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Taking time off before grad school

  1. Jun 5, 2009 #1
    Hi. I am going into my senior year as an undergraduate physics major. My intent is to go to grad school and most likely get my PhD. I am truly interested in physics, but I'm not sure I'm ready to commit to a specific grad program. I have a good idea of what I enjoy: fundamental particle physics, astronomy, and cosmology. However, I can't be sure exactly what I want to be doing. I don't feel like applying to grad schools while worrying about the GRE's and my semester grades will be most conducive to my making a correct decision. I really feel like I need to have time to put my everyday undergraduate worries out of my mind to make an intelligent decision.

    I have a few questions. Is it common for people to take time off and go back to grad school? Does it put you at a disadvantage? If it is reasonable to do, what order should I go about things?

    I would really appreciate any possible guidance.
     
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  3. Jun 5, 2009 #2
    I know people who've taken time off. As far as I know the admissions committee won't hold this against you, given that you do something fairly productive with your time. However, it seems to me there could be other disadvantages here. You start to forget your physics when you haven't done it for awhile, and this could put you behind when you start your coursework and when you're studying for the PhD qualifier. It'll be harder to get recommendation letters than it is right now, seeing as how you're on campus and have access to professors who probably remember who you are. And this is just my personal opinion, but it seems like it's better to get done with school sooner rather than later. If you know you want to do a PhD, then why wait? Unless you're doing something to advance your career in the meantime, or unless you're doing something that you won't have an opportunity to do later (e.g. Teach for America or other do-gooder stuff), putting a hold on your education doesn't seem like a great idea.

    Speaking from my own experiences, it's been a year and a half now since I last took a full load of courses or studied for the qualifier (I'm starting my third year in the Fall, and I only take one course per semester). Now that I'm used to doing research full time, there's no way I could go back to taking nine graduate credits a semester. Seems to me like this effect would get even worse if you spend time in the real world.

    Anyway, just my observations. Take them for what they're worth.
     
  4. Jun 5, 2009 #3

    diazona

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    On one hand, speaking from personal experience, it is hard to prepare for and take the GREs and to apply to grad schools while handling a senior-year workload. (If you decide against taking a year off, I'd suggest getting started on some of that, e.g. reviewing for the GRE, over the summer) I'm in grad school now and I do know a couple of people who took a year off before starting.

    On the other hand, when I was starting out the grad school application process, the people at my department were very emphatic that taking a year off can only hurt your chances of admission - unless you spend that year doing something physics-related (something like working on a research project at a national lab), and even then, it doesn't actively help your chances. Basically, the best you can hope for is to have the same chance of admission a year later as you will this coming year. So personally, I would (and did) go straight from undergrad to grad school.

    If you do decide to take a year off, the one thing I would make sure to do is get your recommendation letters written before you graduate from your current university. Your professors (or whoever writes the letters) should be able to keep them on file for a year.
     
  5. Jun 5, 2009 #4

    Moonbear

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    Take the time off! I'm not a physicist, but I am a Ph.D. and I did take a year off before starting grad school. I think it was one of the better decisions I've made in my life. Now, don't go goofing off for a year, because that won't help, but if you get a job in your field or as a technician in a lab or something related to your interests, it'll be good for your applications to show that work experience, and good for you to be more certain of your interests before jumping into grad school. For me, the best part of taking a year off was that I worked as a technician with primarily 9 to 5 type hours. After finishing a bachelor's, that was the most relaxing year of my life to be done with work every day by 5 PM. It felt like a vacation. When I started grad school, I was refreshed and ready to jump right in. I think I might have had a harder time going straight from undergrad to grad school with no break in between. Grad school is very demanding, so going into it feeling a bit rested is a good thing. And, if you're not 100% certain you want to go to grad school, it's better to wait and make sure you are. You're not going to survive the experience if you're not absolutely sure it's what you want to do.
     
  6. Jun 5, 2009 #5

    Moonbear

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    The GREs are the least of the concerns. I never even studied for them and thought they were ridiculously easy. Maybe the subject exams require a bit more studying if you need to take them, but if you know your subject well enough to get a bachelors in it and have good enough grades to go on to grad school, you really ought to know it well enough to pass the subject GRE with a score sufficient for grad school. Then again, when I took the GRE, there were flakes there who were taking it for the third time and still were panicking about it (random people I met while waiting to be allowed into the room...they were still cramming from flashcards while waiting to take the exam...and shouldn't have gotten into grad school for good reason).

    Another option, if you're not completely sure you want or are ready for a Ph.D. is to start out in a masters program, which is only about a 2 year commitment, and move to a Ph.D. program only if you do well with an M.S. program and with more information under your belt about what research opportunities are available.
     
  7. Jun 5, 2009 #6
    This advice does not apply to the physics GRE.
     
  8. Jun 5, 2009 #7

    diazona

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    The general GREs are easy, sure (I never studied for those either) - anyone with a decent preparation in physics should easily be able to get a near-perfect score on the quantitative section, at least. But the physics GRE takes some serious preparation! I left my studying until the last couple of days before I took it, but now I deeply regret that... for physics graduate school, the physics GRE is pretty important and definitely worth putting in the time to do your best on.
     
