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Post-degree transitions: Debunking the linear trajectory myth

image of young man at fork in road
by Katie White Austin

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

As undergraduate and even as graduate students, we may imagine our education and career trajectories as perfectly linear experiences where we jump from one degree to the next and neatly into our dream job. However, this is not the reality for many individuals. In between (and even during) educational and career milestones like obtaining degrees and finding full-time employment, many people end up taking a break, intentionally or unintentionally. Although this happens to many people, taking gaps or having a non-linear trajectory is something that is under discussed in academic circles. Accordingly, the SPSPotlight co-editors surveyed the SPSP community to highlight these experiences. In total, we received 48 responses. Our findings are summarized below.

The reality is people take breaks throughout their academic journey.

Many individuals reported taking a break between their undergraduate and graduate education. For some, this decision was the result of wanting to obtain more research experience before applying to grad school. For others, this occurred because they were rejected from a desired program. And for a few, graduate school wasn’t initially part of the plan at all, so they took time to discern what they wanted to do. These breaks between undergraduate and graduate school can vary in length, with some people only taking a year or two off to work in research labs and save money. Other people take nearly a decade before pursuing any graduate education. For example, Dr. Michael Roy, Professor of Psychology at Elizabethtown College, took seven years between completing a bachelor’s degree and starting graduate school. During this time, he worked in a variety of jobs: as a counselor at a therapeutic boarding school, a tutor for students taking the SAT, a swim instructor, a lifeguard, and a musician.

Many individuals reported taking a break between their undergraduate and graduate education. For some, this decision was the result of wanting to obtain more research experience before applying to grad school. For others, this occurred because they were rejected from a desired program. And for a few, graduate school wasn’t initially part of the plan at all, so they took time to discern what they wanted to do. 

Some people also reported taking breaks in between graduate degrees. Similarly to breaks between undergraduate and graduate education, many individuals used this time to gain more research experience and/or discern what their interests were. Consider Jeremy Becker, a current 2nd year PhD student at St. Louis University, who obtained a master’s degree and then took 3 years to determine what was next. He said, “I was not sure if I wanted to do a PhD at all. After I got my master's degree, I worked as a research associate at a large, public university for about a year. After that, I got a different job as a lab manager for about 10 months at a different R1 university. This position was a bad fit, so I transferred to a different school at the same university and that lasted about a year before beginning my PhD.”

There are also individuals who have found themselves experiencing a gap between completing their PhD and moving on to full-time employment. For some respondents, this was intentional, and they sought post-doctoral positions to develop new skills and publish more. In other instances, a post-doc was a second choice after not obtaining a tenure-track position. Similarly, others found that a difficult job market forced them to look for other opportunities in the form of adjunct-teaching positions, administrative work, or visiting assistant professorships. Dr. Karol Dean, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Aurora University in Illinois, worked as an adjunct and administrative assistant for two and a half years following the completion of her PhD. This interim time allowed her to gain valuable experience building up a range of courses she could teach. 

It is important to recognize that gaps can also occur during academic experiences.

A few respondents indicated that during their doctoral studies, they intentionally decided to step away to evaluate whether their programs and research areas were the best fit for them. Dr. Tom Trail, Senior Behavioral Scientist at the RAND Corporation, was working on his PhD in an applied psychology program when he realized that the program he was pursuing was not the right fit for him. He obtained his master’s degree and then spent 10 years working a series of jobs both inside and outside of academia before he went back to graduate school.

Similarly, Dr. Jen Labrecque, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Oklahoma State University, found herself unhappy in the midst of her graduate education and spent a year working for the American Red Cross, overseeing a blood donation center and platelet recruitment for her region. She said, “[This break] helped me realize how much I missed the academic environment, research, and colleagues, which is why I ultimately decided to return (though in a different area).” Although it can be difficult to step away in the midst of a graduate program, these gaps can help individuals see what may be more fulfilling and better for their mental and physical health. 

Other times, breaks during graduate school come up as a result of difficult, personal circumstances. Dr. Cheryl Carmichael, assistant professor at Brooklyn College, CUNY and jointly appointed to the CUNY Graduate Center, took a leave of absence in between proposing and defending her dissertation. For her, this gap was unintentional. Both of her parents became terminally ill in short succession and required caregiving. She took the break to relocate home, help with their medical needs, and ultimately to be with them at the end of life. Reflecting on her experiences, she said, “My life felt totally turned upside down, and I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted, which made it hard to figure out what to do next…By the time I settled my parents’ estate after both had passed, I had my dissertation data in hand, but I felt so disconnected from academic life. I didn’t know if I could or would finish the dissertation/PhD. The prospect of analyzing data and writing up some paper that almost no one would read felt like a huge waste of my time. But I did have a clearer sense of how important my remaining close relationships were having experienced such deep loss.” She moved to Brooklyn, where her long-term, significant other lived, to figure things out. During this interim period, she spent time exercising, working with someone who managed/represented celebrity chefs, and ultimately came to the conclusion she wanted to finish her dissertation. This decision eventually led her back to an academic environment.

Intentional or unintentional, these gaps can pose challenges to mental, emotional, and social well-being.

Many reflected on how the feelings of uncertainty associated with gaps can grate on one’s well-being. Expected and unexpected gaps alike can bring feelings of shame, fear, and frustration. One respondent said that the two breaks they took on their journey (first, between undergrad and grad school, and second, between obtaining their PhD and starting a tenure-track position) were devastating to their mental health to the point that these interim periods were among the unhappiest experiences in their adult life. Fernanda Andrade, a 3rd year PhD student at Duke University, shared that the hardest part of her break between undergrad and graduate school was the way it impacted her sense of identity. She said, “Finding other identities that were important to me and other goals I could pursue was the hardest part. Being a student was all I knew and going into academia was all I wanted—it was me…I coped by finding and engaging in who I am besides a student. I focused on taking care of my home, myself, and my family. It seems cheesy but taking time to understand what was so hard in the transition, why I felt so embarrassed, helped me think more clearly about the situation and continue pursuing my goal.”

Despite these challenges, breaks can also offer benefits to those who experience them.

Nearly all individuals discussed how the breaks they took ultimately made them feel more prepared for their next steps. Beyond new skills and research experience, these gaps also allowed for people to gain broader perspectives on life and academia. Several individuals mentioned that their time away, particularly in between undergraduate and graduate school, allowed for a better mindset when they started their graduate programs. Many attributed their appreciation for academia to being able to experience a working environment and schedule outside of an academic setting. Further, several others reflected that these gaps allowed them to focus on personal development. Taking time to cultivate hobbies and personal relationships made coping with stress in graduate school and beyond easier for many people.

Finally, our survey respondents reflected on advice they would have for someone in a similar position.

Regardless of where an individual was in their journey when they took a gap, the most common advice was to remember that if you are experiencing your own break or anticipating a gap in the near future, you are not alone; many other people experience gaps along their paths.
 

More advice from our survey respondents is available here. Responses have been edited for clarity and grammar. Identified, direct quotes were printed with permission. Thank you to all who completed the post-degree transitions survey, and in particular, thank you to those who allowed us to follow up with them and provided more information to us about their experiences.

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