Sometimes, I Wish I Had Taken a Year Off From College

By Doctor Comrade

[This post was originally published on GradHacker]

You don’t have to climb Everest on your first try. The mountain isn’t going anywhere.

You don’t have to climb Everest on your first try. The mountain isn’t going anywhere.

While I was in college and grad school, I definitely noticed a stigma associated with taking a year off or taking a leave of absence. We receive mixed messages: taking a year off can help you get your affairs in order, but it will set you back on your studies and you may never be able to come back once you stop. My program prioritized graduating quickly and “on time,” which meant meeting a set schedule that was difficult for me and many of my classmates to maintain. In accordance with this week’s theme of self-care, self-care means properly positioning our our needs in relation to the requirements of our programs, and for that reason I think we should look at the benefits of taking time off to ensure our own needs are met.

As the end of my MA program approached, I decided to wait to pursue a PhD. I was burned out, fatigued, and I had let doubt creep into my scholarly activities. I was unsure of my current path, so I decided to take a year (or a few) off. Now I’m seven months into a professional job and I feel like I made the right decision, at least for now. If you feel like there’s a stigma associated with taking a leave of absence, taking a year off, or leaving academia entirely, let me lay out some of the benefits, and you can weigh them against that stigma for yourself.

Without a doubt, taking time away from school has helped me get a better hold on my life. While in school, I had a terrible time maintaining a work-life balance, something that Danielle Marias has argued is critical to academic success. I have significantly reduced my workload, making time to spend with my wife and rediscovering my hobbies. If I’m ever going to completely overcome my fatigue, it will only be because I have taken an extended break from the intellectual rigors of academia.

It’s financially difficult to leave school. Some people may be forced to start repaying student loans. Other people might be living off of graduate assistant stipends and grants and research funding and the school’s health insurance. That’s all extremely daunting. But if you’re only in school because it’s costing you slightly less than paying your debts, you might be chasing a bad dream. Besides, leaving school and trying to find a full-time job might allow you to pay down some of your debts, which could be better in the long run.

Also in the long run, and quite paradoxically, leaving academia can actually help you succeed in your academic endeavors. Megan Pincus Kajitani advised a grad student who was considering dropping out of her PhD program that taking a leave of absence might be a better idea because it could be a helpful middle ground between struggling through a difficult program and dropping out. Ultimately, if you’re unhappy, and that feeling won’t abate, perhaps taking time off is the only way you can finish your program. And if taking time off is the best way to finish, then take some time off. Maybe you need to recharge or get your personal life in order, or you could even make serious inroads into your dissertation without the distractions of coursework or teaching. In any case, finishing shouldn’t be your goal. As Wendy Robinson said, a finished dissertation is not the best kind of dissertation. The best kind of dissertation is something you’re proud of, something that excites you, something that you love in the good and bad times. Don’t just finish. Finish well.

Some people fear that if they take a year off, they’ll never be able to restart. Benjamin Sawyer suggests taking a year off, and if you never come back to academia, you probably weren’t going to be an academic anyway. And taking a year off may reinvigorate you and send you back into school more prepared to finish. Understandably, returning to school is a daunting task: you may have lost momentum, funding, motivation, or any combination of these things. But then again, you may have lost them because of fatigue, burnout, or frustration. Taking a year off is not the most dangerous scenario; burning out and not being able to finish at all is.

Better yet, you might do what I did and find a new career you didn’t think was possible. I got lucky, I acknowledge that, but I knew this opportunity existed only because of an internship I did during grad school. Finding an alternative to academia is more possible than you might realize. Leaving a PhD program means you’ve already developed and honed various skills that will help you land a professional job. Speaking as someone in the humanities—whose family is always asking “So what are you going to do with that degree?”—the skills we develop in grad school, regardless of if we have a fancy piece of paper certifying our readiness, can be invaluable to numerous organizations. We may only find them if we’re looking for a career change, something that is foreclosed when we’re spending 100 hours a week in the library.

One problem many grad students fall into is the sunk cost fallacy. Robert J. Sternberg defines it as when “one begins to feel so much investment of time, effort, and, usually, money in a chosen path, even though one comes to realize that it is a mistaken path, that one continues down it rather than… starting down a better path.” Essentially, the resources you’ve invested in school are gone and not coming back. Don’t stay in school just because you have invested so much into it. If you take a break, you won’t necessarily lose everything you’ve worked for. But if you burn out, you’ll be in an even worse position, having invested even more time and more money into a failed enterprise.You have to weigh the consequences: if you feel like you need a break, leave now, and save all the resources you would have spent toiling for a couple more years in your program.  

I wish I had taken a year off between my five years of undergrad and my MA program. I know that by the end of undergrad, I was doing substandard work, and two years later, I still felt that way. I didn’t finish as strongly as I wanted to. And maybe if I had taken a break, I could have finished better, and I’d be seven months into a PhD program instead. It’s impossible to know what would have happened, so I’m taking the time off now to figure it all out.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license]