  9. Jun 5, 2009 #8
    If you use the Summer wisely and research graduate schools then you'll take a load of stress off your shoulders once deadlines start to come up in the Winter. By the time I started my Fall senior courses, I knew where I did and didn't want to go.

    You don't have to know EXACTLY what you want to do in graduate school in order to apply. Most people don't. You obviously know what field interests you and that is the key. That will be your main searching criterion: Find a school with a solid program in your area with multiple Professors to choose from. Once you actually start your first semester, meet Profs, tour labs, THEN you typically start to figure out what exactly you want to do.
     
  10. Jun 5, 2009 #9
    If I were you I wwill go to school this summer not winter. Because winter is cold, the sooner you are at school the more you will learn
     
  11. Jun 6, 2009 #10
    The differing advice here might be attributed to the difference between physics and biology. If I had to guess, I'd say that biology involves a lot of general concepts, and the knowledge retention rate is probably pretty high. With physics, you really need to be practicing a lot of problems to do well. Perhaps taking a year off works better for biology than physics.
     
  12. Jun 7, 2009 #11
    One of my problems is that I don't know exactly which field I want, I more or less have it narrowed down to two: particle physics or astrophysics. How should I pick my grad school if I don't even know which field I want to go into yet?
     
  13. Jun 8, 2009 #12
    Maybe you should do what I do: particle astrophysics. Particle astro is a rather interesting field: we use high energy detectors and deal with large volumes of data just like in regular high energy physics, but we get our data from space. If you're torn between particle physics and astrophysics, this seems like a logical choice. Another good option would be cosmology. Cosmologists have to know some astrophysics, but they deal largely with general relativity and high energy physics, especially when studying the very early universe (the early universe was basically a giant particle accelerator).

    In any case, your indecision is certainly no reason to delay graduate school. In the first year all you do is take classes. At the same time, you'll be exposed to a variety of professors and have the opportunity to select from different research groups. If you don't like what you're doing your first summer, you can usually switch in the second summer. But if you don't get into grad school and get started on your PhD program (not to mention passing the PhD qualifier!), you'll never know what interests you and what doesn't. Reading books and papers is never a substitute for talking to professors and grad students about their research.
     
  14. Jun 8, 2009 #13
    Physics is a sickening subject, its ok.
    I advise choose whuch you feel best.
    I am not a physicist and of course no of them I chose!
    I graduated college 5 years ago and now I am marketing personeol of a phamacy company
     
  15. Jun 9, 2009 #14

    Moonbear

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    I didn't say to spend the year off hanging out on the beach collecting shells. If someone is going to take a year off, they need to be doing something relevant to their major and intended degree so you ARE using and applying the knowledge from your bachelors degree. Otherwise, you sure will forget it. If you actually are doing something where you can apply what you've learned, it can strengthen your understanding of the subject rather than weaken it.

    The most important thing is that the OP is less than completely certain about grad school and what program to choose. If you are certain, there's no reason to delay, but if you're not certain, give yourself the year to reflect on the options.
     
  16. Jun 9, 2009 #15

    Choppy

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    I agree with Arunma's point about spending your first year of graduate school doing coursework. Essentially, as you are going into your senior year, you still have a long time to decide on a specific subfield. My experience was that I was first accepted into the department and then didn't have to chose a project until after the first two semesters. And once you're in as a graduate student, you have a lot of opportunity to sit down with potential supervisors and get into the details of potential projects.

    I would also point out that you are allowed to switch if you discover you don't like the field you've gotten into. Certainly it's not easy, and doing this essentially nullifies any work that you've done, but it is possible.

    I also like Moonbear's suggestion of using the time to advance yourself with relevant experience. At the sime time, I would also warn that a consistent paycheque can be habit-forming.
     
  17. Jun 29, 2009 #16
    I majored in physics and took a year off to see if I wanted to pursue research in physics. I decided to jump into materials science for graduate school. Apparently, the year off didn't negatively affect my application. You should study for the Physics GRE and review for the general GRE if you do take a year off. You can increase your GRE vocabulary in 3 months, I know I did. It would also be helpful to get a physics related job, but I didn't and still got accepted to pretty decent schools. Your undergraduate scores, test scores, and personal statement are important. Take the time to make your personal statement personal; something you can work on with a year off. I stayed in touch with my profs, and had them and some of my friends review my statement before applying. It helped a lot. Of course, if you're God's gift to physics, your statement won't matter much.
     
  18. Jun 29, 2009 #17

    j93

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    I just want to point out this is probably the worst time to take a year off due to the general economy not being conducive to either being paid well or consistently unless you have the financial resources to not have to work.
     
  19. Jun 30, 2009 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    I worked in industry for a year between undergrad and graduate school. Nobody said boo about it, so it's difficult to imagine that my chances were affected one way or the other.

    It was nice to start grad school with a little nest egg. While everyone else was eating raman noodles, I got to eat macaroni and cheese!
     
  20. Sep 9, 2009 #19
    Can those that took a year off please talk a little about what they did in that year. I have a list of things that I'd like to do, but I'm looking for more ideas.

    Thanks.
     
  21. Sep 10, 2009 #20
    what did you do during that year off? what made you decide you wanted to do materials science instead of physics?
     
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