Wednesday, May 05, 2010

On NOT Taking Time Off between Undergrad and Grad School

I've been trying to write this post for days, but it's been a struggle. Because, as Tenured Radical's offering over at her place suggested a few days ago, and as many who commented agreed, there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking time off between undergrad and grad school and, in fact, doing so is more often than not a very good idea.

Let me first note that what I'm about to write isn't advice against taking time off. If one has the ways and means and desire to do so, then I do really believe that a gap between undergrad and grad school can be a really positive thing. I certainly don't believe that it's a bad idea. All I'm trying to do over here is to explain why taking time off might not necessarily be what all students would choose, or something that all students would see a clear benefit with no drawbacks from doing. So, let me state this clearly and for the record: it can be a really good thing for a lot of good reasons to take time off between undergrad and grad school.

As I and a few other commenters noted, though, this "take a few years off to find out who you are and to decide if grad school is really what you want" advice has the potential to alienate students from working-class/minority backgrounds and it assumes a couple of things: a) a certain kind of homogeneous experience at the undergrad level for students who would be in the group that would pursue graduate school, and b) (and this is what I've been having such a hard time articulating which is why I haven't been able to get this post written) a certain kind of worldview in which education itself is understood as a good and in which individuals with the ambition and the talent are entitled to leave full-time work to pursue it.

I did not take time off between undergrad and grad school. I graduated from undergrad at 21, I earned my MA at 22, and I earned my PhD at 28. I got a tenure-track job in English in my first year on the market, while ABD, at 28, and I was 34 when I learned that I got a positive tenure decision. In other words, my feeling that it's not totally and unequivocally necessary to "take time away from school" in order to work at a "regular job" in order to have "greater likelihood of success" at getting into graduate school, doing well once admitted into graduate school, or getting a job after grad school, is heavily influenced by my own trajectory in my own career. And I'm fully and freely willing to admit that if things hadn't worked out so neatly for me that I might feel differently. And I also know that there was a good amount of luck involved in things working out as they did for me, so let me make it clear that I do NOT talk up my experience when I advise my own students about graduate school.

So why didn't I consider taking time off in between graduate school and undergrad? At the time, I had expressed reasons that looking back weren't terribly valid. I didn't want to go into repayment on my loans from undergrad (which were not extensive - less than 10K); I knew that grad school would be a huge commitment of time and emotional energy on my part, and I did not want for that to be my life into my 30s or beyond. Those were the major ones. And knowing now what I didn't know then, those were not terribly compelling reasons. But, what I also said a lot, at the time and after, was that I knew that if I took time in between that I'd never have gone to grad school, although I never really examined what I meant when I said that. I think in trying to formulate this post, though, that this was the biggest of all my reasons, and I think it was actually a good one.

