Ask a Professor: Should You Take Time Off Before Grad School?
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- A gap year between undergrad and grad school can benefit many students.
- You can use the time to gain work experience and prepare for grad school.
- A break before grad school can also help prevent burnout.
- Taking time off can make you a better grad student in the long run.
During my senior year of undergrad, I knew I wanted to go to grad school. So I took the LSAT and applied to law school. After spending hours prepping for the test — and submitting more than a dozen law school applications — I finally realized law school was the wrong path for me.
I applied to law school in part to avoid a break between undergrad and grad school. After 17 years of school, I couldn't imagine not applying to grad programs. What would I do if I wasn't in school?
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Taking a break before eventually going to grad school ultimately helped me. Instead of law school, though, I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in history and become a professor.
Changing programs is just one reason it's a good idea to take some time off before grad school. Taking one or more gap years can pay off in surprising ways.
If you're stuck deciding whether to go to grad school right after undergrad, consider the many benefits of taking time off.
5 Key Benefits of Taking Time Off Before Grad School
There are many good reasons to take time off between undergrad and grad school. And the right decision for you depends on your circumstances. If any of these reasons for taking a break resonates, you might benefit from a gap year.
1. You Can Avoid Burnout
Going straight from undergrad to grad school can cause burnout. After years of intense study for your bachelor's degree, your brain may need a break.
In fact, taking time off can noticeably improve your performance in grad school. A 2020 study examined med students and found that students who took gap years had significantly lower levels of burnout than those who didn't.
If you're experiencing signs of college burnout, your mental health will likely benefit from a break before applying to grad school.
2. You Can Gain Work Experience
The break between undergrad and grad school is a great time to gain work experience. Whether you're working for a nonprofit, freelancing, or clocking in at a major company, working can give you valuable experience for grad school and your future career.
It can even help your chances of getting into graduate school. That's because some grad programs require professional experience.
For example, master's in teaching and MBA programs might require or recommend at least 1-2 years of professional experience before applying. Similarly, master's in nursing programs may require experience as an RN.
What's more, prior professional experience can help you decide on a career path for after grad school.
3. You Can Save Money
Working between undergrad and grad school offers another major benefit: You can save money for your graduate program. On average, earning a master's degree costs $66,340. And some programs run into the six figures.
Saving can mean spending less on student loan payments in the future. You can also look for employers that offer tuition assistance programs, which help working students cover the cost of a degree by either covering part of tuition costs or partially reimbursing students.
4. You'll Get More Time to Prepare
Grad school applications take a lot of time, especially if you're studying for a test like the GMAT, GRE, or LSAT.
Instead of juggling test prep while wrapping up your bachelor's degree, consider taking a year off to give yourself more time. You can also brush up on any prerequisite subjects or get a jump start on grad school readings.
Taking time off will give you more time to prepare for graduate school — and more time to finish your undergrad program.
5. You Can Consider Alternatives
Maybe you always planned to attend med school, but four years of prerequisites changed your mind. Or you thought you'd go straight into a master's in education program, only to decide a few years of classroom experience may help first.
You might even realize that grad school just isn't the best option to reach your goals.
Time off can help give you a valuable perspective on your academic future. Since grad school is a major investment, it's often a good idea to step back from school and evaluate your options, including alternatives to grad school.
What to Know Before You Start Grad School
A break isn't the best option for everyone. If you have clear goals that involve grad school, it might make sense to apply while finishing up your bachelor's degree.
However, many grad students can benefit from a break. Time off can improve your chances of getting into grad school and make you a stronger student.
Plus, a gap year has become the new norm for most graduate programs. In 2019, top MBA programs reported an average age of 28. Similarly, most doctoral students are older than 30 when they earn their degrees.
Ultimately, I spent my gap year on campus working in the library. That time off gave me a chance to save money, read history books, and still maintain a connection with my university. As a result, I started grad school energized and motivated — that was the best choice for me.
If you decide to take time off, consider how to spend your gap year. Working, volunteering, or taking a much-needed break from academics can set you up for success in grad school.
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