opportunities for geophyisicists.

Female Science Professor said...

One of my worst grad students, who did not even make it past his prelim exams, had worked for a few years before returning to graduate school. He spent much of his time unhappy because his grad office wasn't as good as his previous (corporate) office, because I was unwilling to hire underlings for him to supervise to do much of the daily work of his dissertation research (he treated undergrads like slaves, not like research students to be mentored), and because his salary was so much lower than what he was used to. I have had other students who worked outside academia between undergrad and grad years and who were excellent. In my personal experience with advising graduate students, there has been no correlation between time off and motivation/maturity, and it would therefore make no sense for me to use this factor to make decisions about grad advisees.

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

One of my worst grad students, who did not even make it past his prelim exams, had worked for a few years before returning to graduate school. He spent much of his time unhappy because his grad office wasn't as good as his previous (corporate) office, because I was unwilling to hire underlings for him to supervise to do much of the daily work of his dissertation research (he treated undergrads like slaves, not like research students to be mentored), and because his salary was so much lower than what he was used to.

Oh yes, I have seen a few of those specimens. Extremely obnoxious. On the upside, they start displaying extreme brattiness very early on, so perhaps this can be used a litmus test to identify and let them go sooner rather than later?

Thinkerbell said...

I do not have the make-up of what I think constitutes a real gap-personality: namely the free-flowing we'll-see-what-happens impulsive and care-free mentality that comes with being totally OK with having no security or an idea what will happen tomorrow. I know fully well that just steaming ahead in the typical academic career trajectory is just false security (I am about to enter the TT job market). On the other hand, as a non-gap person I have also been able to incorporate exciting experiences and years abroad into my life. I don't think I missed out on anything, my experiences may just have been slightly less drastic. I also rather read a book than go bungy-jumping. It is just another example of how your personality will translate to how you approach science: I know I am not a big-risky-endeavor scientist. That doesn't make me a worse scientist, just a different one. And I think that corresponds to what FSP said about the need for diversity in a department/university.

Miss Outlier said...

I didn't take any gap years, although I tried to fit in small trips and breaks along the way. I always sort of envied those who did take gap years (one of my friends rode his bike from alaska to argentina - how's that for awesome!). But I always seemed to be "on track" and I hated to mess up the momentum. For a girl who forgets things over the summer, I'd have a really hard time coming back to school after a year away.

I don't think it's a bad thing or a good thing to take a gap year - I think FSP has it right by saying it totally depends on the personality and situation of the person. But I certainly think people should consider it - it can be a helpful life experience.

Anonymous said...

I was pretty burned out after college. I had been accepted at MIT's PhD program, and I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I couldn't bear the thought of going *right* *then*. But I also wasn't quite bold enough to just take a year off and wander the globe (I made a friend in Europe who did this, and now she's got her own cooking TV show in Canada), so I arrainged a kind of internship at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. So I took a year off school, but stayed active in science, and also got to travel around Europe. My Canadian friend (whom I met at that time) picked grapes in France, catered in Spain, spent a few weeks in India, and had many other interesting adventures. So it felt like a "gap year" to me, because I wasn't working as hard, but I didn't completely jump off the academic conveyer belt. However, now that I'm a professor, I *really* wish more of my students would go do something else for a while after high school, so they would know why they were in college. Not all of them, but a lot of them. They would benefit from the perspective. Me, I'm *extremely* glad I did it; I came back to grad school reinvigorated and enthusiastic, rather than exhausted and unfocused.