On taking a “year off” from graduate school

In one month I’ll be moving to Boston to start my PhD, thus ending my “year off” from school after finishing my MA at NPSIA in 2012. It was a badly needed break from the stressful grind of course-work, research essay writing, and the never-ending cycle of applications and proposals which started consuming most of my time and effort somewhere around my 3rd year of undergrad. In this post I’d like to reflect briefly on the so-called “buffer” year, and what it has meant for me.

First, the expression “year off” is itself misleading. As others have pointed out, this is a somewhat pejorative phrase which implies that taking a break from grad school to pursue other professional or life goals is some sort of deviation from the correct “Path.” Leaving the university system opens up all kinds of opportunities for learning and professional development, many of which aren’t available while in school: traveling to new and interesting countries, working in a professional sector that you didn’t know much about before, learning a new language, and yes, getting some real hand-to-hand combat experience with the current job market (ouch).

So, what are some of the main benefits I’ve gained from my time outside the Ivory Tower?

I better understand how international development and aid works in the field. Doing internships/coop jobs during grad school with Ottawa-based think tanks and the Federal Government (I worked one semester at DFAIT) will teach you a lot, but it’s no substitute for having some actual field experience. Some of my previous assumptions have been re-enforced (short-term donor funding is a killer and everyone hates it), while others have been revised … I also have a better idea of what it takes to get a job in the sector (get some fundraising experience, and language skills can compensate for a hell of a lot).

I know a lot more about one region’s culture and language. By coincidence, two of my travel/work opportunities in my buffer-year were in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine and Tajikistan). I didn’t have a huge interest in this area before, but after 6 months working in these countries and learning some (basic) Russian, I feel a lot more knowledgeable about this part of the world and more confident about travelling/working/researching here in the future. I count this as an enormous benefit of my time away from school, and if I had another year I would spend it in a different region to learn about that place.

I put graduate school on less of a pedestal. Here’s one that surprised me. Before I started my buffer-year, part of me secretly suspected that while my time away from university would be fun and relaxing, I would be burning to get back to my “real” calling in the Ivory Tower. To some extent that is true, but I’m less ignorant and dismissive now about the kind of lives and careers people are living outside the academic universe. By meeting highly talented, intelligent, and career-driven people in a non-university environment, I better understand now that getting a PhD is only one option among many for very-smart-people, and that plenty of non-PhDs out there can run intellectual circles around a lot of academics. Perhaps that should have been obvious already, but I think it’s a lesson some grad students would do well to appreciate more.

I got to read books that weren’t on some prof’s syllabus. It’s a troubling moment, when you realize it’s been years since you read something that didn’t include a literature review and research methods section. I’ve had a lot of enjoyment this past year striking off books from my to-read list, including Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, etc. Not only were these books enjoyable to read, they have refreshed my perspective on history, politics, psychology and war in ways that will likely inform my work as a PhD student.       

I am happy about the thought of starting school again. After six uninterrupted years of post-secondary education (the last four of which I stressed a fair amount about grades), I was kind of burnt out. I probably could have just kept going straight into the PhD, but I might have had an early-life crisis (now I probably have another 2-3 years before that hits).

I have more employable skills for the future. Let’s face it, the academic job market sucks, and there’s a pretty real possibility I won’t be able to find a job as a prof when I finish my PhD. Luckily, I don’t have a huge problem with that, in part because the last year has exposed me to a lot of the great stuff you can do outside of academia and has made me more prepared to succeed in that world.

So if a buffer year is so great, why not take two or three or five of them before returning to do a PhD? That’s a good question, and I suspect that for some people it really would be a net benefit to take more time out of school and develop a solid base of professional skills and experience.  For me, one year seems to have been sufficient, and I wouldn’t want to delay any longer. Partly this is for personal reasons – I might like to start a family at some point in the next ten years, and it would be nice to finish school and start earning an actual salary beforehand.  I also feared that my competitiveness as an applicant for PhD programs / scholarships would begin to suffer if I delayed too long. By writing applications just a few months after graduation, I was able to ride a wave of momentum – defending my thesis, having letter-writers who still remembered my work, sending my first manuscript to a peer-reviewed journal, recent academic awards, etc. I’ll never know if those things actually made a difference to selection committees, but I like to think they did.

For others who took time off from university and then came back, what has your experience been?

Philip Martin


3 thoughts on “On taking a “year off” from graduate school

  1. It has been a great year, you even got to fix pallets too! Manual labour has its own value in the scheme of things.

  2. Pingback: Beating the first-year grad school blues | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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