If I'd taken time off, why am I so sure that I'd not have thought grad school was an option later on? Let me present some reasons in no particular order:
  • I was very much raised to believe that once one is working full time that doing so is a life sentence and that if you are "lucky enough to have a job" that the only good reason to quit it is because you got another job that pays as much or more than the one you're quitting. Being "out of work" was a bad thing, and even not working full-time and being self-supporting was a bad thing, and being those things would mean that you were lazy, irresponsible, selfish, or a drain on other people (in your family, if not on society as a whole). I have aunts and uncles and cousins who've failed to hold down jobs, who've been on public assistance, who've been homeless. Their situations caused stress in my family, and there was very little compassion about the plight of these people. It was always very clear to me that once I started working full time that if I for whatever reason "stopped out" of full-time work that nobody would think this was positive. And if I did that after having earned a college degree it would actually be even worse - why go to college if you're going to be a deadbeat who doesn't work? (I should note that my mother has always worked, and both of my grandmothers worked. Not for "extras" but to make sure that the utilities didn't get turned off. So the idea of "staying home with kids" didn't even occur to me as something that a person would do and that counted as work. Work was what one did for money, and not working was a failing.)
  • School was never presented to me as something that counted as work, although I was expected to work hard in order to do well at school. In other words, quitting a job to pursue school would have been akin to quitting a job to be a bum. School was something that would increase one's opportunities in the world of work, but it did not count as a replacement for work.
  • I've worked pretty steadily from the summer that I was 15. I can tell you two times when I did not hold down a paying job: 1) in my final semester of college, 2) during the summer that I wrote the bulk of my dissertation. And aside from those jobs that worked in high school (working at an ice cream place and a frozen yogurt place) all of the jobs that I held down are ones that used my skill set from my undergraduate years, so if I'd gotten a job after I got my B.A., I would not have landed a job in an unfamiliar work environment. I knew what it was to work in an office, to do editing work, to write for publication (newspapers and newsletters), to run a continuing ed program for senior citizens and to develop the advertising materials for it and to write the program handbook for that program, and to tutor. I knew what it was to come home after work and to feel totally intellectually dead inside, and I knew what it was to earn a regular paycheck and to pay bills. I suppose all of this is to say, I could see very clearly that if I went into that world after my B.A., I understood how difficult it would be to leave it.
  • The only real support I had in terms of continuing my education came from people with whom I came into contact at college (and at my crappy regional university, that was mostly professors: not very many of my peers had grad school (or professional programs) on their radar as a possibility). I remember when I decided to change my major to English as an undergrad, and confessing that I wanted to do that to my mom. It was a lengthy conversation that involved a lot of crying and yelling. On both sides. I think about what it would have been like to leave the place where I had any sort of support, guidance, and encouragement about the study of literature, to return to my hometown to get a real job (and an apartment: my mom would never have let me continue living with her rent-free so that I could pay off loans and do things like study for the GRE and write exemplary statements of purpose and writing samples), and I really don't think that I could have kept the idea of graduate school alive in my head for 3 years under the pressures of those conditions, and without the support of people who "got it." You might say that I could have kept in touch with former profs, but coming from the crap regional place I went to (and now teaching at a crap regional place) I can tell you that I don't think maintaining those sorts of relationships is something realistic to expect. (Although I do try to do this with my own students, most of them disappear after graduation for exactly the reasons I'm outlining.) When you teach at a place like that, and when a student leaves to go "live their lives" for a while, it's commonly assumed that the student is not serious, or that their "real life" will get in the way.
  • I look at the women I grew up with, and at some students I've taught, and I think that the whole "real life will get in the way" concern is one that can't be ignored. You know what happens when girls from backgrounds like mine stop out? They get pregnant. Or, if not that, they get boyfriends/husbands who are place-bound and who don't support their ambitions to go on. Of course there are exceptions to this, but those exceptions are rare. If I had gone to live and work in my hometown for 2 or 3 years, I'm pretty certain that I would have ended up in a bad marriage with First Love, just because there would have been a whole lot more support for me to do that than to go to graduate school. And I think by the time we fell apart, I would have been place-bound. And you know what? Worse than not taking time off in terms of one's potential for success in this profession is becoming place-bound.
But so anyway, none of this is to say that taking time in between undergrad and grad school is a bad idea. I think it can really be beneficial. I just am sympathetic to students (the students I teach, the student I was) who feel like doing that means that they will never get to pursue the thing that they want to pursue and that they'd be really great at doing if only they could get the chance to do it. I suppose that people could say that those students (the students I teach, the student I was) are just clueless about what the possibilities are, that taking time off wouldn't hurt them and could only help.

But you know, this is the thing: these students are clueless. I certainly was. And the only place I was ever going to get a clue that I didn't have to settle for a job that paid the bills was in an academic context. I certainly have never heard that from anyone in my family (my mom is the only one of her siblings - 10 of them total - who graduated from high school; my Awesome Aunt is the only one in my father's family (7 kids there) to graduate from college - the local university, and she went part-time while working full-time with no family support in order to do it) or even from any of my friends from growing up.

Here's the thing: if you come from a background where "education" means that you get a piece of paper to get a job, if you come from a background where thinking is set up as opposed to "real life" and "what really matters," if you come from a background where the "done thing" rarely involves a B.A. let alone an M.A. or a Ph.D. - sometimes those three years off can mean that you never pursue the thing that you want most and that you'd be best at and most happy doing. Now, you might say that those students don't "really want it" if they can't stand up to those pressures. But I think a person who said that would be willfully looking away from the real difference between a student like the one that I was or the ones that I teach and students who have a great many more resources (emotional, financial) and a great deal more privilege, in terms of their ability to negotiate academic conventions and culture.

16 comments:

Ann said...

