Gap Years: To Take or Not To Take?

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a “gap year?” A gap year (or years) refers to the time taken outside of school between undergraduate and graduate school, as opposed to starting a graduate program directly after undergraduate graduation.

What can you do during a gap year? If you can afford it, you can travel, rest, and enjoy freedom from undergrad, or you can intern or volunteer in a research lab (or anywhere else that interests you) for professional experience. However, not everyone is able to take time off without making money. In that case, you could work as a paid research assistant or research coordinator in an academic or medical lab. Good places to look for these positions are in academic and hospital systems. Here is just one resource you can use to find paid post-baccalaureate positions:

Remember that your gap year path does not have to be linear! You don’t necessarily need to work in the field that you are considering going into in graduate school for. For example, some people are high school teachers or lawyers before deciding to return to school. It is okay to go out and explore the world and your interests (whether paid or unpaid) before making any decisions about graduate school.

Regardless of what you choose to do during your gap year(s), there are countless benefits:

  • Make and/or save money

    • Some graduate programs are expensive, whether they are master’s level or doctoral level. Some programs are fully funded (meaning that you do not pay tuition to attend), however, even if you receive a stipend (a living allowance you are paid to serve as a teaching assistant or student researcher), it is usually a very low amount compared to the cost of living, especially in large cities. Working at a “real” job after your undergraduate years can help you to save money in anticipation of earning a potentially low salary in graduate school.

  • Help you to decide what you actually want (job vs going back to school)

    • If you are unsure if you actually want to attend graduate school, exploring both career and educational options will be incredibly helpful in making that decision. After figuring out what you might like your career to be in the long run, you can more easily figure out if graduate school is actually the right decision for you. Interning, volunteering, or working in various settings can give you the experience that helps you decide what field or setting you might belong in. If you have a research position, this can help you decide what particular subject you would be happy researching in the future.

  • Gives you real work experience before entering a graduate school environment

    • Knowing how to communicate and work with others in a professional setting (vs. an undergraduate academic setting) is an essential skill when navigating the academic environment in graduate school, which includes collaborating with other graduate students and even “managing up” with your mentors and advisors.

  • Learn the politics of academia

    • The academic world can be different from a professional one. There is often a “hidden curriculum” of best practices for applying to and succeeding in graduate school. Taking a gap year and working in a position in an academic lab can give you experience learning about that world as well as time to network with current graduate students to hear about their experiences. Jordan Parker, a rising 3rd year graduate student said of her gap years, “I learned a lot about the politics of academia which ultimately informed me how to choose the best fitting program for grad school.”

  • Explore who you are outside of an academic identity

    • Graduate students, especially those in longer programs such as doctoral programs, can sometimes get wrapped up in having an academic identity – believing that their grades and academic accomplishments determine their self-worth. It is easier to avoid this trap if you’ve spent time outside of academia and have been able to explore your hobbies and interests without the pressures that graduate programs provide.

While gap years can be beneficial, they aren’t for everyone. Some graduate students who did not take a gap year don’t regret it! There are lots of reasons why people choose to not take a gap year. First, you might not feel like you NEED a gap year. Xochitl Smola says, “There are three reasons why I opted to go straight into graduate school: (1) I had many opportunities to get involved in research at my undergraduate institution, (2) I had a network of mentors from well-established tenured faculty to graduate students, and (3) I received offers of admission from faculty I was excited about when I applied.” Second, there are countless students who can’t afford to take one or more gap years. Having a financial safety net, whether your own or from your family, makes the possibility of a gap year (perhaps in an unpaid position) easier and less scary. For some, entering a fully-funded graduate program immediately after undergrad (or not attending graduate school at all) is the only possibility due to a myriad of real-life circumstances, and that is OKAY!

The decision to take one or more gap years is a personal one and there are countless factors that influence that decision. When you are thinking about making this choice, make sure it is the right one for you. Talking to current graduate students (think: Your TAs!) and learning about their experiences can be a good way to get more information to make that decision. Whatever you chose, make sure it’s best for you.

Good luck!


Acknowledgments: Thank you to Kristen Lee, (Health Psychology), Jordan Parker (Health Psychology), Xochitl Smola (Developmental Psychology), Gwen Price (PhD), and three other Psychology doctoral students for sharing their experiences and their contributions to this post.