How do I take time off before grad school?
September 27, 2011 8:41 PM   Subscribe

What advice can you give to an undergrad working for a few years before applying to grad school? This is in the hard sciences.

I'm currently a senior at a pretty good US university, doing well in my classes and expecting to graduate with a 3.5 gpa. Due to family circumstances, I am planning on taking a job that is not related to my major for the next two years. I think I might still want to apply to grad school (this would be in mathematical physics or applied math, which is what I studied in undergrad) afterwards, and I'm looking for any advice on the following that any knowledgeable mefites would care to give:

- are my chances diminished by not applying immediately after graduating school? I know that for some fields, industry experience is a plus, but I am not sure how true that is for the fields I am interested in. It also probably does not help that my job is in something not remotely related to what I want to study...
- should I apply this year anyways, even though I already know I need to work for the next two years? Would this be a terrible waste of everyone's time?
- is there anything I can do, while working full-time, to better my chances of my application? Take classes at nearby college? I don't know what else to do...

Thanks everyone!
posted by oracle bone to Education (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Doctoral program?

Don't take time off.

Talk to your advisors. They'll know best. You're going to need to be memorable to them and their memories might fade in 2 years.

I see this from 2 sides - in my own doctoral program, those that came straight from undergrad often had a 'did I make a good choice' and 'did I waste my 20s' crisis.

While we 'older' people knew what 'the real world' was like. But we also had been out of the student (and poverty) groove.

If you are interested in having a family at some point, know that taking time off can impact your family life. If you are in grad school and going for tenure, your ability to date and have kids is affected.

As for your family situation - most doctoral graduate programs pay you a stipend to TA or RA. Don't assume that you need to take time off to get money.
posted by k8t at 9:00 PM on September 27, 2011

- are my chances diminished by not applying immediately after graduating school? I know that for some fields, industry experience is a plus, but I am not sure how true that is for the fields I am interested in. It also probably does not help that my job is in something not remotely related to what I want to study...
It depends. In my experience most professors could care less about your work experience unless it is related to their research.

- should I apply this year anyways, even though I already know I need to work for the next two years? Would this be a terrible waste of everyone's time?

Do not apply until you are ready to go to school. Be aware of application deadlines. See the GRE advice below.

- is there anything I can do, while working full-time, to better my chances of my application? Take classes at nearby college?
Taking classes at a nearby college may appear on the surface to be the smart thing to do, but it is a waste of your time and money. If you have a student loan the bill is still there. Focus on paying it off with your job rather than spending more money on classes.

I don't know what else to do..
*Graduate school is for research, not to make more money in industry. If you want to make more money in industry get an MBA.
*Study for the GRE now and take practice tests. The GRE score is good for 5 years. Take the test when your practice tests are showing an excellent score.
*Find out if the area you hope to go to graduate school requires a subject based GRE. If so - study and practice now.
*Find the graduate school that matches your interest first then network with the professors. Read papers they wrote, touch base with them. Show them how you can help their research. Do not select a school nearby and then find a graduate program you like. This is the wrong approach - because - graduate school is for research not to make more money in industry.
*Do not believe the lies on graduate school's website that it is not about a bad GRE score, or a bad GPA it is about your application as a whole. If you are not exceptional you will be rejected quickly. I am not exceptional.
*How do you know if you are "exceptional"? Despite the fact they have a desired GRE score (though their website may say otherwise) this can be overlooked if you bring something to the table for the professor. Industry experience in their research field. Perhaps working for a large company that can provide a partnership with the professor which = $$ for them.
*I realize the last two points appear to be in conflict. My point is - having a desire to learn and even wanting to pay for school in full will not get you into graduate school. You need to show the professor and the department that you bring something to the table for them.
*If you really want to win the hearts of the school you hope to attend, try to get grant funding on your own.

Please read this paper by researcher Eric Weinstein

Good Luck.
posted by BuffaloChickenWing at 9:17 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Agreed that especially in mathematical physics, and maybe in applied math, you should be able to get funding for grad school. So if you're taking time off for financial reasons, maybe reconsider and talk to the graduate secretaries at schools your interested in to scope out the funding situation.

If you do decide to take time off, I probably wouldn't bother sending applications right away -- they're lots of work. I would start networking with potential supervisors while you're still in school, though. Send out emails saying you're interested in their research and ask them if they're taking on students. I took a year off before starting grad school, but I had a few professors lined up who I knew wanted me as a student before I finished my undergrad.

Unsolicited advice: Before you start a non-professional graduate program, make sure you either think you have what it takes to become a professor in the field, or you know exactly what kind of non-academic job your program is preparing you for. Successful grad students go in with a plan.
posted by auto-correct at 9:20 PM on September 27, 2011

If this is about money, you wouldn't want to go to a graduate school in the hard sciences that couldn't pay you a living wage anyway. In addition to being inherently exploitative its a terrible sign of shitty things going on.

If it is because you need to go live in your small hometown, the time with which to care for sick relatives, or other stuff along those lines; everyone knows that life happens. Especially if you stay connected to the field it would be hard to hold it against you. Are you close to professors who would let you help with the pesky detritus of academia like encyclopedia articles or other things you could work to get your name attached to while you're gone? Do you have any strengths you could continue to build?
posted by Blasdelb at 9:37 PM on September 27, 2011

Having a few years of work experience will help your chances, not hurt them. Nobody gives a shit about community college classes.