This is really smart and very moving, Dr. C. I too went full steam ahead after undergrad, in part b/c of the student loan thing, in part because I had worked crummy, boring jobs all through college to help pay my way, but also in part because I didn't want to make a "real" salary and get used to that, and then have to scale back as a grad student. (I realize that concern probably sounds more middle-class than the reasons you listed above! But, it's honestly something that crossed my mind, and helped tip the scales towards plowing ahead without time off. That, and the fact that I got offered a graduate assistantship I could mostly live off of. $7,200/annum, baby! Yeah.)

I also really agree with this: "Worse than not taking time off in terms of one's potential for success in this profession is becoming place-bound." This is what I tell my students who insist on going to grad school anyway, over and over again. My sense is that this is a big reason why straight women find themselves on the adjunct track more often than men--because straight men see their wives & families as portable, whereas straight women don't for the most part think about their lives that way. (Not saying it's all in their heads, by the way--it's largely because straight men won't follow women the way straight women will follow their men.)

Historiann.com

PhysioProf said...

I didn't take any time off between college and grad school, and I spent the first two years of grad school just growing up. And now I am a gravely mature fully grown and serious adult.

life_of_a_fool said...

This is a great post. I definitely think just sending students off for a few years to grow up, figure out what you want, etc. is likely to lead to certain types of students (like myself) to never come back (though I also agree that it is often good advice). There may be ways to make it less alienating, but you do a great job of laying out reasons/factors/influences that are not easily overcome.

Janice said...

I worked all the way through university (full-time work and full-time school during my last year as an undergraduate) so I had no desire to step out for a year or more and test those waters. Though I did have an offer to manage my own fabric store somewhere in the district if I'd wished to do so.

Taking time off isn't a panacea. Nor is powering straight on through. There's NOTHING out there that's the brass ring of academic success. But going to grad school because it seems like the easy choice? That's what makes me uncomfortable with prospects, not whether or not they've done time "in the real world."

I appreciate what you've added about getting tied down during time off from academia. If you've become location-bound with a family commitment, all of a sudden the impossible challenges of landing suitable academic admission, let alone employment, become that much more impossible.

Heather said...

Thank you for so clearly articulating the challenges of first generation college students. People from academic families rarely realize just how different their life experiences have been from those of us the grew up with the working class.

JaneB said...

Very interesting post, and I think it articulates clearly the situation of an under-considered group of students those of us in 'regional' unis see all the time.

Myself, despite being first generation to university, indeed only person in my generation to go to study anything other than a 'trade' (teaching, nursing), from a working class background, my choice to continue was absolutely simple - it was the only thing I wanted to do with my life at that point. And I had a lot of support from family - just because they hadn't been educated themselves within the university system didn't stop them valuing education (and mostly being avid readers and considerable autodidacts in the best tradition of the British working class with library access).

DocWalk said...

Good morning, Dr. Crazy. One comment from my pre-MSW days (looooong before my pre-doctorate days). I was finishing my BSW and was about a year pregnant with my first (or so it felt). I commented to my supervisor where I was doing my practicum that I was headed for graduate school. Her quiet "Why?" sent my head spinning. I explained that ". . . well . . . uh . . . . isn't that what one does?" Her response that no, it isn't what "every"one does, gave me pause. She explained that I might discover I didn't like social work. I might discover I LOVED the actual doing of social work at the BSW level. I might just enjoy my daughter-to-be for a while. For me - and I agree fully with all the commenters AND with your posting that my route was not the only one nor even, maybe, the best for me - it certainly seems to have turned out well to have waited seven years (and a second child) to get the MSW, and another 25 to get the doctorate and be a full-time, full-fledged academic, at 50. Ain't this what makes the world go 'round?

Feminist Avatar said...

I went straight through from u/grad-MPhil-PhD, and like many other people had worked almost fulltime on top a fulltime u/grad. I felt I had seen a fairbit of the workplace and had no desire to go into the sort of careers offered after u/grad- I wanted to do the academic thing, so why wait?

Part of me thinks I should have taken a year out to 'travel the world' as I don't see how I will fit that into my near future- but the other side of that is after u/grad I didn't have the money (or courage) to do that- and wouldn't have been able to earn that kind of money quickly.

Susan said...

