So first I will lay out my background, I am about to start QFFF (Masters) at Imperial College in the UK, I graduated from my undergraduate degree with a strong first class honours which I believe is a 4.0 GPA in the US (top 10% of my class) and first class project (from which I will be getting at least one excellent academic reference) the project was a monte carlo study of various random walks. I intend on tailoring my masters research project towards lattice field theory research. Ok so I would like to say that after I finish my masters I want to take a year out (hopefully in the banking sector) for a few reasons... First and foremost I need to study for the GRE tests and I don't want that to interfere with my masters degree, secondly (possibly equally as important) PhD interviews in the UK happen around February, I am not sure when this happens in the US, but certainly in the UK I will have no idea how well I have done in my exams or research project by then. I would rather wait a year and go into interviews with 2 solid projects under my belt. Lastly I have a few financial burdens I want to take care of before living on the salary of a walmart cashier for god knows how many years of my life. Here are my questions, 1) Is taking a year out as I described going to completely jeapordise my chances of getting into grad school? 2) What are my chances of getting into somewhere like Princeton/Harvard/Stanford/MIT if I finish with a distinction vs a merit provided my second project is good? Keeping in mind I have no idea what universities have good groups in lattice QCD and the likes (I think Stanford and MIT?). 3) How long is a PhD for a UK student with my background going to be in the US? I am under the impression that US PhD's are way longer than UK PhD's because the 1st couple of years are still examined? If a US PhD is going to take me 6+ years I may as well stay in the UK where I can get it done in 3.