Making the decision to go to graduate school is a tough one, but often pays off well in the long run. Not only does a master’s typically guarantee around $10,000 more a year in salary, but it further prepares you to take on your professional career and be confident in your area of study. However, once you make the decision to go to graduate school, another hurdle lies ahead: do you go right after you graduate from undergrad, or take time off?
This is a question I and many of my fellow senior students have battled with for quite some time. What makes it so difficult is the conflicting advice you get from professors and peers about the benefits of jumping right in, or from taking a year or two off before you begin. To help you flesh them out, here are some of the pros and cons of going straight into graduate school.
Pro: You Won’t Lose Your Drive
When asking my professors whether they advised taking a year or two off before beginning graduate school, many discouraged me. Graduate school entails an academic rigor far more intense than undergrad, and you must be prepared for this when beginning. Taking time off threatens to lower academic drive, as you are simply not in the same kind of structured educational environment as you are when you are enrolled in school.
Think about winter break, for instance, when you finally take a breath of fresh air after surviving finals, and just want to hibernate for a month before beginning the next semester. The first couple weeks of spring semester are usually pretty rough for everyone, as it’s normal to relax and let go a little when you are not forced to constantly push yourself. Imagine how intense this would be after an entire year off.
Now, at first I insisted this wouldn’t happen to me; I would study for the GRE during my time off after undergrad, write and do some research during this gap to prepare myself for graduate school applications. While my professors agreed this was the goal, they reminded me that time flies by us, and often we look back at the plans we had for things to get done and realize that somehow an entire week, month or year has gone by, and we didn’t do any of the things we planned because, well, life happened.
While it is entirely possible to take time off and remain intellectually sharp, using the time wisely to strengthen your application materials, it is also threatens the possibility that your drive will slowly dissolve, and you become lost without that structured educational environment.
However, if you begin graduate school right after undergrad, you keep the wheels turning and jump right in. Everything you have learned in undergrad is fresh in your mind, and you are well acclimated to the environment you will be in during graduate school. Instead of switching back and forth between different environments, starting grad school right after graduation will keep you thriving in a university atmosphere.
Pro: You’ll Be Employed Sooner — Hello, Adult Salary!
Hello! The sooner you get done with graduate school, the sooner you get a full-time job and an adult salary to pay the bills and begin the next chapter in your life.
Every professor or peer I have gone to for advice about this has admitted that you should never pay for graduate school; only go if you are awarded an assistantship or scholarships that will pay for your tuition. Almost every graduate program offers this, so it is definitely possible to achieve.
However, there are still bills to be paid during graduate school like rent, utilities, car payments, groceries, etc. and take it from someone who has worked three jobs during undergrad to survive: working full-time while going to school is no fun, and it is hard. While it definitely pays off in the long run, the goal is to get a full-time job and make a salary so you can afford all of your expenses, while also giving yourself the time to relax and live your life.
The sooner you complete graduate school, the sooner you get a big-boy/girl salary, and the next chapter of your adult life can begin without the financial burden of paying adult bills without an adult job.
Con: You Might Not Have Time to Adequately Prepare for Grad Applications
I relate to this point to my core, and it is something that inhibits many seniors from beginning graduate school right after undergrad. Taking time off allows you the free time to prepare for your graduate school applications which are intense and expensive. Just to submit your application costs between $50-$100, not to include the cost of ordering transcripts, and taking graduate exams that cost hundreds of dollars like the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.
Not only do many students not have this money put aside, but many waste it because their schedules during undergrad were too intense to adequately prepare a strong and competitive grad school application.
I, for instance, am an English major applying to M.A. programs in English. The things required of me are to take the GRE, write a personal statement, a statement of purpose, a resume/CV and a 10-15-page writing sample. I and other applicants are expected to complete these things during our senior year when you are already working and enrolled full-time. This can be incredibly difficult to find the time for; I have experienced this myself with running out of time to properly study and prepare for the GRE, resulting in mediocre test scores.
While most graduate applications allow you the opportunity to explain why you may have these discrepancies, it is frustrating to spend a lot of time and money preparing an application you know isn’t as good as it could be.
That is why many professors and mentors would advise taking a year or two off to prepare for you graduate applications. Taking this time off allows you to buckle down and focus only on studying for your graduate exams, writing an excellent writing sample and statements, and polishing up your application to perfection.
Con: You’ll Get Burnt Out
This is the one I hear the most: If you go right into graduate school without giving yourself a break from undergrad, you will get burnt out. Graduating with an undergrad degree is an amazing accomplishment, but it is also the result of the accumulation of all-nighters, hours and hours of studying, thousands of pages of papers written, etc. This is an exhausting experience, and graduate school is only more intense.
The fear is that jumping right into a graduate program without allowing yourself the time to relax and regain yourself threatens to burn you out; you’ve spent years studying your major and are now committing to two to four years more. Often, this burns students out and they end up losing the joy and passion they found in studying their content and, consequently, grow resentful of its demand and rigor.
Taking time off can allow you to relax and refocus on the parts of your area of study that you really want to focus on in graduate school, giving you time to recoup and start fresh with the same drive you had in undergrad when deciding to commit to your career path.
Ultimately, I have found that there are as many reasons to take time off between undergrad and graduate school as there are to not; what it comes down to is what is best for you individually. Nevertheless, taking these points into consideration may help you decide and prepare you for whatever decision you commit to.
Either way, attending graduate school is an amazing decision and an exciting adventure, so whether you jump right in or take some time off in between, you will begin an entirely new chapter in life that will pay off well in the long run.