Take a few years to figure out what your goals are. Save as much money as possible so that if you do decide to go to grad school you won't be in poverty the entire time.
posted by twblalock at 9:49 PM on September 27, 2011

Seconding the advice about applying for grant money on your own. It's a big feather in your cap, and will give you more flexibility and bargaining power.
posted by FrereKhan at 2:17 AM on September 28, 2011

Math PhD here. A lot depends upon what school you are graduating from, or more specifically, *who* is writing your recommendations and what school you are applying to:

If you are applying to a department at a 1st tier research university, i.e. some place getting a lot of applications, they are likely to use GRE scores to filter the applications.... however:

The most important factor in getting into a math program is where you got your undergraduate degree from and who is writing your recommendations, or rather, whether the admissions committee who is reading your application is familiar with (and thinks well of) your school/rec.writers (like everything else in life.) Also, look at the programs you are interested in: have you taken the preqrequisite undegraduate coursework? Undegraduate math programs in the US can be very uneven in terms of what advanced courses a student with graduate with. If you are missing advanced coursework, taking a few of those classes will almost certainly be a plus, and also give you more options for recommendations. On the other hand, working full time and taking advanced math classes might be too much... However, a 1st tier program will expect that you have successfully completed advanced coursework and would probably like to see that you have some involvement with research.

I would talk to the professors you expect to ask to write recommendations now. They might even write it now, while they are familiar with you and put it in a file. However, professors ideas about grad programs are often seriously out of date and/or based on having an "Ivy League" degree... so take their advice with a grain of salt. Also, "mathematical physics" and "applied math" are actually pretty different as sub-specialties in mathematics: are you sure about what you are interested in?

As a general caveat, a PhD in mathematics is a ticket to exactly nothing. Everything depends on what work you get involved in and the people you meet.
posted by at 3:28 AM on September 28, 2011

I don't understand this advice about applying for grant money on your own. Are you all talking NSF? Grants are submitted and granted to institutions, not individuals. So you would need some affiliation to write a meaningful grant (one that would give you leverage as some have implied). Plus, there is is no way that a newly minted undergrad could get NSF money in any field, let alone mathematical physics, given the fierce competition and very low funding rates (20% or less). Most of the time in the hard sciences, if the graduate program (read professor) really wants you, you will be paid a reasonable stipend. In my field (geological sciences), most of my students receive stipends in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, with tuition waived. If you really want to go, contact professors that you might want to work with in grad school. Ask them if they are looking for new students in their research group. See what kind of reply you get. Also talk to the faculty who you want to write letters of recommendation (very very important for grad school apps in my experience----the letters can make or break you despite GRE scores and GPA's). You could apply this year for next fall. If you are accepted, you could defer for one year--that is not too unusual. But two years? That is probably pushing it.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:14 AM on September 28, 2011

I just got my Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics. I think you'll be fine taking a couple years off. The students in my program who returned after working did fine (and obviously got into the program). In addition to the advice above, something you could do is keep your computing skills current. Learn whatever new (to you) programming tool/framework/language/algorithm is useful for your field and improve on what you already know. I agree with the advice above about getting recommendation letters now, and keeping in contact with your current professors and advisors.

Also, I think my Ph.D. was a ticket to a really interesting world and a really interesting job. This was true for most people graduating from my program. In the middle of a recession, I think that is saying something. Feel free to MeMail me if you you have any more questions.
posted by bluefly at 5:21 AM on September 28, 2011

are my chances diminished by not applying immediately after graduating school?

You're talking about a PhD program, right? Plenty of people in my department took "time off", which is sort of a funny euphemism for getting a normal job, if you think about it, and it didn't seem to affect them. Honestly, I think the people who've gone into industry often have better time management skills and a less all-subsuming attitude towards work than their fresh-out-of-undergrad counterparts. (I'm in a different science, though, so YMMV.)

is there anything I can do, while working full-time, to better my chances of my application?

Yes! Use the time you were going to spend on classes to do research. If you are near a university or research institute, shop around your resume, explain your situation and level of commitment, and see if anyone wants a free intern to do data analysis, etc. Having research experience trumps classes by a wide margin, and recommendation letters are really, really valuable.

As far as grant writing goes, I think there are very few associations that would give grant money to someone who is 1) just out of undergrad and 2) not attached to an academic institution. However, you should absolutely apply for fellowships in a year or so -- if you are doing research, your mentor can help you with this; your contacts from undergrad may also be a good resource. USA-specific info follows. The NSF GRFP is the major one; since you're in applied math the DoE graduate fellowship might be up your alley also. There's also the NDSEG from the DoD and the Hertz fellowship. The bad news is that these fellowships tend to be very competitive (the order goes roughly NSF < NDSEG < Hertz, on a log scale), but even getting an honorable mention from the NSF would be a good feather in your cap. Here's an excellent resource from a NDSEG/NSF recipient on applying to graduate fellowships.

Good luck!
posted by en forme de poire at 9:46 AM on September 28, 2011

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