Maybe you know exactly what you want to do after you finish your education. You want to be a clinical social worker. A doctor. A lawyer. An elementary school teacher. A chef. An underwater basket weaver. You love going to classes, reading textbooks and articles, and writing papers. You do not feel at all burnt out by being a student. You don't want to waste one second between today and the moment you start the job you've dreamed about since you were 5 and wrapped a toy stethoscope around your neck. Fine, then. Go to grad school immediately after graduation.
But if you are at all uncertain about what you want to do. If you are feeling tired of attending classes and studying. If you are feeling burnt out by being a student, and the idea of evenings to read novels, or time to travel, or doing something completely different seems appealing, then please consider taking some time off.
You have your whole life to work. Seriously. Many students are around 22 when they graduate. That means that best case scenario, you have more than 40 years left before retirement. You've spent the last 16+ years in school. Even if you decide to take 6 years to get a PhD, that still leaves you 35+ years left to work. Today, you may feel burnt out by classes and studying. In 2 or 5 years, it may seem new and exciting again. Why not break up the schooling with a few years of work?
Graduate school is generally expensive. There are some research-oriented PhD programs where you can be supported with an assistantship, though depending on the stipend amount and the local cost of living, you may still need loans. Otherwise, graduate school is going to involve little to no income, and spending a lot of money. Why do that unless you're absolutely certain it's what you want to do? I know many people who started (or finished) graduate school, only to discover it was not the best choice for them. Most of those people took no time off after graduation. Give yourself some time to figure out what you want to do. If you're not certain, you might as well earn money, rather than spend it, while you figure it out.
What kind of job should you find after graduation if you don't go straight to graduate school?
Option 1: Find a job relevant to what you think you want to do. If you're interested in social work, find a job in human services. Interested in law school, work as a legal assistant. Think you want to be a professor? Get a job as a research assistant. This experience will help you determine if you really want to spend the rest of your life in this type of career. And, you will improve your chances to get into graduate school if you have relevant work experience, plus letters of recommendation from people who REALLY know you. You will have more time to prepare for the GREs because you will not be studying for other things. And you're earning money, rather than spending it, figuring out what you want to do. I chose this option. I worked for two years as a research assistant before starting a PhD program, and I'm certain that my work experience and letters of recommendation helped me get into UCLA. Plus in my life, I've never read more novels than I did those two years, because it's the only time in my life from kindergarten through today that I didn't have homework.
first, a tangent.
I have a PhD. I have been a professor for 12 1/2 years. I have a husband and two kids. If I woke up tomorrow and announced that I wanted to take a year off and be an au pair in Europe, well, people would think I was strange, and I'd probably get sued for child support.
But if you are 22, and you do not have to worry about supporting other people, then you can take off to Europe and be an au pair for a year. Or work on a cruise ship. Teach for America, even if it's not your ultimate goal to be a teacher. Join the Peace Corps. Join Americorps. There are many options of interesting things to do that may not be exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, but may give you unique experiences that will be more difficult in later phases of your life.
You may be thinking: But if I don't go to graduate school right away, I'll never go. So what? If you finish college and find a job that you like, for which you don't need a graduate degree, more power to you. No need for graduate school. If after 1 or 5 or 10 years you decide you want a different job, or that you need more training, you will be motivated to return. And you will have a very fresh perspective on it.
You may be thinking: How can I tell my parents I want to take time off? They will be mad. Your parents want you to be happy. And not broke. If you explain to them clearly why you are making this decision, they should understand. You can even tell them I suggested it. You would not be the first to do so. In fact, when I was Adviser for the HDFS Life Span Developmental Sciences option, multiple students went to their parents and said, my adviser said I should take time off. Everyone survived.
Two final things. First, as I said at the start, taking time off before grad school is not the correct decision for everyone. But it is an under-considered decision because students sometimes become set on what they think is the "correct" path and have trouble considering alternatives. So please, consider your alternatives.
Second, I recognize that not everyone graduates at 22. There are students who are returning adult students, students who have already worked or raised a family before coming for an undergraduate education. Some of these suggestions may be less relevant for you if you already have spent a number of years in the workforce or have other constraints that make time between schooling less ideal.
My main point, though, is that graduate school isn’t right for everyone, and if you’re not yet sure what you want to do, it’s definitely not right for you now.
“The post, Maybe you shouldn’t go to grad school… yet, first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on December 2, 2015.”