How to Spend the Gap Between Undergrad and Grad School

by Genevieve Carlton
• 5 min read
TheBestSchools.org

Taking a break from academia can pay off in unexpected ways, from higher starting salaries to less burnout.

According to a recent Sallie Mae survey, 63% of grad students enter a program within 12 months of earning their undergraduate degree. Yet, most students benefit from taking a gap year before grad school.

A gap year might convince you to switch from med school to a healthcare management program or to reevaluate your plans to pursue a doctorate. Taking time off from school can also increase your admission chances and help you save money. Even more importantly, a gap year helps avoid burnout.

Many graduate programs encourage or even require applicants to spend several years outside academia before pursuing an advanced degree. Here's why it makes sense to plan a gap between your bachelor's degree and grad school.

In 2018, 43% of full-time college students worked while in school, as did 81% of part-time students. With so many students gaining work experience while in college, does additional experience really make a difference?

In short, yes; working during a gap year helps prospective graduate students focus their interests and improve their job outlook. It can even increase their starting salary after earning a graduate degree.

Working undergraduates can pursue careers that do not require a bachelor's degree, but graduates qualify for additional opportunities. Working full-time strengthens time management skills and exposes employees to different leadership styles. Rather than splitting their focus between work and school, full-time employees with a bachelor's degree can devote themselves to career advancement and skill-building.

After earning a graduate degree, candidates with prior work experience often receive higher starting salaries than their peers who only stayed in academia. According to a survey from the Graduate Management Admissions Council, MBA graduates with at least one year of work experience received starting salaries of nearly double those who had no work experience.

Most college graduates have spent over 15 years in school by the time they walk away with a bachelor's degree. Unless they take a gap year before undergrad, the last time they weren't in school was before kindergarten.

Taking a break from academia can give people a valuable perspective on their career goals and interests outside of a school context. For overachieving students, stepping back from a system that rewards their hard work with high grades can help reset their goals. Rather than focusing solely on academic achievement, prospective grad students can learn to focus on their interests and strengths outside of school.

Half of doctoral students leave school before earning their degrees. What causes these high dropout rates? Burnout plays a major role — and students who take a gap year before grad school experience lower levels of burnout.

That's the conclusion of a 2020 study that looked at burnout among med students. Researchers found that students who took at least one year off before med school reported significantly less burnout than those who took no time off. Med students who took off two years saw an even greater reduction in burnout rates.

Why would a gap year limit burnout? For one, students who take a gap year get a break from the intense academic calendar and its midterms, research papers, and final exams. But a gap year also helps students gain perspective and maturity, which makes a difference during a graduate program.

Every prospective grad student should ask themselves: Do I need to attend graduate school for my chosen career path? While some fields require a graduate degree — for example, there's no way to work as a lawyer or physician without one — others do not necessarily require grad school. Working before applying to graduate programs is the best way to figure out whether your career path requires an advanced degree.

A break can also focus your career plans. As a senior in college, you might have considered law school, but after a few years working for a nonprofit, you realize a nonprofit management degree makes more sense.

Graduate school is a major investment of time and money. Rather than starting a program and realizing it's not a good fit, you can gain practical experience through paid work and learn more about the realities of your intended career.

Most college students choose a major while they are still teenagers. By the time they reach their mid-twenties, they can grow out of that field or realize it doesn't match their strengths or interests. Other times, they choose a major without a clear career path and enter the job market not knowing where they want to work.

Unless you have a clear career trajectory that requires a graduate degree, taking time off to make an informed decision about grad school can save you thousands of dollars and years of wasted time.

Graduate school can be emotionally taxing. Building a community outside of school before pursuing an advanced degree offers emotional and professional support.

Joining clubs, professional organizations, or meet-up groups related to your field or graduate program can connect you with valuable resources. You might find a supervisor who can write the letter of recommendation that gets you a grad school acceptance, or you could meet friends who you can lean on during your program.

Working before grad school also allows you to think strategically. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, 56% of employers offer tuition assistance programs for their employees. If you work for one of these companies, you can go back for that master's degree while still earning a paycheck.

What to Do During a Gap Year Before Grad School

For most students, gaining work experience during their gap year makes the most sense. Professional experience can strengthen a graduate application and help prospective grad students narrow their interests. In fact, 79% of graduate students have professional experience in a field similar to their graduate programs.

Work experience is more than a line on your resume: It also helps you save up for school. On average, a master's degree costs around $25,000, and graduate students pay for the majority of their degrees by themselves, either through borrowing or savings. Building up a grad school fund during a gap year can help you limit debt and decrease financial stress.

Are there downsides to taking a gap year before grad school? Of course. Students who take time off are inevitably older when they complete their graduate degree and enter the workforce. That choice can impact lifetime earnings, since professionals with a graduate degree earn higher salaries than those with only a bachelor's degree, and getting a higher salary early can mean bigger raises over the long term.

But don't worry about being too old for grad school. Over 62% of full-time graduate students are 25 or older, while 25-31% of grad students are older than 30. Spending a few years in the workforce doesn't mean you've missed your window of opportunity for a graduate degree.

Taking a gap year almost always benefits grad students. From higher starting salaries to less risk of burnout, time off can pay off over the course of a career.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: jeffbergen, SilvanBachmann | Getty Images

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