It’s the sixth-form decision all over again. To gap-year or not to gap-year... This time, though, as a finalist and prospective postgraduate , the threat of empty time is far more pressing. The comfortable base of undergraduate life is slipping away from under your feet, you’ve got the nervous prospect of a loan to pay back, and at some point fairly soon, people are going to start considering you an adult. So how do you fill the gap between now and The Future? If you’re considering postgraduate study, should you take a year out before doing your Masters or PhD , or should you jump right in?
Consider the cost...
You might find the decision promptly narrowed down for you by practicalities. Masters courses can be offensively expensive , particularly if you’re already shackled with three years of student debt, and unless you’re lucky enough to have a studentship or some kind of dodgy lucrative internet business scheme at your fingertips, a year to earn a bit of cash, gather your forces and look for finances is a pretty decent option. And letting the tremors of finals subside, too, isn’t a bad idea – you might find you’ve changed your mind about extending your studies once you’ve actually graduated.
Application agitation There’s also the whole application process to grapple with, which can be challenging to say the least and invariably takes place at the kind of time you might be worrying about other things, like getting your first degree done. With all this in consideration, a graduate gap year is, for some, a practical or even a necessary next step. It also seems to be a good option for slowing down the hasty in-out university attitude we seem to have developed in the UK.
Most continental European universities allow for more flexibility within the degree system – semesters abroad, the time to work alongside study – and as a consequence a great deal of non-UK students graduate much later than we do. A gap year is a good way to put a check on things for a while.
And there’s something to be said for having a breather after three or four years of gruelling (or not-so-gruelling) undergraduate life. A year to reconnect with the world before plunging back into academia can undoubtedly help you to re-evaluate exactly what you’re looking to do with your postgraduate study, and to clarify whether it definitely is the path you want to take.
New experiences And a gap year might or might not help you ‘find yourself’ but what it almost certainly will do is provide you with experiences you don’t have access to in a university setting. If you spend it doing something productive and interesting, it might even benefit you more in any future job or degree applications than a year of study could. You could go to Russia and teach English. Or go to a rainforest and do field research. Or go to New York and start your novel...
You might choose to do something related to the postgraduate work you want to do – or you might want to make the most of a year’s living with no strings attached . When I was um-ing and ah-ing about what to do with my post-university life, more than one of the professors I spoke to mentioned that many students who take a year off with the intention of further study end up losing their way back and doing something else entirely. But surely that’s exactly the reason it’s beneficial to go in the first place – to give yourself a break from a system which might have been blinkering your options without your knowing it.
Mind the gap!
I can’t talk. I’ve opted out of the graduate gap year – mainly out of cowardice – and will be starting my Masters straight after the summer. I’m not sure how I feel about being back in the library again in October, and I’m feeling more than a twinge of envy of my friends who are off to do more exotic-sounding things for a bit.
The summer seems a painfully short post-finals recovery period . And there’s a good chance that there won’t be many more stages like this in life when it makes so much sense to take up the chance of a built-in break.
“ Planning the step after your degree is a very personal thing ,” says Victoria, 24, who took a graduate gap year before starting her Masters in Linguistics after she had finished her BA in Modern Languages.
Alice, on the other hand, spent her would-be gap year in a Spanish university doing a short course in Education.
“I wanted to do my Masters but I wasn’t ready to do it straight away… and even though I was studying, the course was relaxed and gave me a chance to recuperate after exams, get a tan and enjoy Spain.” But now, having decided against a PhD, Alice has her first job as a teacher lined up – and is grateful for the teaching experience she gained during her year away.
The verdict At the end of the day, your academic particulars and personal circumstances will determine how sensible an option a gap year is for you. If you do decide to take one, though, make sure you spend it ‘fruitfully’, whatever that might mean for you. Or rather, make sure you enjoy every single second of this rare and rather lovely opportunity of time out from education.
Helpful contacts To help you do that, here are some possible sources of information which might prove useful for you as well as your university careers service, supervisors, lecturers, friends… Ask around!
1. Read our page on preparing for postgraduate study .
Graduategapyear.com is an employment-based gap year service provider.
Tefl.com is a website devoted to TEFL opportunities.
4. The JET programme homepage for teaching in Japan.
5. i-to-i volunteering and TEFL programmes around the world.
6. The Year Out Group homepage.
Image Credits: 1 , 2 , 3 .
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