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I’m going to grad school…well, maybe not quite yet

It’s fall once again! Along with football season, pumpkin carving, and cooler weather, it’s also time to start those graduate school applications, right? Well, maybe not quite yet.

While many start a graduate program directly after undergraduate studies, there are numerous benefits to taking some “time off” between finishing undergrad and starting graduate school. It’s worth taking time to think about if going straight to graduate school is the best fit for you. Graduate school is a whole new ball game. So you need to be prepared for what is coming.

Taking a gap year or two (or more?) may lead to a more successful graduate school career. I worked for four years prior to attending graduate school, and I don’t regret it. My years off were largely spent in a laboratory setting. While this is not the only way to spend your time away from school, it’s from this perspective that I’ll be presenting my advice. Drawing upon my personal experience, I’ve included a description of the six core benefits of taking time off before starting graduate school.

You’ll get a break

Once graduate school starts it’s not going to stop until you graduate (or beyond), so take some time to breathe and really think about what you want to get out of your continuing education.
Image Credit: Marketa via Flickr, CC-BY 2.0.

Many of my peers that came to graduate school directly from undergrad say that they wish they had gotten a little bit of real world experience before beginning another program. For many of them, graduate school was different than what they expected, and they often experienced school “burn out” a bit earlier than their peers who took time off. I suggest that potential graduate students take the time to reflect on the motivations for attending graduate school and what they hope to get out of this experience.


You’ll get to see what it’s really like working in a lab full-time

In my undergraduate lab I was given a project and guided through it, step-by-step. In that situation it was pretty easy to be a good student. While I had a productive and great experience as an undergrad in a lab, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study in my chosen field, ecology and evolution. Ecology and evolution is a huge field and I knew I needed to spend some time narrowing down my research interests. So after graduation I worked in several different labs full-time before returning to school, and it was quite a different experience from my undergrad lab.
Image Credit: iT@c via Flickr, CC-BY 2.0.

Working as a laboratory technician meant my schedule was entirely self-guided. I was given projects to complete, but no one told me how to structure my day or how to achieve the desired outcomes on these projects. Instead, I arrived to work every day with goals in mind, and figured out the best way to achieve them. Welcome to the life of an independent scientist.

By working in a lab as a technician or research assistant, you’ll be able to observe the day-to-day routines of other graduate students in your lab. Take the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Does their lifestyle appeal to you? Do you actually enjoy working in lab all day? Does the self-determined schedule work for you? These were questions I grappled with in my years as a lab technician that I hadn’t been able to grasp as an undergraduate student.

You’ll gain practical skills

One of the key skills I learned as a laboratory technician was how to organize and implement my own experiments. At the end of each Friday, I planned out my schedule for every day of my upcoming week. In my 40 hour week, I blocked off time for things like making all my RNA libraries, ordering supplies, answering emails, shipping samples to collaborators and, of course, meetings. Applying to graduate school with this sort of practical experience under your belt shows your mentors and colleagues that you have a good understanding of what it takes to work in a lab and work well with collaborators.

You’ll be able to mentor others 

My time in the lab taught me more than just technical and practical skills; I also learned how to effectively lead others. For example, as a laboratory technician I structured experiment schedules for undergrads, taught them how to extract DNA, run gels, use proper lab techniques, and more. More importantly, I was able to work with students to develop experiments that incorporated their specific research interests.

Guiding undergraduate students will help you master fundamental techniques, communicate clearly and succinctly, and most importantly, understand what it takes to be an effective mentor. Not surprisingly, mentorship is a critical skill that will carry you through your research career.

You’ll refine your research interests

As a lab employee, you’ll have time not only to focus on the experiments in your lab, but explore what else is out there. I encourage you to attend seminars, journal clubs, conferences, etc. Read! Read! Read! Get exposed to the variety of scientific avenues out there. The more defined your research interests are, the easier it will be to hit the ground running once you get to graduate school.

You’ll learn what traits you value in an advisor

Working for several advisors prior to graduate school showed me what I needed from a mentor to be successful. The relationship you have with your advisor is truly vital to your success as a student, so invest the time necessary to figure out what sort of mentorship style you need. Begin by reflecting on past advisors or supervisors: what have you enjoyed about working with them? What was their communication style, and was it effective? Write down your thoughts about the positive and negative aspects of this working relationship. Every lab is different, so regardless of whether you’ve had positive or negative interactions, keep in mind that each experience is unique.
Image Credit: Boris Baldinger via Flickr

What characteristics of your advisor will help you excel in graduate school? For example, if you’re an independent worker, dealing with a micromanaging advisor will be a challenge. I suggest contacting students and postdocs that have worked with the advisors you’re interested in working with and ask them for their candid take on the experience. These insights will help you get an idea of what its like to work in this advisor’s lab and how best to communicate with them. After all, entering a five- to six-year relationship with someone you can’t communicate with spells disaster.

As you sit down to fill out your applications for graduate school, take the time to consider all these topics. The decision to attend graduate school is an immense one, what feels like the best fit for you?

Want to share your experience of taking time off before continuing education? Are you applying to grad school now, either straight from previous studies or not? Let us know in the comments.

Featured Image: Writer’s block by Gabriel Calderón via Flickr

  1. The two years I spent teaching middle school science plus the year I spent as a lab tech were crucial in my decision to attend graduate school. I value the time I had to explore my passions and discover my strengths in and outside of lab before committing myself to graduate school for the next 5-6 years. Plus the “time off” helped me develop a very clear vision of what I want to do after obtaining my PhD. Great advice, Amanda!

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