We all know the drill. You go to high school, if you’re “smart” you move on to college immediately after. You participate in four years of studying and “finding yourself” and you better have found yourself during those four short years because after they hand you that expensive piece of paper and you toss the mortar board, you’re expected to know exactly what path to take to live a fulfilled life. Now, with grad school admissions opening and closing sooner than ever, scholarship and funding dollars awarded earlier and earlier, and most deadlines hitting January 1 of your senior year or earlier, you really only get three to three-and-a-half years to figure out your life plan now.
I graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the highest honor a graduating student at my institution can be awarded, and you know what? I had no idea what I really wanted to do after graduation.
In college, I was a model student and campus leader. I participated in the clubs you were supposed to, I was a leader in my sorority as well as the campus at-large. I rarely missed class, I completed a 70-page Honors Thesis while applying to graduate school. I graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the highest honor a graduating student at my institution can be awarded, and you know what? I had no idea what I really wanted to do after graduation.
In my experience as well as the experience of several of my close friends, you get on this higher education track and it just feels like a rat race to the end. Just like in high school where the expected outcome is to attend college, the expected outcome for many students in undergrad is graduate school in its many forms. But at the end of my undergraduate career with accolades under my belt and a funded PhD offer on the table, I was left standing in the middle of the noise, intoxicated by four long years of studying, ignoring my personal well being, and fitting into a mold defined for me by society, but with no idea of what I wanted after graduation.
I was taking a gap year.
At that point, I took a chance – I took a job. I didn’t fall into the pre-destined equation that I’d all but bricked myself into, and I instead took a sidestep. I took it with the full intention of hanging tight for a bit while I figured myself out. I was taking a gap year.
At first, explaining myself felt like explaining a wrong decision in the eyes of many of my friends and colleagues. I was met with a lot of ‘oh’ and ‘hmm’ when I explained that I was not going directly into grad school. I was angry, frustrated, and a bit hurt at several of the reactions as well as the constant need to explain myself. I second guessed my choice, wondered if I made the right one daily, and was left spiraling in the weird world that is the life of a new graduate with the added feeling of letting myself and everyone else I knew down. I was an academic by trade and expertise, why would I want to hit the pause button on something I was just so damn good at?
One day, in the midst of the applications for grad school, [my advisor] asked “Why do you want to go to grad school?”
I didn’t have an answer.
But eventually, I realized that taking a gap between my undergraduate studies and graduate school was probably the best choice I’ve made in my 24 years of living thus far. I will say that some of the most poignant advice from my undergraduate advisor helped me through it all, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. One day, in the midst of the applications for grad school, she asked “Why do you want to go to grad school?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Of course, stubborn as I am, I pressed on and completed the applications, but the question still lingered in my mind. Then, on top of the thread of self-doubt, I eventually began getting letters back from the institutions I applied to – and they were rejections. Constant, cold, unyielding rejections. I can’t explain how hard it is for your entire life to be centered on being “smart” and being “academic” and then to be told that you’re not good enough by an admissions board that you don’t know and will never see. (I was eventually awarded a place at my last choice of school.)
Instead, I got back to hobbies that give me joy and strengthened friendships that I’d let wane during school, and I was able to define myself in a new context and really consider what I want out of life, what I enjoy, and what I consider my calling to be.
Thus, my gap year – which turned into two – was a time of reflection and growth. I worked, I got promoted, I was able to work on some amazing teams and incredible opportunities in my home state of Kentucky. I was able to have the space to take a breath, step back, and just not think for a while. Instead, I got back to hobbies that give me joy and strengthened friendships that I’d let wane during school, and I was able to define myself in a new context and really consider what I want out of life, what I enjoy, and what I consider my calling to be. I was able to get out of my own way.
If I hadn’t taken this break – this seemingly ‘unnatural’ break in the eyes of American Society – I wouldn’t be going to Oxford this fall for my Masters.
Call it divine intervention, call it karma, call it fate or what have you, but I do believe everything happens for a reason and a purpose. I am one of the strongest advocates for gap years now and any undergrad who asks me advice on ‘what’s next’, I immediately launch into this story. Because above all else, it is okay to be undecided and to not know your next step before you graduate. I used to laugh off the question of ‘What’s your plan?’ or ‘What’s your next step?’ instead of replying with the ever dreaded ‘Well, I really don’t know’, but now I praise that answer. Coming from an obsessive planner, this was the hardest lesson to internalize, but I’m happier for it. I’m not saying give up plans in totality, but have some levity and give yourself space to live.
Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days.
As my first post on this personal blog about my graduate experience and moving forward, I really wanted to tackle this issue that is so close to home for me. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I have all the answers or that everyone’s situation is like mine, but I will say this: there is no shame in taking the time you need to in order to make big, life-changing decisions like this. There is no imaginary timeline or ticking timer that goes out if you take a break before graduate school or your next step. Plans are wonderful but only get you so far. Living is just as important.
Above all else: Plan in decades. Think in years. Work in months. Live in days. Be flexible, be present in your own life, and be courageous to take a chance on the path that is not so obvious. You’ll be surprised at what comes your way.