Should you bust your butt or party it off?
By Jennifer Baker
Published May 25, 2010
I began graduate school without any disruption to my existing work schedule. In fact, I chose the writing program at The New School largely because it was structured in a way that would allow me to work full time. It didn’t even occur to me that I might take some time off before entering grad school. Sure, it would have been nice, but two years later I was happy to complete my program with minimal debt.
The summer before my second Master’s (in Education, earned concurrently with my service as a New York City Teaching Fellow) was just as busy as the summer before my MFA. I knew in advance that I’d be going straight from my full-time job to teacher training (a few intense summer courses in education at Pace University). So before tendering my resignation, I took a fabulous two-week trip to Turkey. And as this was paid time off, I was able to make the trip without experiencing too much financial pain. It was great to have this time to rejuvenate because I knew the next year was going to be tough. And I wasn’t wrong: from chasing mice out of my classroom to taking a screwdriver away from an enraged seventh grader, teaching brought me head-to-head with all kinds of challenges!
Do you have paid time off that could fund an adventure this summer? If so, this could be the perfect time for you to travel or explore a favorite hobby. The next few years are going to require intense focus, and you want to make sure that you’ll enter grad school with complete energy and enthusiasm.
To work or not to work
Thinking of taking time off before graduate school? First ask yourself the following three questions:
#1. How much money do you have in the bank?
Before making the decision to take the summer off, you need to be sure that you have enough money to support yourself. Create a budget that includes an allocation for unexpected expenses, and that leaves you with enough money to live comfortably once school begins.
Caitlin Marlotte (in picture at right, on left), shown here after graduating with a Master's in Public Policy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did the math and decided to continue building up her consulting practice. “It would have been nice to take a break,” she admits, “and I may have needed it at the time. However, I don't think a break would have improved my performance in the program or helped me be a more useful or engaging classmate.” Plus, the groundwork she laid then continues to pay dividends for her work as a consultant today.
Michael Hollman, who is a manager of paid search at GradSchools.com’s very own sister site eLearners.com, starts Cornell’s MBA program in the fall and is giving himself a slight breather before heading to Ithaca. “I plan to take a month off of work. Doing so should allow me to do a number of things I’ve been meaning to do that haven’t been afforded by a hectic work schedule nor will be by my impending poor-student lifestyle. I plan on reading a number of books that have been piling up on my reading list, traveling to see friends in other parts of the country, and spending some quality time with my girlfriend. The thing I am most looking forward to, though, is a week-long trip to the beach with my family.”
#2. Do you plan do work while attending graduate school?
If you’re planning to work while you’re in school (or know that you will have another reliable income stream), then it may make sense to borrow from your savings to fund a summer off. On the other hand, if your plan is to live off student loans for the next two or three years, it might be wisest to spend the summer building up your savings.
Similar to Michael’s plans, Jonathan Bourland (who currently runs his own web development agency) worked hard up until a slight transition period before starting his Master's of Fine Arts in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. “I worked a lot, getting up early to serve coffee and pastries. When August came, I said good-bye to everything, packed my Plymouth Acclaim to the gills, and made the 30-hour trek across the country.”
Nush Powell (right), who graduated with a PhD in English from UCLA and is currently an assistant professor of English at Purdue, urges recent graduates to consider working for more than just one summer. “I urge my students to work for at least one to two years before going back to school for two reasons: one, because in the humanities, it is difficult to generate much more income than will keep oneself just barely afloat—and over the course of the five to eight years it usually takes to complete a doctorate, there will inevitably be crises that require cash to handle. The other reason is that working for a few years gives people the time to decide whether graduate school is really the right choice.”
#3. Are you burnt out?
Many people head off to graduate school after several years in the work world, at a time when they’re exhausted and ready for a change. If you’ve been working demanding jobs for a while, you may legitimately need a break to refresh yourself and gear up for school.
“Having a finite period of time off without the stress of having to look for a job or contemplating my next step seemed like a real gift. And I had been working for five years since college so used some of my savings plus the free time to pursue one of my passions: cooking. I spent a month in Italy, mostly in Florence, taking cooking classes and studying Italian,” says Jessica Jewell Ogilvie, who received her MBA from HBS and is currently the co-founder of AdBuyer.com and blogger behind Weeknight Gourmet. “The time off between working and starting school helped to ensure that I was energized and ready to dive into the hectic life of a first-year MBA student.”
Rachel Weiss, currently the senior director of interactive marketing at L’Oreal and shown at right after her graduation from New York University with a Master's in Cinema Studies, downshifted in a way that still allowed her to make a little bit of money. “I spent the summer temping at various offices, working at a bookstore and hanging out with my friends. It was a great summer and I remember it fondly. I was refreshed for graduate school but also ready to start my new life.”
Just do it
If you have the means to take a break, I say go for it! Just do some math and make sure that it’s really something you can afford to do. And however you decide to spend your summer, the good news is that you’ll be spending it with the adventure of grad school on the horizon.
This is an exciting, transitional time in your life; enjoy it!
Jennifer Baker is a Brooklyn-based writer who specializes in the field of education. She has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing from The New School and a Master’s in Education from Pace University.
Photo by Martin Fisch