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Tumbling Through the Void: Navigating the Grad School Gap Year

It’s 2:30 AM. I lay awake drenched in sweat, stress and uncertainty. Thoughts like “what am I doing with my life?” or “is everything I’ve done just a big waste of time?” ferment and fester in my mind. Time is running out.  After this year I will be thrust from the warm embrace of undergraduate life into the unforgiving cauldron of the outside world.  I am not ready!

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Late during my senior year at Indiana University, I realized that I enjoyed academia, and didn’t want to join what is classically referred to as ‘the workforce’. I was part of a strange sect of people who relished in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and would voluntarily devote untold hours in pursuit of it for little compensation. I was prime grad school material.

My problem was that I did not come to this realization until after grad school application season ended, which meant I was doomed to a ‘gap year’ between graduating and the next application cycle. I was scared that once I fell out of the academic ‘tree of knowledge’, I would never be able to climb back in. I immediately postponed my graduation to August 2011, and spent the entire summer completing my honors thesis, which was ultimately published in PLOS ONE.

Before I could waste any more time, I contacted a professor whom I had cultivated a good relationship with about working for him during my upcoming hiatus from academia. I secured a job as an assistant project director (APD) for The Semliki Chimpanzee Project in western Uganda. After majoring in biological anthropology, I was anxious to finally get into the field and get up close and personal with some of our closest relatives. This exciting assignment, however, would not start for another few months.  I therefore needed to find other ways to take advantage of ‘open time’.

I took this rare opportunity to return home and become one of the thousands of ‘twenty-somethings’ that live with their parents and sleep until well past noon every day. I was not simply taking advantage of free lodging and food…or at least that is what I told myself. Awaking in the wee hours of the mid-afternoon, I parked myself in front of stacks of grad school applications, GRE study guides and work books. I read as much as I could and went out on the weekends. Life was good. Devoting my time to making my applications the best they could be paid off, and I secured a spot in my top choice program. When I traveled to Uganda a few months later, I was extremely excited to explore a new part of the world without having to worry about my future when I returned.

When I joined the research project, the previous APD had more or less sabotaged the entire study site. He had been stealing funds and was illegally trapping animals and setting fires for unknown reasons. The car employees had used to transport food and supplies from the nearby small village of Karagutu (~30 km) to the study site had been totaled earlier that year. We were in dire straits. My job was to get myself to the study site, and rectify these problems while managing 4 Ugandan employees with a tentative grasp on English. I was also to collaborate with local authorities to combat poaching activities in the area, which had skyrocketed recently. Furthermore, I was to relocate the chimpanzees and try to complete a milestone in habituation efforts, the nest-to-nest follow.  I had no idea what I was doing, and….it was incredible. Being thrust into a completely new and unpredictable environment prepared me for graduate school like nothing else could.

Image Credit: Jeremy Borniger

I quickly became used to waking up at 5:30 AM and tracking chimpanzees through escarpments along the Ruwenzori Mountains until dusk both on and off our 50 km2 trail system. Breakfast consisted of tea and a chapati (flatbread) with hard-boiled egg. Lunch on the trail was another chapati and egg. Dinner was frequently millet bread with goat stew and matoke. I learned skills I never thought I’d have in my repertoire, like animal tracking, dung analysis, exotic plant and snake taxonomy, and snare/trap disarmament. By completely changing how I lived my life, the food I ate, and what my daily priorities were, I was unconsciously preparing myself for graduate school. After returning from Uganda, moving to central Ohio was a cakewalk.

I learned that there is no ‘wrong way’ to spend a gap year, as long as you are experiencing new things, and getting out of your comfort zone. Take some time and do something completely different. After spending some much needed time getting rejuvenated after college, throw yourself into something you would usually never think twice about. You’ll thank yourself later…I know I did!

photo_BornigerJeremy Borniger is currently a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Graduate Studies Program at The Ohio State University. He received his BA in anthropology with a minor in medical science from Indiana University and has worked with chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys playing the piano, scuba diving, cooking, and writing and reading as much about science as he can! 

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