So having just returned from the Latin American Studies conference in Austin, graduate school is on my mind. I am taking time after graduation to serve in the PeaceCorps and I have been thinking a lot about why I made that decision.
In this article, I am going to explain why I believe a gap year is so important, especially for the study of history and future graduate studies.
I don’t profess to be an expert on this process; however, as someone that has conducted a mountain of research in this area recently, I wish I had someone who could have shared this information with me earlier.
Deciding what you can do after graduation can be a very stressful and overwhelming decision. Many fear that if they don’t go on to graduate school immediately after graduation, they won’t ever return to their education. It can also feel like you are falling behind your peers when you can’t brag about what seemingly-prestigious program you have been accepted into. However, I argue that it is almost more important for history majors to take a gap year than many other majors. Here are four key reasons why:
As students of Centre College, we are notoriously school focused. Like other small liberal arts colleges, the majority of our time is spent busting a** to meet our deadlines, participate in extracurriculars, and pursue research or internships. We are very proud of our work ethic, but it doesn’t come without a cost. By the end of four years at Centre, it is okay to admit that you need some time to regroup or rediscover what it means to live your life without it being rigorously structured by academics. Graduate school is a promise of 5-7 years of arduous research. If you ask Dr.Tubb, he will tell you that it can be a lonely and isolating experience that requires resilience to complete. By taking a gap year, you are preparing yourself not just to return, but to return to school successfully, having a better sense of self, independence, and with more energy to give to your passions.
2. Gap Years Can Be Prestigious
A gap year (or years) can be whatever you make of it. Although you might not be beginning a semester at Stanford or Yale, getting accepted into a program such as Fullbright, PeaceCorps, AmeriCorps, or any number of internships can be equally important in your career. These opportunities demonstrate to graduate schools and employers that you have real world skills and that you have been tested outside of an academic setting. This is also a great way to boost your resume if you feel like your GPA or GRE score isn’t as strong as you might like it to be. Experience speaks volumes, often more than extracurriculars in college or test scores.
3. Language Proficiency
If you have done any research into graduate schools for history, the majority of them require you to become proficient in two languages beyond your first language. Depending on what you are interested in studying, this can be an enormous challenge. Although you may be an American historian, it can still be incredibly useful and important to understand multiple languages spoken within the U.S.. The gap year provides the best opportunity to focus on language acquisition. Our ability as historians can be entirely determined by our ability to analyze and interpret primary sources, and if you are not prepared to analyze sources in other languages, you aren’t ready to be a historian. Take the gap year as an opportunity to master at least one language outside of your usual spoken language and you won’t be reliant on translations and your analysis will be higher quality.
4. Cultural and Social Understanding:
As academics in college, we are often sequestered from the subjects which our research directly affects. This is true for American historians to Chinese historians. Although you may have studied abroad for a semester, or even did a semester long internship in your country of interest, that is not the same experience as living within the communities of interest and coming to know them outside of a research perspective. Your ability to interpret sources and investigate narratives will depend on your ability to navigate these channels and to explain them well in your work. A gap year gives you the most opportunity to master these skills.
My plans to go to graduate school seemed like the only viable option following graduation. This all changed over the summer when I spent six weeks in El Salvador, where I realized that if I truly wanted to study in this area, my Spanish needed a lot of improvement. Not only that, but I realized that if I ever wanted to write about Central America, I wanted to be able to draw from personal experience and insights.
Understanding what the role of a historian is in society is a topic that has sprouted many long arguments and even longer papers published on the topic. However, from my perspective, our job as historians is be to allow the past to speak through us in the hopes that it gives some modicum of insight into the modern day. As researchers, it is our responsibility to ensure that we work to challenge as many of our preconceived notions as possible, and open ourselves to new experiences and perspectives. For me, the gap year is at the heart of this. It is a time to contemplate our positionality within the historical process, to enhance ourselves as participants within the process, and to prepare ourselves for a major monetary, personal, and academic commitment.