Your Guide for Considering a Gap or Personal Year


Your Guide for Considering a Gap or Personal Year

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

Exploring the Process

Figuring out if you should take a year off between finishing your undergrad experience and enrolling in a graduate, medical, or professional program isn't always an easy path. So, if you're feeling stressed out about the uncertainly of it all, know that it's part of the process. Deciding what to do, wondering if taking a break will be worth it, if you should even consider it, (or feeling frustrated because a gap year wasn't part of your 10 -year plan) is stressful.

Taking a gap year is a big deal. It's new, it's exciting, and it's an opportunity that you're unlikely to have again (or at least not for another decade or two).

But, if you embrace a gap year as a chance to have a new life adventure — and not as if you're putting your life on hold —it will open the door to a more meaningful and rewarding experience. To do this, focus on what you want to accomplish during that time and why it's important to you, or how it will support your long-term goals.

Defining the Break

When speaking with our undergraduate students who know they will be taking a break before starting a graduate, professional, or medical school program, we distinguish between a gap year and a personal year. The distinction allows us to understand our student's motivation for changing course and helps us ask the right questions so they can identify their goals and expectations.

A gap year, as we explain it, is when students need a Plan B — typically because they didn’t get into the program of their choice and need additional professional development to become a more competitive applicant.

A personal year, as we define it, is specifically planned to enhance personal and professional development, explore opportunities, or take time to consider what their next step should be. Typically, the student has already been accepted into a program for graduate, medical, or professional school, and defers for a year to pursue meaningful experiences or chooses to put off applying for another academic program until they have had experiences beyond undergrad.

Accomplishing what matters

If you're considering either type of year, it's essential to give serious thought to what you want to accomplish, set goals, and create a strategy to pursue and accomplish those goals.

For example, one former undergrad in the lab, spent her personal year at the National Institutes of Health in a research position. Her main goal was to focus on research for one year to help determine if she wanted to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. or simply an M.D. before attending medical school. Another former undergrad began a position as a research scientist during a gap year while he decided if he wanted to reapply to medical school or choose nursing school.

If you're absolutely stuck trying to decide how to move forward, ask yourself, "What do I want to have accomplished by the end of the year?” We find that students who thoughtfully consider the question and give solid answers — even if they need to think it over for a couple of weeks before answering — end up having well-planned gap or personal years, gain the most benefits, and are more satisfied with the experience overall.

Regardless, if you decide to take a gap or personal year, use it to your full advantage. Explore opportunities that will help you choose your next career step, or rule it out. Prioritize gaining new skills and building professional relationships that will help you succeed no matter you ultimately decide to do.

Understanding your motivation

You don't have to know exactly what you want to do with your life at the end of undergrad ( or even a gap or personal year), and there is nothing wrong with taking time to figure it out. Committing the time to explore your options, and figuring out what it is you like to do, (or hope never to do again), are advantages that come from a well-planned gap or personal year.

However, enrolling in a graduate, medical, or professional school program because you don’t know what else to do, you're unsure what career options your degree provides, or because you're embarrassed to tell family or friends that you might have changed your mind about your career path might not bring you the long-term happiness you deserve.

For most students, it will be much harder to quit a program even if they are unhappy and it’s not where they want to be than it is to apply after a gap year.

Staying connected

As we frequently like to remind our readers, keep in touch with your former research mentor, professors, and extended mentoring network. Reconnect as opportunities arise during your development year, and to share details about your successes and life events. Staying in touch will also make it easier for your mentors to update their recommendation letters when you apply for the next position.

For more on asking key questions to help you figure out your career path, read If Only Choosing a Career Path Was This Easy

A version of this article appeared in the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology's publication ASBMB Today.