Taking a Break: My Thoughts on Paths to Graduate School

Author: Hannah Kempf

Around the end of my junior year of undergrad, I started to feel burnt out, and began to doubt my abilities as a researcher and student. This surprised me, as I had always considered school to be my “thing”. To me, it made logical sense to continue my education and pursue a PhD immediately after graduating. During my junior year, however, family members and friends encouraged me to think about working outside of academia before applying to graduate school. I (reluctantly at the time) took their advice, and started to seek job opportunities close to home. During my senior year, I was offered a job to work at my old high school teaching Earth Science and tutoring ENL/ESL students in STEM subjects. 

In retrospect, here are a few of the reasons I’m glad I spent some time outside of the academy before starting a PhD program: 

1) I practiced talking about science and teaching. I met loads of students that were initially intimidated by science or didn’t find it interesting. Teaching and talking with these students ultimately made me a better science communicator. 

2) I had more time to be thoughtful about graduate school. Because my job allowed me to work “normal” hours from ~9-5, I thought a lot about who I wanted to work with, and what types of questions excited me. I reached out to prospective advisers early, and had time to have in-depth conversations with them and their current graduate students. 

3) I could study for the GRE. Without the added stress of research, finals, and the myriad extracurriculars I was involved with during undergrad, studying didn’t seem so awful. 

4) I got to do the things that made me interested in pursuing science in the first place. I spent more time outside, reading, and going to museums. 

This is my own personal experience. Some folks work outside of academia for decades before returning to pursue a graduate degree. For others, jumping straight in is the right choice. Plenty of others consider pursuing a graduate degree, but end up in a job that they adore and opt not to. My advice is to be thoughtful about your decision, and consider all of your options. Talk with graduate students about their experiences, and reach out to professionals in your field or adjacent fields. No one path to graduate school is the “right” path, and everyone’s is different.

Author: Hannah Kempf hlkempf@ucdavis.edu

Hannah is a PhD student in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of California, Davis