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September 7, 2009
Volume 87, Number 36
pp. 92 - 94

An Enriching Respite

Gap-year experiences help students recharge and refocus in the classroom

Susan J. Ainsworth

Courtesy of Chris Curran
SOUL-SEARCHING Curran has just begun working for the Mississippi Teacher Corps.
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After finishing a B.A. in chemistry at Texas A&M University in 2003, Michael Irwin knew he wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but he wasn’t quite ready to delve back into academia. “I was tired and needed a rest from the books,” he says. Plus, he had a strong desire to travel abroad. Answering an ad posted in the chemistry department at Texas A&M, he landed a six-month internship performing synthetic organic research at chemical manufacturer Dojindo Laboratories, in Kumamoto, Japan.

Irwin lived in Japan’s “lush and green” landscape and sampled its “excellent food, including sushi, udon, soba, and my favorite, tonkatsu,” a deep-fried pork dish. The experience gave him, he says, “the opportunity to slow down and explore myself and the world around me.” The break paid off, helping Irwin return to his studies with a renewed vigor. Late last month, he completed a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at Northwestern University.

In the U.S., taking a break between high school and college or between undergraduate and graduate studies is uncommon, especially for students in the competitive chemical sciences. But an increasing number of students across all disciplines are considering the benefits of taking a so-called gap year.

Although typically a year long, these breaks sometimes last only six months or extend to two years. They involve temporarily “stepping away from the formal education world to consciously explore an area of interest—sometimes in a completely different location,” says Joanna Lazarek, vice president of the Center for Interim Programs, in Cambridge, Mass. The center matches students with more than 5,600 internships, volunteer positions, apprenticeships, and cultural study programs worldwide.

Whether students are between high school and college or undergraduate and graduate school, the time off can help them explore “a world outside of their hometown or areas of interest,” Lazarek says. By taking a breather from academia, many students “gain experiences that will help them to reapply to a first-choice college, gain in maturity, or sharpen hazy career goals,” she says.

U.S. institutions continue to grow in their awareness and appreciation of the value of a well-crafted gap year, something most U.K.-based universities have long endorsed, Lazarek says.

“Each year, we see an increasing number of applications from students who have taken some time between completing their undergraduate degree and entering graduate school,” often working in industry, says James D. Batteas, associate professor of chemistry at Texas A&M. “In many cases, they are highly motivated when they return to school and do very well in our program.”

Last year was “a very big year” for the center, where the number of applicants rose to the highest level it’s been in the past several years, Lazarek says. Due to the economy, however, “we’ve seen a slight drop in interest,” with numbers returning to where they were two years ago. Some, but not all, student gap-year programs “are feeling the impact of the recession,” she says.

Even in an uncertain economy, gap-year programs are appealing because they help students start school with a clearer academic focus, making it less likely that they will change majors, thereby adding a year or two to their already-expensive college careers. Although some organized gap-year programs can cost as much as $12,000 to $15,000 per semester, the center works with families that want to consider only room-and-board-provided programs or stick to a budget of about $5,000 to $10,000 minus the center’s fee of about $2,100. “That’s much less than a year at a private college,” Lazarek says.

Many students gain experiences that will help them to reapply to a first-choice college, gain in maturity, or sharpen hazy career goals.

For economic reasons alone, “we are going to see a significantly larger number of kids taking time off” to work or solidify their career paths over the next several years, predicts Eric Yaverbaum, coauthor of the new book “Life’s Little College Admissions Insights.” For families struggling to pay for college, taking a year off now might mean that they will be able to take advantage of “some pretty dramatic changes in federal college aid programs that could come as early as July 2010,” he says. Still in the House as H.R. 3221, the Student Aid & Fiscal Responsibility Act includes provisions that would help families save on the cost of loans and increase some scholarship benefits.

However, Lazarek does not think students are taking gap years “simply because they hope that they can get more financial aid if they wait a year.” They are taking them to “find a passion, become more independent, or grow as a person, she says.

