How to Spend A Pre-PhD Gap Year

Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.

By the end of my junior year, I was firmly convinced that I wanted to do a PhD, but I knew that I wanted to take at least a year off before I started it. After taking a year off, I am extremely happy that I did so - it allowed me to recover from burnout after undergrad, explore a new country, meet a lot of new people, and learn a lot that made me feel much more prepared to start my PhD. Therefore, I would strongly recommend considering a gap year. However, deciding how to spend a year off can be tricky. I considered several options, and talked to my professors and older students about them. Here are some bits of advice I gleaned and my thoughts on a non-exhaustive list of ways to spend a year or two before starting a PhD.

Work in industry

Pros: You can gain relevant experience and save a lot of money. You can also see if you enjoy software engineering or other traditional roles in tech companies - if you think you would be happier in those jobs, it’s probably not worth getting a PhD.

Cons: Since you probably won’t be doing research, this won’t be as significant a boost to your application as other gap year possibilities. Once you get used to working at a tech company with perks and a large salary for a while, it can be hard to go back to a student lifestyle.

Do research for a year

Pros: By doing research, you’ll get to figure out if you truly like research and want to make a career out of it. More research experience should also be a big boost to your PhD applications, especially if you can publish, and will help you be better prepared for your PhD. You will get to make connections in academia (which is surprisingly small, and can be a huge benefit when you are considering grad school).

Cons: It can be hard to find research experiences outside of specific academic programs or fellowships, since many professors prefer to work with their PhD/Master’s/undergrad students.

Do research for a year, on a fellowship

Pros: All of the pros of doing research for a year. Additionally, when you do research on a fellowship, you should have more choice in deciding what you do - you often get to propose your own research project. Through a fellowship, you will be able to make a lot of great connections with other people. You might also get the chance to live abroad, since many fellowships are international.

Cons: The application process is often extensive and many fellowships are very selective.

Get a Master’s

Pros: Many of the same benefits as doing research for a year (be sure to look into a research vs course-based Master’s). You’ll get to take advanced courses of your choosing and hone your research interests.

Cons: For most programs, you will have to pay (however, be sure to look into 4+1 programs at your undergraduate institution, which are sometimes discounted, and fellowships such as Fulbright that fund Master’s programs, and generally Master’s programs abroad, since American tuition is more expensive than that of many fantastic universities abroad). Many PhD programs will have higher expectations of you to have at least one, if not more, publications when you apply, compared to applicants with just an undergrad degree. Also, most PhD programs will still require you to take courses when you get there, and so you will likely add additional years of school.

My Gap Year

I navigated all of this by applying to my 4 top-choice PhD programs, and also applying to fellowships alongside them. I didn’t expect to get into any PhD programs, but I was hoping that a fellowship would work out so that I could do more research and strengthen my application. If nothing worked out, my plan was to try to work in industry for a year, or maybe do a Master’s program.

Luckily, I ended up getting into a couple of my top choice programs, and also getting a Fulbright fellowship. I committed to UC Berkeley and deferred for a year so that I could do the Fulbright. My year off was so much more than I expected it to be, and I would highly recommend considering a gap year (or a few) before jumping into a PhD. I’m now going into my PhD feeling much more prepared, well rested, and convinced that doing a PhD is right for me.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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