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Taking a gap year? Is it worth it?


gv_plasticity

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Hi all,

I am thinking about taking a gap year before I start applying to grad school. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. However, am still not sure what exactly I would be doing in that gap year to strengthen my application. What did you guys do during your gap year and what are some things you wish you had done? 

Here are some things about me: I plan on getting my PhD in Cognitive Psychology. I just finished my junior year and I am currently double majoring in Biochemistry and Psychology with a 3.6 PGA. I have 1.5 years of lab experience and have worked in a social, cognitive, and behavioral neuroscience labs so far -- I plan to stay an RA the rest of my undergrad career. I have no publications yet though, which is what I plan to work on during my gap year so far.

Thanks in advance! 

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You say it makes sense to do a gap year, but you don't know what you should be doing. I would say the gap year is only useful (in a grad school sense) if you're doing something to advance your chances of admission.

 

This could include:

Working to save up for the GREs, applications, transcript costs, loans, etc

Volunteering or working in research to improve your CV with presentations, posters, letters, stats skills, etc

Doing better on the GREs by having more time to study

Improving your GPA by having an extra year of classes

Taking online classes to improve programming or stats skills

Writing up your thesis or any other projects you did in your undergrad

Refining your research interests and improving your SOP by getting a head start, and by doing more research on the schools and the profs you want to work with

Applying for external funding for the next year to improve your application

 

Those are some ideas of what you shoidk be doing. Simply graduating won't help your chances much more, and going into something completely irrelevant without keeping ties to research also won't look very good. So be strategic about showing application committees that you are already at the grad level with your focus and your skills.

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I graduated in 2012 which feels like a very long time ago. This year I was accepted to the one university I applied to! Over the last few years I had the most fortunate opportunities to travel abroad. I went to Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and then Kenya, but not all at once or in the same year. In between all that time I didn't do much of anything. Periods of crippling depression kept me from doing a lot of productive things so that I mostly spent my time home with my parents, messing around on the internet. Anyway, I eventually got a job washing dishes in Downtown Disney, an industry not the least bit relevant to my career goals or my degree. I had plans to go back to school by then but it helped to solidify my goals and my determination. Plus I saved boatloads of cash.

In the time I took off, I've lived a lot and gained a lot, and I've had a chance to really figure out what I want to do with myself and it's for that reason that I do encourage taking a gap year (or more). It helps to give you room to breathe, to figure things out and to really give you that 'real life' experience some professors talk about. 

I'm a much more mature person at 26 than I was at 23. I know what I want to do now and I'm aware of what it's going to take and I think having done the things I have in the time I did has really helped. 

So you do you. 

Edited by lovekilledinos
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I think some of this might depend on your field and your career goals, but generally I am a strong supporter of taking some time off between undergrad and grad school. I had planned to go directly to grad school and took the GRE in my final year of undergrad, but then just never quite got my act together to apply (I was working part time, had a capstone project, finals--there just wasn't a ton of time). So, I kind of took some time out of necessity. In my two years away from school, I interned for six months in a new city and spent 18 months working in my field gaining experience. It was probably the best decision I have made. I saved up some money, I learned what it meant to be a professional outside of academia, and I started to really look forward to returning to school rather than viewing it as an obligation. I'm really excited to start my grad program in a few months, which I could not have said at the end of undergrad. Hey, I even altered (slightly) the type of degree I wanted, so it was really valuable. 

Financially, I also think it made more sense for me. Like I said, I saved up some (not a ton of) money, but I also think that my work experience made me a more desirable candidate and allowed me to earn competitive fellowships. Along those lines, I had more time to work on my applications, which I think helped. Additionally--and this will depend on your career goals--I will leave my graduate program with a couple years of work experience under my belt, which I think provides a slight advantage over some folks who will be coming out of grad school with zero full-time work experience. 

I echo what @lovekilledinos said: I'm a much more mature person now than I was when I finished undergrad. Obviously, you'll want to do something productive and use your time wisely, but I think there is a great deal of flexibility to determine what that is and find experiences that are a good fit for you.

Best of luck for whichever route you choose!

 

Edited by runjackrun
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On 5/15/2016 at 1:14 AM, gv_plasticity said:

However, am still not sure what exactly I would be doing in that gap year to strengthen my application. What did you guys do during your gap year and what are some things you wish you had done? 

Sorry to respond twice, but I thought I would also add that I had no clue what I was going to be doing the year following undergrad. I had a student job I knew I could stay in over the summer, but that would disappear after August. So I applied to a lot of paid internships and full-time jobs and ultimately one came through in mid-late July. I think it is difficult to lay out a plan for a gap year if you are still in school because it's tough to find/be truly open to opportunities that are still a few months down the line. But they do emerge and you'll figure out something. Some may disagree, but even if you wind up working in an unrelated field while gaining volunteer experience, finishing up your publication, and saving/studying for the GRE/working on applications, that's a pretty good use of time IMO. 

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For me, I took about five "gap" years in between my undergraduate degree and graduate school. I was undecided between several related career paths, and working in the professional world helped me to explore career options. Ultimately, I applied to graduate programs that I didn't even know existed as an undergraduate.

Also, a totally unexpected bonus was the chance to build a very large professional network to call on if/when I need support in graduate school. They have counseled me throughout the entire application process, and there is always someone I can go to when I'm not sure where to start on a particular problem. In general, people are stressed because there are aspects of graduate school which are very mysterious. But when you have a lot of people to help you get those questions answered, it's easier to make decisions that truly reflect your values/goals.

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