Gap Years Before Grad School


Gap Years Before Grad School

By Jeffrey Shu

“What are you doing when you graduate?” “What do you want to do 10 years from now?” As a senior about to graduate, these are big questions that I have grappled with daily.

I started off my college career thinking of medical school, then a research path, then pharmacy training, and finally research again (with pastry chef thrown into that mix a couple times as well). With multiple ideas tugging at me and looming deadlines, I decided some “gap years” were the way to go.

Gap years are an intentional and productive break between undergraduate and graduate studies. They offer a chance to gain more hands-on experience in one’s fields of interest, save up money for prospective graduate school, and learn more about your future career possibilities as well as your passions. Entering the workforce for a short amount of time also allows students to “take a break” from coursework in order to avoid burnout upon beginning graduate studies.

My choice is not exceptional; more and more students are deciding to take 1 or 2 gap years post-graduation before continuing on to graduate education. As a 4th year MCB major with a strong interest in pursuing graduate school, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in biomedical research and figure out if it was something I wanted to commit to long-term.

What kind of gap years were possible for someone in my position?

Great opportunities are offered for students straight out of their undergrad to learn more about their field of interest and gain more experience. For example, some prestigious scholarships (which you can learn more about through the Scholarship Connection website), allow you to travel abroad to gain more research experience, or gain a masters, or carry out a community project of your own design.

 

Fulbright

One popular grant sponsored by the US government is the Fulbright Grant, which funds a recent graduate’s travel to a different country to study, research, or teach. The Fulbright Grant funds round-trip travel, tuition, books, and stipend for one academic year of study or research in a foreign country. This is a great opportunity to reach out to collaborators overseas to learn in their laboratories and conduct research in a new country, or in an environment that enables research in your field of interest.

Rhodes, Marshall, Sciences Po, and Yenching

Other than the Fulbright Grant, which is awarded on an individual basis for research projects abroad, there are other prestigious awards that allow a scholar to obtain a masters outside of the United States, offered by prominent universities. The Rhodes (Oxford), Marshall (UK), Sciences Po (France), and Yenching (China) scholarships award a US graduate to pursue post baccalaureate studies (generally a masters) at an institution abroad to gain a more global perspective and further their education. Note that these awards are highly competitive, and require a significant amount of work that should be started well before graduation!

National Institutes of Health Postbac

In addition to these travel scholarships, there are also government-sponsored programs, or postbacs, that help offer a chance to gain hands on research experience. There are programs that are stationed at the NIH, Oakridge, CDC, FDA, or other federal research agencies geared towards mentoring fresh college graduates. This is a great opportunity to spend 1-2 years on an independent research project at really prestigious institutions.

Research Associate Positions

Lastly, reaching out to labs individually to look for work as a lab manager, lab technician, or research associate can help acclimate you to the research setting and learn about the intricacies of lab dynamics. These are accessible through job postings or emailing professors you are interested in working with. This can include lab positions in both academic labs or industry, such as biotech. While some of these positions are flexible, most require a commitment of 2-3 years.

If you decide to plan a gap year(s), I recommend starting applications, requesting letters of recommendations, and polishing your resume/CV over the winter break. A lot of research associate jobs open around February/March, and are looking to hire soon after graduation. Another factor to consider is the length of break you are willing to take. Some graduate programs require you to retake standardized testing or courses if you’ve been out of the field for over 5 years.

Although some may be wary of taking gap years because it will delay their future end-goals, it’s a valuable time to figure things out and strengthen your application. I chose to cast my net wide and applied for a variety of masters programs, research associate positions, and government postbacs. Right now it’s looking like I will work as a research associate in San Francisco for 2 years before applying to graduate school. For me, deciding to take this research position has been a difficult but beneficial process. Having the chance to step away from the school environment and focus on gaining experience, identifying prospective graduate programs, preparing applications, and immersing myself in research will allow me to meaningfully figure out my future steps.