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 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.