Deciding On Taking a Break from Academia
Making decisions about academia can be overwhelming. There is likely no shortage of people around you who want to give you advice informed by their own experiences and beliefs. In this article, Vesna explains the very personal things she considered when deciding between taking a year off and continuing with her PhD directly after her Master’s. In addition to asking those near you, here are four things you should consider to make sure that you are making the right decision for yourself.
Consider the essentials
First and foremost, you should feel mentally and physically ready to start your next degree. I truly cannot stress this enough – a graduate degree is an enormous undertaking and your health should be your priority. If you are experiencing any sort of health troubles, graduate school is not the place to try to push through the issues. Mental or physical health can be a great reason to take time off, work with your support system, and create a feasible care routine for when you do re-enter the academic world.
In a similar vein, you should consider the topic of money. Graduate school is a huge financial commitment (especially if you are going to attend school internationally) and unfortunately, finances can be a make-or-break element in assessing the feasibility of further academic study. Depending on funding results and the availability of teaching work within your department, you might find graduate school prohibitively expensive. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your potential department’s administrators and ask frank questions about finances (funding opportunities, pay rates for teaching, etc.). Frank discussion about finances doesn’t exactly fit the idealised aesthetic of academia, but it is one of the most important factors in considering the feasibility of grad school. If funding results didn’t turn out the way you wanted, start by reading Milena’s recent article on academic “failure,” and consider regrouping for a re-application the following year, rather than stretching yourself thin financially.
Reflect on the time commitment
Shockingly, there is more to life than academics and oftentimes, the commitment of graduate school can affect your “real life” timeline as well. The time commitment is especially important to consider when embarking on a PhD, which can take anywhere from three to ten years, depending on your field and the country where you want to undertake it. Undertaking grad school can delay some non-academic personal milestones, but taking time off might mean being occupied with study later in your life, when your priorities might be different. Think about where you want to be in five years and imagine how academia might affect any personal goals you might have. The time commitment of a graduate degree can be both an incentive to take a break, as well as a reason to do the degree sooner – it really depends on your personal circumstances.
Get some perspective
When I was considering a break before beginning my PhD, I was also in the middle of writing my Master’s thesis. I think that this really clouded my judgment, because on good writing days, I was on an academic high. I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything besides research and academic writing! On bad writing days, I couldn’t ever imagine putting myself through the challenges of academic work again. It wasn’t until I submitted, defended, and finished revisions on my thesis that I felt I could accurately reflect on the decision in front of me. I decided to go on a proper holiday right after my thesis submission, which involved absolutely zero work. By being away from an academic environment for a few weeks and spending time with loved ones in a low-pressure environment, I finally felt like I could assess my priorities clearly. If I had still felt confused and exhausted after a few weeks of rest, I definitely would have chosen to take a break.
Finally, assess the alternatives
If academia and school are all you know, it can be hard to imagine what life would be like without that daily structure. Do some research on internships for recent graduates and job prospects in your field. You might be surprised by the exciting prospects available, which might fulfil some of the same reasons you want to start a PhD (i.e. an intellectual challenge or a change of scenery). I found the process of applying for jobs really exciting, and while I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD right after my Master’s, I think I would have been equally fulfilled by many of the jobs I applied to while deciding.
In fact, in calling time between degrees “a break,” I think we often imagine an academic setting to be the only place where one can do challenging and intellectual work. In reality, much of that work can happen anywhere, and in many cases, working for a while can develop your skills in unexpected ways, eventually making you a stronger researcher. And even if your time away from graduate school doesn’t serve to make you a better academic, consider the other ways in which it might fulfill you. Maybe it allows you to feel financially stable, or it might offer you new and interesting experiences. Or, it might simply allow you to take time at the end of the day to focus on your family, friends, and whatever is important to you, without the pressure of academic work.
Vesna Curlic is a PhD student, studying medicine and disease in the nineteenth century. Her interests include mystery novels, dinner parties, and everyday luxury.