When I made the decision to keep going, it was because even as an ivy league graduate, I didn't think I'd get anything beyond the secretarial jobs I'd already worked. And, like you and Historiann, I worried about those student loans. And I had a fellowship offer -- $4000!

I sometimes wonder if I'd have made different choices had I taken time off, but that's always true about the things we haven't done!

Bardiac said...

I took five years off and totally changed fields, but I was able to do that because I was from a fairly privileged background and could imagine going off to join the Peace Corps and could afford to do so.

I think the key is to encourage students to do what's best for them. That's very different from student to student. Your situation was, it seems, very well served by your going right on. But then I'm guessing you were more mature than most graduating seniors because you'd worked so hard to get to and through college.

But grad programs have a responsibility to close or reduce programs, actively promote students from diverse backgrounds (economically, ethnically, racially) rather than focusing on ivy and SLAC students, and give those students good funding with opportunities to do their research and learn how to teach. World peace would be nice, too.

Anastasia said...

I went straight through but that entailed PH taking about ten years between undergrad and his PhD. He wasn't as sure, though, that he wanted to do it and if so in what field. He did two master's degrees in the meantime.

I do think he is more prepared and thus he's doing a lot better. He's older. He's worked a corporate job. He's clear that he wants to do this. He also had the benefit of growing up with a father who has a PhD and a college educated mother and seeing me through my experience. And he had a highly employable BS degree which allowed him to work and make good money in an interesting field.

All of that is to say that while I think the time between undergrad and the PhD helped him prepare, there were quite a lot of other factors. I think if I had taken time off, I never would have done it.

David said...

Great Post. I think there is a great argument for the M.A. in the humanities hidden in this post. I think have that experience with the reality of graduate school might help clarify the situation for some greater number of these students. However, for some these students it also means that they need to be allowed to drop out of the M.A. program after year without being seen as a failure if it isn't the future they thought they were in search of.
I took the year off between the M.A. and PhD. I think it was helpful, I also happened to have some 'real world' crappy jobs that sent me flying back to grad school. The end result was that I defended the dissertation earlier today, but I now the place-based straight male with my wife having the TT job. Doing the adjunct thing till I figure what's next.

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Kris Peleg said...

I think it's funny that I read this and was reminded of the pressure I faced to stay in school, when I could clearly see that if I did, I would have loans that would have kept me in the States forever.

So I took off, and even if it was nearly 10 years before I went back to school, I did what I wanted (farming in Israel) and when I went to university, I was ready to be there. And pretty much haven't left since then. That same knowledge that you had to be wary of going home, getting work, etc, was the trap I saw undergrad to be for me since it involved loans. I never would have been able to take off for a year, would always have to have been working to pay them back. I loved farming for that decade and am a better teacher now for it -- many of my students come back after working.

Chana said...

Thank you for this post-I've never seen anyone else talk about this. I grew up in a pretty fundamentalist, restrictive religious community, had an awful relationship with my parents, and the only way I could get out of that situation (and stop living at their house) was to go away to grad school. I loved academia and was excited about it, but I would say that the strongest reason that I had to go right out of college was to escape. I wasn't unskilled (I probably could have gotten a secretarial job or something similar), but my understanding of institutions of any kind, job markets of any kind, outside the community I grew up in was nil. going to grad school was really the only thing I could imagine viably doing.

This turned out well, although looking back I"m very aware that it could easily have backfired. Academia gave me a place to grow up and learn how to do things in the real world, and it let me use the only abilities I had faith in at that time. When I look back, I'm a little sad, because there are other things I can now imagine having done fruitfully and with equal enjoyment (as the person I am today). But the truth is that I really COULDN'T have done anything like the Peace Corps at that time. I wouldn't have known how, I had never heard of it, and my parents would have locked me in the house if I had tried. I guess my point is, I agree with what you're saying. I would also argue that, at least based on my experience with my current and past students, taking time off can be good for kids who have never had to deal with a situation where they are expected to be responsible and self-motivated(i.e., where you can't negotiate your way out of doing your job). My current students (at a prestigious school) have largely not had this experience. I can imagine that having it would make them better grad students, if that was what they wanted. On the other hand, I think students like I was tend to lack a good sense of how institutions work or how to make them work for you-and, honestly, grad school is one big training ground in that. So maybe those are good reasons for these paths, too.