This is our first installment in a series of posts that will discuss the option of taking a gap year prior to starting graduate school. While many students choose to go to graduate school right after finishing up their bachelor’s degree, taking some time away from school before starting a PhD program is becoming an increasingly popular option. However, this is still somewhat of a non-conventional route, and there is a large amount of uncertainty and doubt about what to do and what to expect for those considering taking a gap year.
Fortunately, several of our authors here at Astrobites have taken a gap year prior to starting graduate school, and we’d like to share our experiences and advice with our readers. Even though we are speaking from an astronomy background to other astronomers, our gap year experiences are diverse enough such that students in other fields might find this information helpful as well.
Several of our authors spent their gap year working on a research project at their undergraduate institutions. In this post, we will share our experiences with being a “pseudo-grad” student (i.e. having the research responsibilities of a graduate student, but without being formally enrolled at an institution and having to take classes, teach, etc.)
It Actually Is Rocket Science! (Anson Lam)
When I started my senior year at Caltech, I wasn’t terribly motivated to apply to grad school. Even though I wanted to get a PhD at some point, I also wanted a break from the endless cycle of classes and problem sets. I still enjoyed doing research though, so I sent a bunch of emails around the astronomy department asking if anyone would be willing to take me into their group for a year. It took a number of tries until I was successful, but I ultimately ended up working on the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) as a full-time research assistant. Even though I had a lot of experience doing other types of research as an undergraduate, this project was quite a unique experience. For one, I had an opportunity to work on instrumentation, which was something I had never done before, nor had I really considered as a research option. I also had the opportunity to go on a month-long field deployment at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where I was helping out with assembling and launching the CIBER rocket.
Even with doing research full time, it was still easier to finish up my graduate school applications and GREs without the usual craziness that I had to endure as an undergraduate. I don’t think I would have fared as well if I had applied during my senior year. My graduate school visits were more relaxed as well, since I didn’t have to worry about classes. In fact, a number of graduate students I had met during my visits mentioned that they wished they had taken a gap year too, so I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
My gap year wasn’t all work though, and I still had opportunities to do fun and interesting things outside of research. We had a number of visiting graduate students from Japan and Korea in our research group, and it was fun getting to socialize and mingle with collaborators from different cultures (I’m Chinese-Canadian-American myself). I even started learning Korean as a foreign language just for fun. I also enjoy endurance sports, and I spent a considerable amount of my free time doing a lot of distance running and racing in various triathlons. I didn’t always have the time to do these sorts of things as an undergraduate, so it was definitely a cool way to spend time before starting graduate school.
Other gap year tips:
- It’s good to start looking for research opportunities early on, since space and funding can be limited.
- Working on a project continuously for a year is very different from the summer-long research stints that a lot of undergraduates do. It’s hard to get a lot done in a single summer, and a gap year is a good opportunity to try something new before attaching yourself to a particular area in graduate school.
When Life Gives You Lemons, It’s Okay to Ask Around for Some Sugar Water (Korey Haynes)
When I was finishing my senior year of undergrad, I had limited research experience and–I will own this–terrible Physics GRE scores. I got into one graduate program I regretted applying to at all (I had done an REU there and knew I could get in, but didn’t actually like any of their active research areas), and so I had a sit-down with my adviser to discuss my options. I was debating whether to enter a program I didn’t like just so I could keep moving forward, or move back in with my parents and either change career paths entirely (and I had no idea what to do with a B.S. in astronomy), or wait tables for a year and attempt the subject GRE again. My adviser came through for me in a huge way by offering funding for a year to do full-time research with him. My college didn’t have a graduate program, so the idea of getting this kind of position hadn’t even occurred to me. I wasn’t even aware this was a possibility without graduate experience, but I jumped at the chance.
That was the year I learned how to be an astronomer. I had limited programming experience up until that point, so I taught myself IDL that year, as well as finally getting comfortable with DS9, IRAF, and general Unix scripting. I learned a whole new portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (my experience so far had been visual or radio data, and I spent the year doing infrared spectroscopy), learned how to run an independent research project and collaborate with other scientists, presented my work at that year’s AAS, and by the time I left a year later, I had a first author paper in press and offer letters from multiple graduate institutions. It was the most scientifically productive year I’ve had yet.
My advice? Do talk honestly with your adviser. I still feel incredibly grateful to have had such supportive mentors, and my experience, time and again, has been that astronomers really do want to help each other. Talk to your adviser, talk to other professors. Mine was a bit of a special case, so if you’re planning on finding a research position, you should look around 9-10 months in advance. But don’t assume that just because it’s late in the year (this all fell into place around the end of April for me) that you’re out of options.
Work and play: the benefits of extra time (Elisabeth Newton)
In my senior year, I was faced with the endless circuit diagrams and oscilloscope drawings of my work-intensive electronics lab and the challenge of teaching for the first time. Midway through fall, I had given no thought to graduate school or the GREs and so I was quick to decide that grad school could wait another year. Many of my classmates were making similar decisions, so I never felt that taking a year off wasn’t an option. Not having to worry about applying to graduate school gave me the time to spend my fall semester learning electronics, teaching astronomy, and fencing with my club team.
Like Korey, my undergraduate thesis advisor offered to keep me on as a full-time research assistant after I graduated, which is what I eventually chose to do. I also had the option to teach full-time at our University’s tutoring center, continuing the teaching I’d been doing. Both opportunities opened up in March. I don’t remember why I chose research over teaching, but in retrospect I see both as having been wonderful opportunities. One thing I did learn from being a researcher is that I enjoy being a full-time astronomer; knowing this was a good source of motivation during the grad school application process.
For me, there were two very big benefits to taking a year off. First, I was able to devote a significant amount of time to my graduate school and NSF applications. Because my position was flexible, I could take the time I needed, and because I was immersed in a supportive academic environment, I also was never far from advice. Second, I was privileged enough that after working for part of the year, I was able to take time off. Encouraged by my advisors, I spent the remainder of the year really taking a break: I traveled both in the US and abroad and spent much-needed time with family and friends back home.