Recognizing these benefits, Prince­ton University has gone as far as to create its own gap-year program. This month, 20 Princeton students are deferring the start of their freshman year to spend a tuition-free enrichment period abroad focused on public service as the first participants in the university’s new Bridge Year Program. The students will be working with organizations in Ghana, India, Peru, and Serbia, according to John Luria, director of the program. Its goal is to provide students with an expanded perspective, a chance to relax and refocus between high school and college, and an orientation to service, he says. As a result of this program, he adds, students will enter their first year at Princeton with a wealth of experience and maturity.

Harvard University also strongly “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way,” according to its admissions website.

In evaluating prospective students who have taken a gap year, the chemistry department at Texas A&M likes to see that students remained connected to activities that related to their long-term career goals in fields like research or teaching, Batteas says.

By participating in gap-year programs such as the U.K.-based the Year in Industry (YINI) program, students gain relevant work experience while collecting both a salary and funding toward their education. Registrations at YINI have risen 20% for preuniversity students and 50% for undergraduates for the current 2009–10 academic year, says Penny Tysoe, marketing manager for EDT (formerly Engineering Development Trust), the registered U.K. education charity that operates YINI. This year, YINI will place approximately 550 to 600 students from the U.K., the U.S., and other countries in about 250 different U.K.-based companies.

Rebecca Savage deferred her enrollment at the U.K.’s University of Birmingham to participate in the YINI program. Aspiring to be a chemical engineer at a pharmaceutical company, she jumped at the chance to do R&D work at AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, England, for a year.

While in the program, Savage developed a methodology for converting a chemical reaction for an active pharmaceutical ingredient from a traditional batch method into a continuous-operation method, yielding a potential savings of about $325,000 per year for the company. For her work, she won the 2008 Defence Science & Technology Laboratory prize for Best Science & Engineering Application at the National Contribution to Business Awards competition sponsored by the YINI program.

At AstraZeneca, “it wasn’t like I was told to make tea. I had real work to do, and I was given real training and real opportunities, and it was absolutely fantastic,” says Savage, who is now entering her second year studying chemical engineering at the University of Birmingham.

Laura Kliman, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Boston College, also interrupted her studies to experience working in industry. After graduating from Boston University with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, she landed a position as a medicinal chemist at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston, thereby creating her own gap-year experience. As part of a team of chemists discovering antitumor therapies and medications to treat Alzheimer’s disease, she was able to “learn some new chemistry and lab techniques” and build a foundation of medicinal chemistry knowledge, she says. “It was amazing to work with the Ph.D. chemists at Merck; they definitely motivated me to pursue my graduate degree.”

When she began to apply to graduate programs, Kliman thought her stint at Merck “was definitely a plus,” she says. “I was coming in with a lot more experience than I had when I was fresh out of finishing an undergraduate degree. I was able to publish a paper while at Merck, as well as get my name on a patent. I think the experience definitely helped improve my résumé.”

Building skills for the future is also a goal for Chris Curran, who is taking some time away from academia after graduating in May as a valedictorian from the University of Florida with a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in philosophy. He has just begun working for Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC), which recruits recent graduates in fields outside education to teach in struggling schools. After teaching seventh-grade science at Solomon Middle School in the poverty-stricken area of Greenville, Miss., for two years, Curran will receive a master’s degree in education curriculum and instruction from the University of Mississippi under the program. He hopes that the experience will help him decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, philosophy, or education policy.

However, Curran is concerned about taking two years to chart his future path. “By the time I complete the two years with MTC and the four to five years required to earn a Ph.D., I will be about 30 years old and will still be living off a graduate student’s stipend,” he explains. “That might make it difficult for me to start a family, something I would like to do by that time in my life.”

Falling behind is one of the drawbacks to veering off the educational fast track, especially in the field of chemistry, says Isaac Arnquist, who took two years off to teach English to middle schoolers in a rural village in Japan. “I put myself in a position where I had to take time to refresh some of the chemistry I had learned while completing a B.A. in chemistry at St. Olaf College—something I would not have had to do if I had just gone straight on for a Ph.D.,” says Arnquist, who is now a third-year graduate student in analytical chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.

Still, the decision to take a break from academia “was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Arnquist says. “I went to Japan for the adventure and because I didn’t want to jump into the drone of the real world yet,” he says. “I could not have imagined how time in a completely different culture—being surrounded with new people, foods, sights, sounds, and smells—can teach you how to adapt and generally alter your life forever.


Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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