In the sciences it’s easy to get in the mindset of “go to college, go to grad school, get a post doc, be a professor” for your career. While this path works, I want to talk about the crazy idea of breaking from the path for a year or two before you throw yourself into a PhD program. (Note: this applies to people applying to professional schools like medicine or law, as well.)
To preface, going into grad school straight out of college does work. There’s a lot of people who do it and do it well. If you want to make a career as a researcher, starting grad school early lets you throw yourself at the rigors of a PhD while you’re young and energetic. But grad school is a huge commitment. Do you like fieldwork enough to get up at 7am on a Sunday if you have to? How do you react to the concept of motivating yourself to read a textbook, as opposed to it being assigned reading, for (probably) the first time? Are you ok with cutting your free time to the point that it’ll be a challenge to be simultaneously in that weekly journal club and working on that novel you’ve always thought about?
If you like your subject and are motivated, none of these questions should be that intimidating. But there’s nothing forcing you to throw yourself into all that straight out of college. Dr. John Cheeseman, the former head of IB Honors, continually tried drilling into my head the idea that I don’t have to go to grad school right away, that there are literally dozens of other cool options to consider. Your post-college path can veer wildly away from research, taking you across the world and letting you try things you’ve never had the chance to do before.
Yeah, I didn’t believe him. If you’re anything like I was as an undergrad, all of that will sound like a nice what-if, the cool life of someone who’s not in your shoes. Applying to a PhD program as a senior in college meant having knowledge and stability on what would happen in the half decade (at least) after college. With unemployment as high as it is right now, let’s just take what we can get, right? And with literally the whole world open for the first time, I found myself surprisingly drawn to the idea of “settling down” into a PhD program, where I know what I’m doing in a month, this summer, next year.
The point of this post is to pull a Cheeseman and encourage you to think outside the box. The following alternatives to immediately starting grad school are applicable to new graduates looking for something to fill a few months before more permanent plans, new seniors looking for stuff to do after graduation, and sophomores and juniors looking for summer plans.
1. Teach English or do research in another country on a Fulbright grant
Starting with the option that deviates the least from the research path, the Fulbright is something I highly recommend students interested in research consider. The Fulbright is funding for one year to teach English or do research with a local organization in another country (i.e. you can’t work with an American researcher stationed in Panama). If you want to do research someday, this is a fantastic opportunity to try independent research out, not have it go as you expected, and then learn how to better conduct research. When you enter grad school for real, you’ll have the knowledge of your Fulbright year as a head start on learning to do quality work. Also, the experience of living in another country for a year, especially fresh out of college, teaches you a lot about yourself. (If you’re interested, visit topscholars.illinois.edu or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. The priority deadline is July 1.)
2. Work as a field assistant / do a lab internship
Part-time work in the area of research that interests you, especially if you can find something that pays or at least breaks even (e.g. housing is paid for), is awesome. For biology fieldwork, job boards like those of University of Texas A&M, the Ornithological Societies of North America, and Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation constantly have researchers looking for people to help with fieldwork.
You could study lizards in the Tucson desert, search for crabs on beaches in Washington state, or even end up in Australia watching fairy wrens through binoculars. The options are out there! A Fulbright alumna I know did the ‘fieldwork rock star’ lifestyle for a year, where she hopped from field project to field project. She barely broke even financially, but she got to spend a year traveling the world while simultaneously advancing her career. This is a great way to get exposed to a lot of types of research, too, and see what you like the best.
3. Ditch research for a bit
As much as you might like biology, it’s only one side of you. Ever wanted to tutor kids in creative writing? Find an apartment in San Francisco and intern at 826 National. Does doing manual labor on a farm in exchange for food and a place to sleep sound awesome? Check out work exchange programs like WorkAway. When I interviewed at Cambridge (conflicted, I applied to do a PhD in Cambridge the same year I applied for the Fulbright. I didn’t get in) and was discussing the potential for gap year(s) before grad school, my proposed adviser there said about 4-5 years without science research should be the upper limit between finishing college and starting grad school. That’s a whole lot of time to pick cocoa fruit and build hiking trails in Costa Rica.
Graduating college is intimidating. Not knowing what happens next is scary. But it can also be exciting. I strongly believe (finally) in the benefit of taking time off, whether it be getting experience with research or trying something totally different. If you like the crazy different path you took, awesome! If it wasn’t what you thought and you miss research, grad schools are accepting applications every year. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, grad schools will care more about your experiences with research than whatever grade you got in physics.This is one of the best times of your life to try something new. Don’t be afraid of trying something different just because you don’t know how it’ll turn out.
For more information about academic advice, summaries of scientific articles, and discourses on metal music, check out my blog (www.mattgrobis.blogspot.com) or e-mail me at matt.grobis[at]gmail[dot]com.