“So, are you a grad student or…?” : some comments on my gap year

My Facebook and Instagram feeds have been filled with caps and gowns the last few weeks, so I thought I’d start this post with a sincere congratulations to everyone who’s graduated recently! I received my bachelors about a year ago, and have so many wonderful memories of my last few weeks of college. It’s truly a special time and I hope you’re soaking up every minute of it.

I wanted to write this post because it was about this time a year ago that I decided to forego grad school and instead do a gap year. I’ve been asked about it many times over the last year, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to share about it in a bit more detail.

 

I applied to several grad schools in the fall of my senior year, and received offers and rejections in the spring, just as anyone else. I visited several schools, and accepted an offer based primarily on the great connection I had with my potential advisor. However, as weeks went on, I realized I made a mistake, and needed to rectify it before it was too late. It wasn’t that I had any doubt about the quality of the program or advisor, but I was interested in a bunch of topics, and I really wanted to make the most out of my time as a grad student. I didn’t want to make it 2-3 years and realize I didn’t really like my project, and wish I had picked something else. So I reached out to my advisor and explained the situation, and he was beyond understanding. He agreed that this was a major decision, and that I needed to be sure. He had also taken a gap year, and thought it was one of the best decisions he’d ever made. So we essentially agreed to defer my admission until I figured this out.

A few hours after we had this conversation, I got an invitation to a summer program focused on a field of research I’d always wanted to explore, and I accepted immediately. While there, I got an offer for a gap year position from the program’s organizer, who happened to work at a university I [thought I] really wanted to attend, and I accepted that as well. So, for the last year, I got to explore a field of research I was interested in without making the full commitment of a PhD, and without committing to a particular program or advisor. I described myself as a ‘fake grad student’. It was wonderful! I got to do research full time (no classes, no TA-ing), and I learned a brand new research technique from a world-renowned expert. Since I devoted all of my time to research, I had time to present at two conferences, and draft a paper. I also learned what I valued most out of my grad school experience — the opportunity to explore multiple areas of research, consistent communication with my advisor, and, honestly, finishing relatively quickly.

As of a few weeks ago, I started my graduate work at my undergraduate institution, working on a few different projects that I’m very excited about under an advisor I know and with whom I work very well. So, on the one hand, it took me a year to get to the same place I was before. On the other, I learned a lot more about my interests, expanded my network, and learned what types of environments I work best in! I don’t regret it at all, and sincerely believe it will lead to a much more productive and happier time as a graduate student.

Now, for a more concise list of pros and cons:

Pros:

  • More time to explore interests
  • Lots of time for professional development (no classes, no TA-ing)
  • More experience could potentially lead to acceptances by more prestigious programs

Cons:

  • Literally delaying the start of graduate study
  • Loneliness (my research group was fantastic, but it’s hard being without a cohort)
  • Typically categorized as ‘temp employee’, which has less benefits than regular employees and students

If you’re considering a gap year, here’s a few options for going about finding something to do:

  • National labs!  National labs have actual positions for gap years, called ‘post-bacc researchers’. Apply for them directly online!
  • Email professors directly to inquire about possibly working for them — gap year students are much cheaper than grad students (no tuition to pay for!), so it’s as much a benefit for the professor as for you
  • Ask mentors from your undergraduate institution if they have any leads

 

In conclusion, one of the most interesting things I learned during my gap year was just how common my situation was. Whenever I’d tell people I was taking a gap year, a surprising number told me they did one too! And then lots more told me they wished they’d considered one. Now, that’s certainly not to say that a gap year is for everyone. I know many people that went straight to graduate school and were very happy with their decision. Some people just have that one thing that really fascinates and excites them, and they can’t wait to get at it. But some of us want a bit more time to decide, and that’s fine too.

 

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share!

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Tips for being a good mentor – grad student edition

Mentorship is a concept constantly brought up in professional settings, but, at least in my experience, the discussion generally takes place through the lens of the mentee: “How do I go about finding a good professional mentor?” “How do I expand my mentors beyond a research advisor or senior graduate student?” “Exactly how do I keep up contact with my mentor?”

But what about the other way around? What questions should the mentor be asking? If you search ‘tips for being a good mentor’ there are tons of articles with great content (e.g [1] [2] [3]). However, all of this advice is rather broad, and I want to write for grad students. Here, we’ll have a brief discussion on how to be a successful mentor, specifically in the context of an academic research setting.

As a senior undergraduate, circumstances beyond my control had me leading a research project originally conceived for a graduate research assistant. About 2-3 weeks in, I was told that my advisor had agreed to participation in a program that gave high school students research experience. And, just like every professor ever, my advisor was extraordinarily busy, and told me to just deal with it. So, I was getting an assistant.

Here are a few things I learned:

Preserve enthusiasm! Most students that voluntarily choose to join a research group are genuinely excited to be there. They most likely could have taken another course, or found a desk job. Above all else, it’s important to preserve their enthusiasm.

Give them a challenge, but be realistic. To start off, assign them technician type work — repetitive, simple tasks that are nonetheless critical to gathering results. Demonstrate exactly how to use the necessary equipment. Don’t leave them without a way to contact you.

Gradually increase responsibility. At first, ask them to prepare samples. Then, have them run tests. Then, teach them how to convert the data they generated into useful results. Then, ask them what they think is the next step.

Treat them as a member of the group. Formally introduce them to the rest of the group. Add them to the group’s google group. Encourage them to present at group meetings. Invite to any [age appropriate] social gatherings.

Admit any limits in your scope of knowledge. If they ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, just admit it. Say: “I’m not sure. I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe do a literature search? Let me know if you find something!”

Praise along the way. Not in a grandiose, sarcastic way. Just a quick “nice” or “good work” will be a major confidence boost to a younger/new student.

Offer feedback. If you think they’re moving in the right direction, tell them. If you think they aren’t, gently nudge them back on track.

Understand everyone is different. Of course — one of the most widely applicable pieces of advice ever. But it’s still valid. Some students might be slow, others fast. Some might work for a while and realize they don’t really like the research (don’t take that personally!)

Offer advice outside of research. Don’t do this unsolicited, but my high school student [wisely] asked me lots of questions about picking a college/picking a major/picking professional groups [of course I recommended SWE!]/picking recreational groups/deciding to join a sorority/even picking out a new laptop!
I’m sure I missed lots of great tips, so if you have one, please share! If you have a similar experience, let me know how it turned out!