CAREER COLUMN

The value of a PhD gap year

Taking a break from research can give you so much more than just a well-earned rest, says Janani Hariharan.
Janani Hariharan is a PhD student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she studies the evolution and metabolism of bacteria in the soil. You can reach her on Twitter: @jananiharan.

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The day I defended my master’s-degree thesis marked the day I started my break from academia. Having been in education for as long as I could remember, I wanted to see what opportunities existed in the outside world, and what else I could do with my degree. Writing a thesis is physically and mentally exhausting, and I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to jump straight into the stress a PhD programme might bring. I started looking for research positions in industry.

Predictably, few of my academic colleagues were thrilled. Reactions ranged from concern that I was going to lose momentum and never come back for a doctoral programme to dire warnings that I was wasting my potential. Plenty has already been said about non-academic career paths and how academic culture does not value such aspirations, so I will not recapitulate those statements. But, having dipped my toe outside of academia, I found there were a lot of positives to my time away.

Fast-forward to the present day. I spent a year working for a genomics start-up, and I am, despite the sceptics, now enrolled in a PhD programme in soil microbial ecology. So, what did my break from schooling teach me, and why would I recommend it to those at a turning point in academia?

1. Technical ability: broaden your skill sets. During my year out, I worked in human genomics, a research area that differed from my academic background in soil microbiology. Despite the obvious differences, I now find that many of the technical skills I gained in my job are highly transferable to other research fields. I knew I wanted to become more familiar with coding and to develop my computational skills, and doing a gap year gave me the time to learn different programming languages and put them into practice during my work. Regardless of the direction you pursue during your break, be sure to pick one with transferable skills that can be leveraged for your future career, whether that be back in research or elsewhere.

2. Exploration of career paths — you don’t know what you’re missing until you try. The structured pathway of education can leave you, like it did me, with little idea of what to expect from a career outside an academic setting. Higher education can seem like the only option, especially in certain branches of science — yet millions of trained scientists spend their days away from university labs, and many of us are unaware of what they do. Taking the time to explore what other career options exist can only be a good thing. If industry, publishing or policy are not for you, you can return to research with renewed vigour, knowing that you have tried something else.

If you end up working in a start-up like I did, it can give you a highly different experience from working in an established company or elsewhere in the industrial sector. The experience let me dabble in multiple cross-disciplinary projects and ideas, and I ended up with a better idea of my research interests than when I left academia. I chose to work back in my home country of India after finishing my master’s programme in the United States, and being able to take the time to travel and reconnect, with both myself and the world outside academia, didn’t hurt either.

3. Social skills — people, people, people. Research is becoming increasingly collaborative in its nature, and managing groups of people — both at and between different institutions — is a task that requires good training. As a rule of thumb, scientists are given very little ‘people training’, which can result in the more human aspect of research efforts being largely ignored. And yet, well-managed labs are often the happiest and most productive!

Group dynamics can be crucial in determining the pace of work and the success of collaborations in a lab, and learning to understand my personal working style was extremely useful when the time came to choose a PhD programme and new research group.

It’s important to remember that a world with many jobs exists after you’ve completed a graduate programme. By taking a gap year, you can test drive a few options, and it just might be the solution, at least for some of us, to help direct the next steps in our career.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07120-7

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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