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Commentary: Don’t fear the gap year

18 November 2020

Waiting several months or more before starting graduate school can lead to valuable experiences.

When I was a senior undergraduate physics major at Yale University in 2019, my path forward was shrouded in uncertainty. Although I had my heart set on entering a physics doctoral program to build the skills necessary for a career in quantum computing, I also wanted to understand the different rhythms and goals of industry and how that might make a difference for myself as a researcher. So I started to consider taking a gap year to pursue a job at a quantum computing company before going to graduate school.

Chunyang Ding at IonQ.
Chunyang Ding prepares high-precision lenses for a trapped-ion system during his time as an associate physicist at IonQ. Credit: Tan Liu/IonQ

The prospect of a gap year filled me with equal parts excitement and anxiety. It felt like a lonelier path than that of many of my friends, who were choosing to directly matriculate into a graduate program. In addition to receiving anecdotal advice from friends and mentors, I wanted to understand the empirical data relating to those who have taken gap years.

To my surprise, I learned that not only are gap years increasingly common, but the experience is viewed favorably by graduate school admissions panels. Today, as I dive into my studies as a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago following a stint working in industry, I believe that opting for a gap year was the right choice for me. Taking time to work before graduate school helps to clarify your ambitions, apply knowledge from undergraduate courses, and gain better mentorship, which sets you up for success in the long run.

My greatest concern regarding a gap year was that I’d be the odd one out once I returned to school, set apart by being slightly older than the rest of the students. However, those who take gap years are in good company. A 2016 survey of physics graduate students by the American Institute of Physics (AIP, which publishes Physics Today) found that 41% of first-year physics graduate students enrolled in PhD-granting programs had taken a delay of at least five months between the end of their undergraduate program and the start of their graduate studies. Although US students are less likely to delay than are international students who attend a US grad school, nearly a third do, which is much more than I would have thought.

I also worried that a gap year would set me behind my peers academically. But that, too, is unsupported by the data. In the AIP survey, students who took gap years were just as likely to self-report they were “well prepared” for their grad program as those who directly matriculated. Many of the AIP survey respondents who reported taking a gap year conducted academic research, taught in secondary schools, or spent time with family and loved ones.

Perhaps the biggest barrier for students considering gap years is the concern that it will become more challenging to apply and gain admission to graduate school after leaving college. Indeed, collecting letters of recommendation, tracking down standardized exam scores, and finding formal grade reports can prove difficult. However, gap-year students do not need to worry about their application being held to a different standard.

Reina Maruyama, a professor of physics at Yale University who has reviewed graduate applications, says that Yale’s physics department does not separate applications based on gap-year status—and although each university reviews applications differently, many follow the same procedure. Since graduate program applications provide ample opportunity to explain special circumstances, gap-year students can weave a compelling narrative about their own path. “I think it’s really great for people to have experience on the outside and bring it back to academia,” Maruyama says. She has found that students who take time before starting a PhD are often very strong applicants, especially if they’ve had additional research experiences and developed fresh perspectives. “It tends to draw in people more, because you get a full experience of what it’s like doing research,” Maruyama adds.

Frequency of gap years by physics graduate students in the US.
It’s common for physics graduate students to wait more than five months following the end of their undergraduate studies before entering their graduate programs. Credit: AIP Statistical Research Center

During my gap year I was fortunate to work as an associate physicist with trapped-ion researchers building quantum computers at the startup IonQ in College Park, Maryland. We sweated under our bunny suits in the clean room, tested and assembled optomechanical innovations for our new systems, and unboxed cutting-edge precision measurement tools with glee, using our shiny electronic autocollimators to better understand sources of noise in our advanced mirror mounts. I applied knowledge that I had previously only studied in textbooks and problem sets. Even if I do not use all those techniques specific to atomic, molecular, and optical physics in my planned PhD research on superconducting quantum systems, the experience taught me the scientific mindset of breaking down complex challenges into manageable pieces.

More than anything else, my gap year reinforced the importance of mentorship. I was guided by mentors who pushed me to question my assumptions and to probe deeper into fundamental physical mysteries. To me, mentorship in the workplace was more direct and accessible than at school, perhaps because of the time-sensitive nature of the projects. By assembling imaging systems side by side with my coworkers, I saw firsthand the grit they had developed in their PhD programs and how they applied perseverance to tackle their new challenges. I was surrounded by people who loved their work and cared deeply about our research, and seeing their passion fueled my own.

Taking a gap year is not a decision to be made lightly. It can be challenging to structure your time and pursue your research interests outside the company of scholars that is academia. But my gap year also allowed me to rest, develop new hobbies, and sharpen my resolve for the lengthy journey ahead. Now that I have seen quantum computing research from an industry perspective, I am more convinced than ever that it is the right place for me in physics.

The decision to have a gap year is a personal one that should not be guided by statistics alone, and that is especially true now due to the challenges for early-career scientists during the pandemic. Some graduating seniors may want to strike while the (academic) iron is still hot, whereas others may get more out of higher education by taking time to better understand how graduate school fits with their other life goals. In either case, knowing the facts about gap years will brighten up previously dark paths and help students make better, more confident decisions.

Chunyang Ding is a graduate student studying superconducting quantum systems at the University of Chicago.

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