With a semester to go until graduation, McGill student Orad Reshef had no clue what he wanted to study in graduate school. So rather than rushing into something he might later regret, he decided to take a year off to figure it out.
“I was hoping to find out exactly what I wanted in life, with some careful introspection and research,” Reshef said. “I also wanted to improve my resumÃ© and do some private studies and learn things I felt I didn’t get a chance to fully grasp while doing my undergrad.”
According to students who have done it, teachers who recommend it and career counsellors who support it, taking a year off to travel, volunteer or engage in self-discovery is worth seriously considering.
Last November, while his friends were busy filling out their graduate school applications, Reshef started planning his year off.
“My undergraduate degree was really tough and time consuming,” said Reshef. “I had very little time for myself, and I thought that by taking a year off, I could gain time. Plus, I was really afraid I would not make the right decision between what I considered the interesting bet and what I considered a safe bet.”
Reshef, who graduated with an honours in physics in May 2009, is currently halfway through his year off. He has spent his time travelling to the Dominican Republic, a Tennessee music festival and attending a physics conference in Moncton – “the most friendly place in the world.” At the moment, Reshef is back in Montreal filling out his graduate school applications and earning money for a trip to Europe by working in the lab where he did his honours research thesis.
Even though Reshef’s parents did not support his decision, he went ahead with it anyway on the advice of professors in his department. They told him they knew of students who had taken time off and wound up being just as successful as those who didn’t.
“There is this natural transition between graduating and working where you can and should squeeze in that year off either to volunteer or travel,” said StÃ©phane Brutus, an associate professor of management at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. “Later in your life it becomes much less easy. So do it now, when you can,” she said.
While she highly recommends students take a year off before entering the workforce or embarking on a graduate degree, Brutus understands the decision to do so can be difficult, especially when you are not sure how to spend your time.
This fear is something Reshef is all too familiar with.
“I do feel like I am constantly worried about the year slipping by without me making the best of it,” he said. “I spoke to quite a few people who warned me to not waste my time, to be careful or I will get rusty and that it is really tough to get back into it. So I have been making sure to do things that improve my resume in the hopes of making my application stand out.”
Francine Salinitri, a senior career advisor at Concordia Career and Placement Services (CAPS), strongly suggests students plan ahead prior to taking a year off.
“An individual must really assess what their short- and long-term goals are and then hopefully decide to do something that will help them accomplish that,” said Salinitri. “Students should plan to do things like volunteer and work abroad, not just lie on the beach.”
Salinitri says students can often underestimate what they learned during their year off, thinking their experiences are not relevant to their job search or graduate school applications. But, she says, it’s quite the opposite. As an advisor, she encourages students to highlight their experiences and not hide them.
These types of learning experiences are what Annalise Iten, director of the job search program at Youth Employment Services (YES), a downtown non-profit organization that provides career resources, refers to as “transferable skills.” Salinitri explains that these skills, which can be achieved through travelling or volunteering, can make students more marketable.
“Students acquire language skills, they learn flexibility, stress management, and cultural sensitivity,” said Salinitri. “They also become more mature and learn cross-cultural communication skills which are looked upon favourably by employers.”
For Selen Levi, who graduated from McGill in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in architecture, acquiring skills and learning from experiences rather than from textbooks was one reason she decided to take a year off before applying to graduate school.
“I learned more working in an office than I ever did in school,” she said. “And it made my CV look a lot stronger. But the key was that I had a purpose and a goal. So I knew what I wanted to do and did it. I did not waste my time.”
Now at Dalhousie University in Halifax completing her master’s degree in architecture, Levi says she is happy with her decision to postpone school, saying the professional experience she acquired helped finalize her decision to continue her education.
Nevertheless, even though employers are becoming more lenient and understanding of a student’s need for a year off, Brutus says one year is too long a time to spend doing nothing.
“You must keep moving because you need activity on your CV,” said Brutus. “Volunteer, work, get a certificate. Just make sure you keep moving. The key is to show energy.”
As a former job recruiter, Iten says her experience shows that when employers are faced with two candidates with matching qualifications, they usually hire the personality.
“Do public speaking, make presentations, learn the ability to show empathy, to being open to diversity,” said Iten. “These are important transferable skills that can give you the interpersonal aspect when job hunting.”
Even with sufficient preparation, students taking a year off can still face certain difficult situations.
“It was very hard when my friends started receiving their acceptance letters because I realized I had reached a true point of no return,” said Reshef. “It was something slightly more tangible than missing all of the graduate school deadlines.”
Reshef continued to struggle with his choice to take a year off when his friends started moving away in the summer and fall.
“I grew up in Montreal, living with my parents, so I felt left behind and it felt very lonely,” Reshef said. “It took a lot to get over, having all of my friends moving on with their lives, becoming something while I was still where I was in high school &- living in my parents’ basement.”
Another issue students choosing to take a year off might encounter is what Brutus calls “reverse-culture shock,” defined as having difficulty readjusting to life at home after a long absence. In order to avoid this, Brutus suggests waiting a few weeks to readjust to being back home before entering the work force or heading to school.
Salinitri says another way to conquer this reverse-culture shock is by maintaining contact with your network back home. She stresses doing so will help both those entering the work force and those applying for a graduate degree.
The desire to follow “the right path” and a fear of lowering their chances of getting a job is typically what keeps students from taking a year off. However, Salinitri says so long as students spend their time effectively, they shouldn’t worry.
Both Reshef and Levi never feared a year off would affect their job search or graduate degree applications. Rather, both students felt the experience they would gain would only benefit them in the long run.
Iten agrees, saying employers are looking for well-rounded individuals who can wear multiple hats within an organization. “Tough economic times force companies to make cuts and they often tend to seek employees whose skill set can replace one, two or three people’s job in the work place,” said Iten.
Moreover, Iten explains that time off allows a student not only to grow and acquire different skills, but also to have fun, which is equally important.
“People generally excel at what they like,” said Iten. “So make sure you are doing something you enjoy, whether it is volunteering, going abroad or applying for another degree, you have to know that at the end of the day you will be okay with your choices.”
Thinking about taking a year off?
1. Plan ahead. Have a clear idea of how you want to spend your year off before it begins.
2. Determine what your immediate and future goals are, and spend your year off doing something that will help you meet them.
3. Whether you choose to travel, volunteer or get work experience &- make sure it will help enhance your CV or skill set. Sipping daiquiris in the Caribbean doesn’t qualify.
4. Be open-minded and try new things like public speaking or immersing yourself in a different culture. Employers looks for people who are well-rounded, with a broad spectrum of work and social skills.
5. Don’t let fear get in your way. It may be tough seeing your friends move on, but career counselors, professors and employers have said taking a year off will not make you any less successful in the future. In fact, they have said a year off might give you an upper hand.
Concordia Career and Placement Services (CAPS): www.caps.concordia.ca
Youth Employment Services (YES):