By Sojourner White
There is a lot of hype about how to be the “best” candidate and applicant for graduate school. What should I do to prepare myself? Is it better to go straight from undergraduate to graduate school? If I take time off, what should I pursue? Many questions and opportunities lead to many answers and possibilities. However, the bombardment of advice about what to do with your life can be intimidating, and it’s hard not to drown in information – no matter how excited you may be for your next step.
If you are considering taking time off between undergraduate and graduate school, this post is for you! As you prepare for a graduate program, your prior experiences, including what you did with your time away from school, can shape your program of study as well as what you discuss in those application statements. While you may still be figuring it out, it doesn’t hurt to know all your options to help you make the right decision. Here are some pre-graduate school work experiences to pursue that will help you become a stronger graduate school candidate.
1. Research-based positions
Research-focused opportunities are probably the go-to jobs or fellowships for aspiring graduate students. Your research can be directly related to your field or an endeavor adjacent to your passion and interests. From policy to urban development to languages, the breadth of opportunities makes it possible to find the right fit for you. To find opportunities, search for organizations with the word “Institute” in them and the phrase “Center for…” This is key terminology to look out for. If you are still an undergraduate student, tap into your network with professors to gain that hands-on experience. The ProFellow fellowship database includes hundreds of research-based opportunities as well.
However, research is not the end-all-be-all. Graduate school applicants sometimes assume they have to get involved in research to be the best candidate for grad school – and that’s simply not true. While graduate school does prioritize research assistantships and fellowships once you are admitted and enroll, others have been successful without doing it at all. It truly depends on your goals and the skillset you want to develop, whether that’s research or practice or both.
2. Apprenticeship or fellowship experiences
Research opportunities are not the only options you can pursue pre-graduate school. Apprenticeships and fellowships in your field of interest such as human rights, community development, engineering, education, tech, and more are all possibilities for work. Unlike regular 9-to-5 jobs, these opportunities are on a contract basis and can be a one to two-year commitment where you learn and gain work experience.
Apprenticeships and fellowships are also beneficial to pursue pre-grad school because they are opportunities to get your feet wet and test if the work you think you want to do is right for you. A position with a fixed end date and start date can help you decide whether or not the path you’re on is where you need to go next.
3. Develop a passion project
Because of easy access to a variety of social media platforms and other in-person opportunities to express yourself and your ideas, passion projects are born every day. For people whose jobs may not be as fulfilling, or who need a more creative outlet, passion projects can fill that void to be a new source of inspiration. Your project will probably not be paid like your full-time gig; however, that doesn’t mean it is less valuable. A good way to brainstorm what your passion project could be is to write down causes you are passionate about and then go from there.
Furthermore, developing a passion project shows drive and initiative outside of your traditional 9-to-5. Graduate school requires self-education, determination, and forward-thinking. There will also be days where you need to multitask and maintain balance amongst projects while you do so. What’s a better way to show all of that on your application than to develop it before you even get to the institution?
4. A gap year to travel the world
More and more people every year put a pause on their career-driven aspirations in formal education to learn from the world via travel. Whether it’s volunteering, interning, teaching, or a non-school affiliated study abroad program, the opportunities to take some time off abroad seem endless. And while many people feel the pressure to “do something” as they travel, there are ways to contextualize a traveling gap year outside a formal learning opportunity too. Whether you take one-off cooking or language classes in places you visit or have meaningful conversations in cafes, the more you interact with people the deeper the intercultural experience can be. Intercultural communication, cultural humility, etc. are still marketable skills. You never know, you may not come back with the same grad school path in mind, which can be a good thing too!
5. Gain full-time work experience for a few years
Instead of pursuing a one to two-year apprenticeship or fellowship, go all-in with a full-time position. Often after graduating with a graduate degree, jobs want graduates who have at least two years of work experience outside of internships and practicum. Taking that time off can help you not only be a better candidate for your program, but also for the jobs you seek once you’re done. Additionally, a full-time position can also mean a heftier salary or hourly wage compared to a stipend-based fellowship or apprenticeship. Grad school isn’t cheap, and working for a few years to save can make funding your education easier for you in the long run.
Take control of your journey
All this to say, there is no “ideal” candidate for grad school. A variety of factors impact admissions offices’ decisions when they evaluate their pool of applicants. Between work experiences, test scores, personal statements, analytical essays, resumes, and recommendations, there are a plethora of areas to show them what you’ve got! Do not be preoccupied with what you think you need to be doing. Instead, let your goals, values, and vision for your future career guide the opportunities you pursue. Whether that’s research or a gap year traveling the world, you can make that pre-grad school opportunity work for your interests. It’s your journey so take control of it and set yourself up for success – whatever that looks like to you.
Sojourner White holds a Master’s of Social Work in International Development from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to graduate school, she taught English in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow and served in the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. She currently does intersectional race and health equity consulting with organizations to redesign their practices for more equitable, community-minded outcomes. You can also find Sojourner writing on her travel blog Sojournies, where she offers tips and resources to encourage students and young professionals to make travel part of their lifestyles.
© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved