Working Man?
January 26, 2006 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How will grad schools and employers react if I take a year off to work after college?

I'm just finishing an undergraduate degree in applied physics. I enjoyed school and research, but I want a break to work a bit before going back for five more years of grad school in engineering or physics. I've been looking at primarily teaching/public service programs (Teach for America type), consulting jobs, and national research research labs (though the national labs aren't 1-2 year commitments, they seem to have good provision for taking time off for grad school). One cool possibility in particular is an offer I have to TA a physics class at a remote campus of a major US university in Doha, Qatar.

If I apply to grad schools after two years of these jobs, will I be at a disadvantage in the admissions process? Are there certain kinds of work that would be better/worse? Also, given all I've heard about people in similar situations who intend to go to grad school and then get sucked into work (and $$), if I decide while I'm working that grad school isn't for me, how will potential employers view my experience?

If it helps, I have a good GPA & GRE scores, a failry solid research background and a long list of extracurriculars.
posted by bargex to Education (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They'll love it! Having real life skills is very important.

Generally, I believe, they prefer people who have taken time off.

Plus, if you wait until you're over 25, your parents income doesn't count against you (if you're in the US).

I'm back at grad school after taking 5 years off. I don't "miss" the money because I can take out a loan to whatever amount I want and live the same lifestyle. Although, to be honest, I do try to be more frugal.
posted by k8t at 8:23 AM on January 26, 2006

I don't think a year or two will hurt you as far as admissions. If you wait too long, it might be harder to get letters of rec from your undergrad professors.

The 1.5 years I worked between undergrad and grad school probably didn't help me in admissions, but certainly helped keep me from burning out like some of my cohort that went straight into grad school.
posted by logicpunk at 8:32 AM on January 26, 2006

Grad schools won't care one way or the other whether you've worked or not (I've seen no preference for people who've worked, at least not for academic degrees. It would probably be an advantage for a professional degree. I'm sure this varies by field and department). If you have worked, doing something related would be helpful, though note that related should be interpreted broadly to mean not only "something to do with physics", but "something that shows you have the drive/stamina/commitment/self-motivation to make it through a grad program.

I would strongly advise against taking out loans while you're in grad school (or hell, taking out loans in general, except for a mortgage), don't dig yourself into a hole of debt.

Anyway, don't hesitate because you think it will negatively affect your grad school chances. It won't.
posted by duck at 8:37 AM on January 26, 2006

Oh, and keep in touch with your profs while you're working, and be sure to talk to them now and tell them your plans.
posted by duck at 8:38 AM on January 26, 2006

I worked for a year in between my college graduation & the beginning of graduate school, & it actually helped me get into grad school. My job was in the field I was planning on going into, & grad schools often place great importance on work & research experience in the application process. I think you'll definitely be okay.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 8:39 AM on January 26, 2006

Just echoing that grad schools don't seem to care about taking a year off to work (or do anything, really). Just make sure that your recommenders will remember you after a year of you not being around. Recommendations are often the most important part of an application package, it seems.
posted by advil at 8:47 AM on January 26, 2006

You should be able to get appropriate recommendations from people who supervise your work during your year off as well. They will have a sense of your work ethic, abilities, etc.

I do have a colleague who took a year off to live in a teepee. His sense was that it may have made it more difficult to get into grad school (in clinical psychology), though he did get in, and to a good program.
posted by lisaj32 at 8:55 AM on January 26, 2006

Grad schools will be indifferent at worse, and pleased if what you do in the year makes you a stronger candidate. But get those letters of recommendation now, before your undergraduate professors forget who the heck you are.
posted by LarryC at 9:02 AM on January 26, 2006

Taking time off is definitely good for grad school. I know of a few programs that scoff at students coming directly from undergrad unless they are extremely bright and/or experienced in their area of study.
posted by mathowie at 9:24 AM on January 26, 2006

I worked for two years after undergrad in the same field before applying to grad school, and I think it helped my chances if anything. As for the issue of getting used to the money, you definitely want to save up some money when you're working to even it out a bit when you get into grad school. I took a 60% paycut when I quit my job to go back to school, but I didn't really feel it forced me to make a huge lifestyle change because I was careful with my finances while I was working and lived as if I had been on a lean stipend instead of a fat paycheque. Have fun working, and best of luck with your apps!
posted by reformedjerk at 9:25 AM on January 26, 2006

I think the answer is likely to be completely different in engineering vs. physics. I can only give you a straight answer for math PhD programs (IAAMathProf), where taking a year off definitely hurts. It's not a total application killer, but it's a reliable sign that you're not actually that driven to undergo and finish a PhD.

I always advise people who want to take a year off before going to math grad school to apply now and defer later, after having been accepted (the bait & switch). But the simple fact is that those people don't typically finish a math PhD. My vague understanding is that this is less true in engineering. But I would expect the physics program to be more analogous to the math one than to engineering.
posted by Aknaton at 9:26 AM on January 26, 2006

I also took the year off between undergrad and grad. I don't think it made a difference. What did make a difference is that I continued doing lots of volunteer work on issues related to my field during that time. So in addition to professors, the head of the organization for which I volunteered wrote a letter of recommendation. And I think that was one thing that helped me get into a competitive program.
posted by kimdog at 9:28 AM on January 26, 2006

On top of what everyone else said, taking some time off between undergrad and grad school helps you become more well-rounded, mature, intelligent, and hopefully slightly saner than the rest of your future co-students.
posted by matildaben at 9:43 AM on January 26, 2006

First off, realize that there's a very important distinction between what grad schools in the humanities and the social sciences expect versus what those in the natural sciences expect. The lion's share of natural science Ph.D. candidates at American universities come straight from their bachelor's degrees (or from a master's degree, if they're from outside of the United States.) This contrasts quite a bit with students outside of the natural sciences, where "real life" experience is both more common and more pertinent. So take what's being said above with that distinction in mind.

I'm a graduate student in physics, and a few years ago I sat on the admissions committee for my department. (You can probably figure out which unviersity from my profile.) When I was reading applications, time off did make a difference, but it wasn't a deal-breaker: if you have a strong application otherwise, it won't make that much of a difference, but if you're a borderline case and you spend a long time doing something unrelated to physics, it could very well hurt you. It also makes a difference whether what you do is physics-related; if you took a year off to go work as a research assistant at Los Alamos or CERN, it would be much more of an asset than working for Merill Lynch. That said, I admitted a student who had spent three and a half years working in finance before deciding to get a Ph.D., and he's doing quite well now. So there you are.

The important part, as everyone has said, is that you still be able to get good recommendation letters when you do apply. It would also be worth thinking about how old you're going to be when you finally finish your degree — are you a normal "college age", or are you older than your classmates?

Oh, and since you mentioned it: extracurricular activities simply don't matter on grad school applications, at least in physics. Sorry.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:02 AM on January 26, 2006

taking some time off between undergrad and grad school helps you become more well-rounded

PhD programs normally don't give a damn how well-rounded you are. The ideal candidate is not someone with well-rounded interests, but someone with a single-minded and inflexible devotion to a single topic to the exclusion of all else.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:14 AM on January 26, 2006

Note: This is pretty different for engineering than for physics, IMO. Excellent letter of reccommendation from established engineering firms can only help your application, and the firms will often help applicants either monetarily or by allowing them to work part-time. None of my friends who wanted to get their masters in engineering after a few years of work had any problems.
posted by muddgirl at 10:52 AM on January 26, 2006

I am a chemistry graduate student, and I'm convinced that taking time off helped me get into Georgia Tech. My GPA was only so-so by their standards and my GRE about the same. I didn't try, but I'm reasonably sure that I wouldn't have gotten in directly out of school. Instead, I spent about 2 1/2 years working in a lab, and got a couple of kick-ass letters of recommendation that got me in. This was important for me, as I hadn't worked for long with anyone other than my advisor during school, and so I would have been hard-pressed to get anything more than mediocre rec letters from others.
posted by solotoro at 11:13 AM on January 26, 2006

I have been told (by a colleague whose husband is a physics PhD candidate at Berkeley) that the more competitive physics programs want younger grad students because their brains haven't begun deteriorating yet. If that's true (anyone care to confirm or debunk?), a year off for a good reason is probably OK, but you might not want to push it.

Who am I? Why am I here?
posted by Eothele at 11:30 AM on January 26, 2006

Lots of good advice here.

1) Keep in contact with your professors (send them a christmas/holiday card, a email to say "hi, I'm working at ___ and it's ___, I remember you saying ____ and it's helping with ___) so you'll know if they're still at the position so you can secure a recommendation.

2) Instead of applying to schools and departments, check out which faculty you want to work with (read their papers, read their student's papers) and contact the faculty members directly. Having someone vouch to take you into their lab is +++ for the admissions process. (That, and you can get a head start figuring out what your project(s) is/are as well as a headstart on the grant-writing.

3) Working in the field - you'll get a feel for whether applied physics is the right thing for you.

The only situation that I can think of where working outside of academia could present a problem for getting back into academia is if, after a PhD, someone goes into the private sector and then wants to return to academia. While in the private sector, the rate of publication slows dramatically and looks really bad. Also, the relatively higher pay that one can get from the private sector (and possible differences in work ethic) also biases an applicant wanting to return to academia.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:05 PM on January 26, 2006

The Qatar possibility sounds fascinating, I'm jealous.

I would say, take time off, maybe because I've felt graduate school burnout. But also because this is the time of your life to explore - you won't have the chance later. Career-wise, it's nothing to take off time now, but it would be much harder to do so after graduate school.
posted by jb at 12:07 PM on January 26, 2006

If you do decide to do this, get in touch with some professors now regarding the letter of recommendation issue. It would probably be easier for them to write/approve a letter now, and then hang on to it (or give it to you to hang on to), than in a year or two.
posted by MrZero at 1:07 PM on January 26, 2006

I'm sure this has been said, but it bears repeating:

Ask for your letters of recommendation from professors now. Just explain that you're taking a few years off, but you expect to go to grad school afterwards and you'd appreciate having their support.

You can even ask for letters from people you're not sure you'll ever want a letter from; it certainly doesn't do any harm.

You'll gain a lot of good will in their eyes by asking for the letter in advance, and this will carry over into the letter they write.

(This is the one thing I wish I'd done before taking time off. Also, taking time off is by far the best decision, in general. It's good to get out of academia for a while.)
posted by metaculpa at 1:28 PM on January 26, 2006

PhD programs normally don't give a damn how well-rounded you are. The ideal candidate is not someone with well-rounded interests, but someone with a single-minded and inflexible devotion to a single topic to the exclusion of all else.

That may be true, but your future spouse/friends will appreciate it nonetheless.
posted by matildaben at 2:40 PM on January 26, 2006

well, i can speak a bit to your situation. i left undergrad with a BS in physics in 2001, totally burned out from academia (classes, etc) but still in love with science. i got a technical job at a DOE research lab and worked there for 4 years, and now i'm back in graduate school.

i think the fact that i worked in a research environment helped me, and that i was coming back to school helped me too. (i think there's some recognition of the fact that you are not just mindlessly moving on to the next thing in the sequence, but willingly leaving a good job and are probably more serious about grad school than a fresh-from-undergrad who might bail out after a year of hating it. this is just conjecture, though, having never been on the other end of the admission process.)

however, it will DEFINITELY help if you do work in a field that is related to whatever research you intend to pursue in grad school. i switched gears in a big way (going from particle physics to photonics/materials science) and so my experience was only relevant in a general sort of sense.

also, i'd like to second some of the remarks others made. most important is to get ahold of some potential supervisors at the place you want to apply, and meet with them before you send in an application. having someone (or multiple someones) in the faculty who can vouch for you and is interested in picking you up is VERY good. having a specific research project outlined in your application is also VERY good. someone who applies with a vague sense of "i like physics and i'm sure i'll find something to do" is gonna get sent to the bottom of the pile.

unfortunately teaching experience is probably not going to be all that relevant. (unless you are applying to the school that is affiliated with the Qatar thing, then maybe.) it certainly won't count against you in any way, but if you can do some kind of research instead, you'd be much better off. in science your worth as a graduate student applicant is largely determined by your research potential - how many quanta of paper generation (friend of mine calls them "publons" heh) you can crank out, and unless you find a department or supervisor that is particularly teaching-focused, that's about it. (it's unfortunate that in science departments so little is devoted to teaching, but that's the way it is, so you work the system.)

also want to second the recommendation to arrange for recommendation letters now and keep in touch.

one last thing to consider - graduate school is very different from undergrad. no more taking 18 credits a semester - one class at a time is plenty, and coursework is regarded as a necessary but not-that-important thing you have to do. you will spend your time a lot more freely and your performance will be judged in a much-less objective way than grades and test scores. so if you're burned out, just remember that it will be a pretty substantial change in environment and day-to-day life. however, you'll be hecka busy, and it can be nice to take some time and do something a little less hectic.

anyway it sounds like you are in exactly the position i was 4-5 years ago, and if you'd like to get ahold of me and get some more in-retrospect advice, feel free to email away.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:28 PM on January 26, 2006

I took a year off between college and grad school and, frankly, I wish I'd taken off another year or two beyond that. The year off certainly didn't hurt me in terms of getting into grad school (I got in to most of the programs I applied for and was offered a fellowship at two of them), but looking back I was not mentally prepared for the higher rigor of work and the higher level of competition that were part of the package. (And I say this as someone who double-majored at one of the Top 20 colleges in the country -- it's not like I skated through a party school for my undergrad years.)

Basically, I really had the impression of grad school as being a lot like my senior honors seminars (only all the time instead of just one or two classes), and the reality was quite different. I think had I continued to keep up in my field for a couple of years without actually going back to grad school right away, I would have been a little more intellectually mature and well-prepared once I got there.
posted by scody at 3:37 PM on January 26, 2006

oh, i guess i should say something else. it is one thing to make your life decisions based on what will help you down the road, but an entirely different thing to live an interesting and fulfilling life. doing things just because they can help with future professional success can turn you into a pretty one-dimensional person. you may find that living somewhere else and doing something else is a lot better, you may have your eyes opened to new things that you end up caring more about, you may meet people that change you on a more fundamental level. there is a lot more to life than what you put on a CV, and a lot of it is more important.

also, the laws of physics are the same in cambridge and pasadena and berkeley as they are in toledo and muncie and wichita. sure, there are real benefits to getting into a hot-shit school, but it's not everything.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:42 PM on January 26, 2006

My experience is with math departments, but here is an actual conversation that occurred between members of an admissions committee in a prestigious department (names have been changed):

A: I don't think we should accept Jane Doe.
B: Why?
A: She took two years off from school.
B: So?
A: Could you imagine yourself taking two years off from math?
B: No.

The most common piece of advice along these lines that I've heard is (to repeat some of what's been said above): apply now, and then defer. Failing that, at least get your recommendation letters now.
posted by epimorph at 7:34 PM on January 26, 2006

But if you do something related (like teach physics or work in a lab), then you haven't been away from the discpline. The only discpline where I have ever heard of youth being an advantage over age is in maths - in most others, experience and age are an advantage. My friend took a few years off - wrote a novel, worked in industry, and is now doing computer science and plays with robots for his Ph.D. at Yale. You never know what will happen.

(The advantage in going to a prestigious school isn't that everyone is bright or that you will just walk into a job, but you will a) have a better chance at good funding, and b) more important researchers will come through visiting. But this only holds if the said prestigious school is actually good in what you are interested in.)
posted by jb at 4:17 AM on January 27, 2006

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks for the advice everyone! I'll definitely take time off, and, at some point, work in a lab, but I'm still very interested in the idea of teaching in Qatar, not only for the experience of being away from the US for a year, but also because I can take the bio/biochem sequence while I teach. I have no bio background, and I think it could be useful for phys/eng grad school, depending on my research (which I haven't decided on yet, though it will probably be in something close to my undergird work in photonics).

All of your advice has convinced me that I have plenty of time to (and probably should) get a job in a research lab for a while to build up some good recs.
posted by bargex at 11:12 AM on January 27, 2006

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