Making the Most of a Gap Year

You just got your brand new, shiny degree or diploma.

You’ve proudly displayed it on your wall (or quietly tucked it away in the corner of your room), and you’re savouring the idea of living your life exam-free…for a while.

If you’re like thousands of post-graduate students, you’re deciding to pursue more education in the future, but are holding off applying to any programs for a year or so, taking a so-called gap year. While some would advise that a gap year is not for everyone, I’m a little on the fence over that statement.

Obviously, the gap year can invite the opportunity for sitting on the couch all day, reliving the ‘freshman 15’, and loss of motivation. However, if done productively, the gap year/s can be enriching for the person who decides to pursue it.

Individuals who pursue a gap year can address vital questions about his/her passions, career, and life. The world is filled with opportunities, whether they’re downright obvious or waiting to be discovered. Nonetheless, a productive gap year always surpasses an unproductive, unenjoyable school year. 

Tackling your gap year: Make the most of it!

Consider your gap year a blank canvas, and you’re free to paint whatever you want to create an ultimate masterpiece.

That said, there’s plenty of ways to go about making the most of a productive year before going back to school. Here’s some tips that I’ve picked up along the way that I found useful when taking a gap year (and I hope it serves some use to you too!).

DO YOUR HOMEWORK (ON graduate PROGRAMS)!

If you weren’t planning on going back to school, then you wouldn’t be doing a gap year in the first place.

During your gap year, devote a set amount of hours per week researching about programs of interest. In addition to the admission requirements, you’ll have to consider other aspects as well. Choosing an appropriate supervisor, finding solid reference letters, application deadlines, and strengthening your graduate school candidacy are few of the many factors to consider upon applying, and take a bit of time to work on too.

Choosing to go back to school is a huge decision, and it shouldn’t take you only 10 minutes to decide.

Alternatively, it’s absolutely valid to question if you even want to go back to school!

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF VOLUNTEERING, INTERNSHIPS, OR ‘UNGLAMOROUS’ JOBS.
Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

For a handful of new graduates, it’s tough to land their first, ‘real, full-time’ job in a field that is relevant to their ‘dream occupation’.

If you want to become a doctor, don’t expect to land your first gig as a hospital assistant on your first try. Do you want to become a professor or work in STEM research? Becoming a research assistant would be a great experience that many science graduates compete voraciously for.

That said, don’t overlook working in jobs that are so-called unrelated to what you’d like to do. Jobs ranging from retail to part-time tutoring harbour valuable opportunities to learn a neat skill or two that won’t hurt to have under your belt upon applying to school. If your schedule permits, also seek volunteering opportunities for causes you believe in or apply for internships.  These opportunities are not only capable teaching you technical skills, but soft  ‘people’ skills too.

Don’t underestimate the value of these soft skills!

Many STEM occupations not only want you to be savvy in the intricate, technical stuff. They want you to be able to work independently and with others, as well as communicate effectively and in a detailed-oriented manner, especially under time-sensitive deadlines.

Becoming a student enrolled in higher education stems far beyond the ability to complete a formal lab report in a week or even designing a research project of your own. A student enrolled in university or college should be a self-directed, pragmatic learner, which is an asset to any higher learning institution.

Network, network, and then network some more.
Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

You hear it all the time (even from us!), but with good reason.

Networking is not just for business gurus or people who’re looking to become CEOs one day. Even for people pursuing scientific careers, it’s vital to connect with individuals involved in STEM, which goes beyond your post-secondary colleagues. Connecting with different personalities will provide you alternative insights to your career aspirations or present you with helpful advice towards your higher education.

Social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn are great ways to connect with others, but whenever possible, establish your network with person-to-person interaction to showcase your passions, while developing your interpersonal skills.

Attend career fairs or alumni events, and seek mentors who’re in occupations you’re interested in. Even attending local community events are a great way to connect with others too!

Learning goes beyond the classroom

Education doesn’t have to stop when you leave the classroom!

That said, you don’t have to dish out tons of money to learn something new. Websites like Coursera and EdX offer massive online open courses that are free to anyone with a computer.

If you can’t decide which courses to take, perhaps you can follow a set curriculum, or earn an MBA-equivalent education? Alternatively, if you’re not keen on learning organic chemistry or astronomy, maybe you’re interested in learning a new cultural or computer programming language?

Addressing new graduates of 2015, Hiroshi Mikitani advises former students to continue learning throughout their lives.

Without constantly taking in new things and improving yourself, your development as a person will come to a halt. Those who put their all into studying as students should have an understanding of the kind of power one can receive from studying something systematically.

There’s always something new to learn and personal skills that can be improved, and it evolves the individual into a self-directed, critically-thinking learner, which is a great prerequisite for anyone interested in returning to school.

BLAZING YOUR OWN PATH

SETBACKS AND DEMOTIVATION ARE PART OF THE GAP YEAR, UNFORTUNATELY.
Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

How will you write your own life (and career) story? Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Your gap year is not always going to be productive. There’s going to be more productive days than others, and there’ll be days you just want to sleep all day. As long as you’re actively pursuing your aspirations and creating a future for yourself, it’s alright to take a few breaks during your year.

In fact, a gap year is supposed to be a break from school too. While it’s dedicated to figuring out what graduate programs you’d like to apply for or what STEM career you want to pursue, the gap year is also meant to identify life aspirations. Whether it’s traveling to an exotic locale or rekindling distant friendships, take some time out of your gap year to embark on novel experiences. Have some fun, make some new memories, and develop a life-work balance right now!


Renee has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany (Tianhemtecks), she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 

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