The Pros and Cons of Taking Time Off Before Grad School

As you approach your senior year of college, you might start to think about the next steps after graduation:

  • Do I want to go straight to graduate school or do I want to start my career?
  • Will I want to go back to school after working for a few years?

This is a major life decision and there is no right or wrong choice; the route you choose depends entirely on your life circumstances and ultimate goals. After speaking with individuals who have gone through this dilemma, I have summarized some pros and cons of joining the workforce or going straight into graduate school.

Taking Time Off: Pros

You gain many benefits by going into the workforce after graduating. For one, it gives you the opportunity to explore career opportunities and discuss these options with professionals outside of academia. Individuals who take time off before graduate school might also develop more realistic expectations for their career goals, or have a more concrete vision of what they want in a job after earning their degree.

In addition, after working for some time, you may decide you want to pursue a graduate degree in a different field from your bachelor’s, that you hadn’t even considered during undergrad.

If your goal is to ultimately attend graduate school, then working for a few years can also get you more hands-on laboratory experience which could:

  • Strengthen your graduate school application (e.g. more references and publications, experience with different / multiple fields and in training people)
  • Make you more comfortable learning new lab techniques when you go to graduate school.

If you are unsure about going to graduate school, then working for some time may help you decide if you are content with the careers you can have with a bachelor’s degree.

From a personal development lens, taking time off before graduate school allows you the opportunity to get out of the “student mindset” and develop more general life experience. Being out of school, you may devote more time to your family, hobbies, and establish a work-life balance before going back to school. If you have a lot of student loans, you can also begin paying them off.

Taking Time Off: Cons

If you know for certain that you want to go to graduate school and you feel that you are a strong candidate, then taking time off will just delay your career plans and (potentially) personal goals too. If you are academically driven, then the transition out of school and into a full-time job may be tough. Additionally, if you do not spend your time off productively, then you will benefit less than others who find work that aligns with their career goals. Lastly, it might be more difficult to readjust to the academic lifestyle after taking some time away from school.

Photo by Brandon Lopez on Unsplash

Going Straight In: Pros

Going straight into graduate school has its advantages. Since you are fresh out of college, you still have the student mindset, and may have an easier time transitioning into graduate courses than someone who took time off. Also, because you completed undergrad classes more recently, you may not need to review as much basic material to feel caught up. If you have specific career goals, or if you plan to start a family after your master’s or PhD, then another advantage of going straight into graduate school is that you can start your post-degree life sooner.

From a financial perspective, going straight into graduate school might feel like a “step up,” especially compared to part-time on-campus jobs or low-paying lab work as an undergrad. You probably won’t have to alter your lifestyle or revise your spending habits too much; in fact, making any money on a consistent basis will seem exciting. Conversely, going from a full-time job and benefits to making around $25,000 a year is going to be a much tougher financial adjustment.

Going Straight In: Cons

Going straight into graduate school can lead to burn-out. After being in college for 4+ years and then committing to an additional 2+ years (for a master’s; 4+ for a PhD), you will have little time to take a break and recharge. Depending on your project and lab, you will be working anywhere from 40-60+ hours a week in graduate school. For most programs, you do not get full winter and summer breaks like you do as an undergraduate student; instead, you might get a few weeks off a year. With little time for yourself, it can be hard to stay motivated to complete your graduate degree.

Lastly, undergraduate students who go straight into a PhD program often have a narrow career focus, and may be more prone to the idea that becoming a PI is the only meaningful career trajectory. This is largely due to a lack of exposure to other career paths during undergrad, especially if you spent much of college working in a lab on campus. If you end up changing your mind about your career plans or your studies, it can be harder to switch paths while in graduate school than if you were working. It may also take you longer to figure out what exactly you want to do with your PhD, if you end up realizing that becoming a PI is not the right career for you.

There is no right answer

The decision to take time off before graduate school is a difficult one, as it can have a huge impact on your life and career. There isn’t a single solution that will work for everyone, but there are certain questions to consider that may guide you to the best answer for your circumstances. We hope this blog post was helpful as you plan your post-college life!