The Gap Year was worth it.

Last Friday was my last day in Candice Hirsch’s maize genomics lab at UMN, and with it ends my “gap year” between undergraduate and grad school. In this post, I want to talk about how I spent the past 12 months and what I got out of them.

For some context, I graduated college with a degree in Ecology, Evolution & Behavior and Plant Biology. At the time of graduation, I had a vague idea that I’d like to pursue a career in tropical ecology, but felt completely unprepared to make such a decision. I thought I’d like to be an active researcher pursuing the answers to interesting but esoteric questions; I thought I’d enjoy being in the field, travelling to remote locations to collect plant samples; I thought I’d like to be a plant systematist, learning the names and characteristics of the world’s flora; I thought I’d like to be an ecologist, developing new methods and applying them to tropical forest systems; I thought I’d like to be an academic, constantly applying for grants and writing papers resulting from those grants, …. the list goes on. Point is, there were a lot of aspects of my proposed field that I’d never tried before, and I felt uncomfortable comitting to it.

The gap year was basically a chance for me to work on a few of those things I thought I’d like but had no experience with. So here’s what I did:

May: Travelled to Area de Conservación Guanacaste with Jennifer Powers for a 2-week-ish long field course
June – August: Interned the NHRE REU at NMNH. This was my first experience doing research 40 hours a week, which was definitely a new feeling!
August – September: Travelled to India, hung out with grandmas and cousins :).
September – October: Started writing graduate school application essays
October – December: Attended the AFEC field course at XTBG
December – May: Worked at a maize genomics lab at UMN.

Each of these addressed specific gaps in my knowledge/experiences. Being at ACG with Jennifer gave me my very first field experience, and while there, Jennifer gave me a lot of encouragement to stay in the field. Jennifer also encouraged me to attend the AFEC, which was another fantastic experience. My time at NMNH was brilliant — it was the first time that I did research for 40 hours a week, and really enjoyed it quite a bit (and I liked the area enough to return to it for graduate school!) Finally, by working in a genomics lab, I’ve developed a lot of critical computer scripts, which will help me in more ways than I know now.

So, here’s what I think gap years have to offer:

pros:

  •  I gained exposure to more parts of the field of ecology/academia in general before comitting at least 5 more years to it
  • By participating in a series of distinct activities, I developed specific skills that will probably pay off for a long time yet (and they look good on my CV, which is great too)
  • Saved up some $$
  • Had some to really think about what direction I’d like my career/life to take. So, I’ll be entering grad school with a clearer idea of what I want to get out of it.
  • It was a little easier to work on grad school applications while not also juggling a bunch of classes/school responsibilities. (I actually ended up submitting my grad school and GRFP app from XTBG, when I was attending the course from 8am to 9pm and working on the essays between 10pm and midnight, but you know what I mean)
  • I had a whole lot of time to pursue other interests. I started running, read more books than I did during all of undergrad, etc.
  •  
    cons:
    I spent a lot of time thinking of what I wish would have been different, but couldn’t come up with much:

  • Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t working towards anything. I have no piece of paper to show for all I learned in the past year — this isn’t a problem per se, but in a society where pieces of paper are Sanctum Sanctorum, it feels weird to not have anything to “show” for the past 12 months (other than my Certificates of Completion from NHRE and AFEC 😉 )
  • I knew everything I was doing was kind of a short-term thing, so I never really invested a whole lot of energy into things. I really like to dive head first into anything I do, so holding back felt weird.
  • The whole gap-year was spent in Academia-related things. I really wanted to get out of the college campus and into the service industry or something, but that never happened. I honestly think that would have been a very useful experience. Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining about this…!
     

    If you took a break year (and especially if you did not), I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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