Give Me a Break!: The Benefits of Taking Time Off During Grad School

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“I didn’t get in anywhere…”

I stared blankly at the final MFA rejection notice I’d received via email, and the sudden rush of nothingness flooded over me. Thousands of words, hundreds of dollars, tens of samples, CVs, and recommendations all culminated in eight. terse. rejections. As my cohort celebrated their doctoral acceptances or reveled in their new moves and career plans, I sat in a chair in the common room of Drown Hall utterly humiliated. Humiliated, but not necessarily surprised. Throughout the application process I recalled a sense of hesitation about the MFA. Something felt…forced. While I forged ahead with dreams of creaky desks and dust-coated corners and secondhand book stores with quaint cafes and the click-clack of an antique typewriter, I was unknowingly aware of a painfully pertinent truth: you’re not ready. It was only in the fallout of rejection that I allowed myself to admit this. With fresh wounds and humbled dreams, I began to contemplate what the next step would be. As I talked with colleagues and confidants through the confusion, it dawned on me that I had considered only the MFA as a viable option for a “legitimate” step forward. Despite my nagging indecisiveness about whether or not I even wanted to be a creative writer, I assumed that some kind of graduate program was better than none. In hindsight, I often wonder what my application process would have been like had I paid more attention to other options, other possibilities beyond the MFA. In particular, I wonder why I never considered taking a break, giving myself time to reflect on what I truly wanted before forging ahead. The two years I had in between my M.A. and Ph.D. gave me the clarity and confidence to step back into academia with new skills and provocative ideas.

If you’re still with me, and you’re considering what your next step will be, I want to encourage you to consider one beautifully viable option: taking a break. By this, I mean giving yourself the time to step outside of academia to pursue other careers, hobbies, or vocations beyond the classroom. It’s not an option often discussed openly in academic circles, and I think that’s a problem. For many, figuring out what move to make, particularly after the Master’s program, can be a daunting task that needs more time and reflection than can be offered in a single year or semester amidst the storm of seminar papers, teaching schedules, and application deadlines. For any of you feeling on the fence, let me recommend a few reasons why you should take some time off from grad school:

  • Time to explore other hobbies and interests – Grad school is all-encompassing. While we’re ideally steeped in literary traditions that move our passions forward, we can often become absorbed in the daily demands of academia. Taking time away from school can help you explore other passions or interests that you did not have the time for in grad school. During my time off, I ran my first ten miler, started knitting, and joined local advocacy organizations supporting LGBTQ communities in Baltimore. These things gave me the time to rebuild my creative confidence and to put into practice the justice theories I’d learned so much about in school. It was a time that surprised me with my own abilities and desires.

 

  • Time to reflect and process – You don’t need me to tell you that grad school is a lot of work, both intellectually and emotionally. It’s easy to underestimate how much our goals and desires change as a result of the daily rigor we endure. Frankly, all of us are very different people by the time a grad program ends, and it can be a jarring experience to come to terms with this. Taking time away from school can be an incredible opportunity to evaluate how we’ve grown, where we’ve failed, and why we want what we want. In my time away, I attended four spiritual retreats designed to help me discern my next steps, and, yet, these retreats rarely asked me questions about the future. Often, the majority of these retreats forced me to reflect on how I had changed in my time in school. By doing so, I was able to more clearly see how my goals as a writer evolved; while I still loved creative writing, I knew that I wanted that to be a personal hobby of mine and not something critiqued and dismantled on a daily basis. It was this realization that inspired me to consider the Ph.D. route.
  • Time to gain new skills – In my two years out of school, I worked in both the nonprofit volunteer sector and the corporate academic publishing world. I traveled across the country recruiting college students to give of their time and talents to marginalized communities both domestic and international; I formatted and analyzed print galleys of academic monographs in Anthropology, Psychology, Education, Communication, and Latin American Studies; I sold hundreds of books; I created social media plans for a national nonprofit; I secured new projects and deals for my firm; I wrote; I spoke; I listened; I learned. In a short amount of time, I gained a plethora of new skill-sets and fine-tuned other ones, all of which helped me consider new options for work and study here at Lehigh.

 

  • Time to breathe – Not everything has to be measured in a quantifiable goal or skill. Sometimes, we make choices simply because we want or need to. Taking time away from school could be the way to reduce some anxieties, to reconnect with loved ones, or to create more free time for yourself. It allows you to take that cross-country road trip or to train for that marathon you’ve always wanted to run or to simply grab coffee with a loved one on a random Tuesday morning. If you’re feeling confused, burned out, or simply in need of more time, taking a break offers the chance for restoration and rejuvenation.

This time of the semester can be an overwhelming one. As application deadlines start to approach, it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race and feel the pressure to move right on to the next step. But if grad school has taught us anything, it’s the need for critical reflection. No one is obligated to follow one given “track” in their life. If you’re feeling a subtle pull away from school, for whatever reason, don’t be afraid to explore it. Talk with your trusted friends and advisors and discern what the best step is for you right now. Ask the questions that “2015 Jimmy” didn’t have the courage to ask. Feel ready to apply? Congratulations. You feel like you need a little more time to explore other options? Congratulations.

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