Home Career A well-deserved break won’t hurt your professional development (opinion)

A well-deserved break won’t hurt your professional development (opinion)

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When I meet with students to discuss their professional development, they often express concern about whether they can take a gap year or break between: 1) undergraduate and graduate school, 2) graduate school and a PhD, or 3) graduate/doctoral and first workplace. Some of the questions I hear are:

  • Will taking a few months or a year off hurt my career?
  • If I want to stay in academia, will working in industry for a few months interrupt that momentum?
  • What if I take a gap year and travel and work in a foreign country?
  • What if I find time to earn extra money at a job that is completely outside of my discipline?
  • How can I make sure I get letters of recommendation?

But really, the main question they really need to ask themselves is:why do I want to hang out?” And if you’re faced with a similar decision, I encourage you to ask yourself this question as well.

Why take a year off?

Here are a few examples of reasons why students make me want to take what I call a life break.

  1. A close relative will be returning home and I want to spend some time with them while I work outside of academia before leaving the country for my Ph.D. research.
  2. I need to support myself and need to save money for the year.
  3. I really want to work and travel in the country where my relatives emigrated from.
  4. I went straight from high school to college and graduate school with no breaks. Even my summer was filled with summer courses. I think my brain needs a rest after my PhD. I want to take this time to carefully decide what I want to do next.
  5. I found an internship at a biotech company in another city that I had never been to, but that I had always been interested in.

Yes, it’s okay to take a year off

Starting in Kindergarten, children in our formal education system must progress one grade at a time. School grades are numbered in order from one to 12. Similarly, the university has its own levels of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior, while graduate school has its own ranks of master’s and Ph.D. Students have been rooting for years onward and upward. It is not surprising that they become nervous when they are about to leave the career ladder. They have been expected to “progress” one level at a time throughout their lives, so they worry that if they take a break, it will irreparably damage their progress and success.

But I say to students, if you can, all of the above reasons are more than enough to take a break. Life is not a ladder. It’s a path, a maze – with stairs or slides that go up and down, doors that open inwards or outwards – and sometimes with lights to help you see where you’re going. Everyone has their own path with their own discoveries and problems.

Also, life is much more than just science, and formal education is part of it, but not all of it. The optimal education is one that includes scholarship, mentorship, and meaningful interactions so you can become a thinker and creator of your own career/life path with your own unique inner voice. This kind of introspection brings maturity and focus as you push yourself away and away from the ladder. You are not going to “lose momentum” or “fall behind” as long as you use this time to become a professional adult, either through work or personal self-discovery.

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

  1. Spend quality time with a loved one before starting a five- to seven-year master Ph.D. commitment may be the only chance to share such moments in a lifetime. By working outside of an academic environment, you can develop relationships while strengthening your core competencies. One example was a student who wanted to spend time with her close sibling while working between undergrad and graduate school because he had been away for several years and was only in town for a short time before leaving again.
  2. Some additional funds may help when transferring to the next educational institution and/or during postgraduate studies. In addition, the job can strengthen your people, teamwork, project management and communication skills. For example, I know a student who worked in construction for a year to strengthen his project management skills while saving money to help pay for his Ph.D.
  3. Connecting with the history of your ancestors gives you the opportunity to learn 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 then help an international firm with its Asian partnerships.
  4. Sometimes taking a break from formal education can help you discover what really motivates and drives you. One student used the time between her undergraduate and graduate studies to explore and identify the specific type of research she would like to pursue, rather than simply delving 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 research experience as a forward-thinking thought leader. One student completed a biotechnology internship between her master’s degree. and medical school to see how research is done in the private sector and save money for medical school.

So to answer some initial questions:

  • Will taking a few months or a year off hurt my career? Maybe not if you’re connected to mentors and/or projects that matter to you.
  • If I want to stay in academia, will working in industry for a few months interrupt that momentum? Most likely not, as working in industry research settings can bring a wealth of experience to your portfolio and broaden your horizons significantly.
  • What if I take a year to travel and work in a foreign country? Some programs exist in foreign countries for students and young people to travel and work. They can be a good opportunity to get to know another country and its people — and, most likely, can help you grow.
  • What if I find time to earn extra money at a job that is completely outside of my discipline? Any job that allows you to strengthen your teamwork, communication, emotional intelligence and equity, diversity and inclusion skills will help you become a stronger professional in the future, regardless of the sector.
  • How can I make sure I get letters of recommendation? Before you leave, ask your supervisor and others to write a letter for a future application if possible, as they will have a recent memory of your work experience. Keep the letters in your files so you can refer to them when you need them later in the year. If you need the latest dates on your letters for a graduate or doctoral position you’re applying for, send a letter to your supervisor to refresh their memory and ask them to write a more recent recommendation.

My story

Looking back on my life, I didn’t take more breaks than the summer vacations we were given between K-12, college, and graduate school. I went straight from high school to graduate school. and Ph.D. research. I even started my graduate studies before I defended my doctorate. and started biotech just a few weeks after my PhD experience.

The gap between my first and second biotech job was also only a few weeks. With the exception of maternity leave, I have never taken a year off for financial or personal reasons. And so I’m looking forward to my sabbatical next year, when I can pursue projects outside of 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’s harder to take a few months off to travel or “try something different”. So, if you have the opportunity to do so, consider it. If it works for your life and contributes significantly to your professional and/or personal growth, then it will be a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

Recognize that in terms of your entire life expectancy, you won’t be “behind” by spending a year or two outside of the traditional classroom. You will still grow in the experiential classroom. And this, in turn, will hopefully help give you more motivation and purpose when you return to the ivory tower again.

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