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Advice on Non-Traditional Paths Between Undergrad Degrees and Grad Programs

As you consider all possibilities, you might be thinking of not pursuing grad school directly after finishing your undergrad degree. Or you might be thinking of returning to school after a break to pursue a graduate program. There are several related paths:

  • Apply for and participate in a post-baccalaureate program as a bridge between finishing your undergraduate degree and starting grad school (e.g., an NIH PREP program in the biosciences).
  • Take a gap year (or more) to earn more income in the “real world,” to shift to a new research area, to take additional courses, to take care of personal or family needs, or for other reasons.
  • Apply for and get admitted into a graduate program, and then defer your admission for one year. (Many, but not all, graduate programs will allow admitted students to defer their admission for one year. This is something to request only after you’ve been admitted).

These are not uncommon paths, and so many students will be considering these possibilities. As you consider your options, it’ll be important to plan your time wisely and reflect on how graduate admissions committees and employers will perceive how you used your time.

If the time between finishing your undergraduate degree and applying for graduate programs is long (i.e., several years or more), graduate admissions committees might question your commitment to their graduate program. However, you might have legitimate reasons that will be acceptable to the admissions committee. For example, you might have wanted to gain more research experience in a new direction by working as a research assistant, you might have had to work to earn more income to help support your family, or you might have needed to take a break to take care of dependents.

As you consider your specific circumstances, it’s essential to consider how the admissions committees will perceive your decisions and for you to craft an acceptable explanation that relates to both your commitment and competence. To guide you in crafting your explanation, try consulting with the faculty who will write your recommendation letters.

You can draft a description, and ask your faculty letter writers how they would respond. Your description should provide a story that explains the major decisions that you made and explains why their graduate program fits as the next step in your storyline.

If your storyline does not appear to have any clear directions, or if it appears that you tried some alternatives that didn’t work out and grad school is a last resort, admissions committees will likely be skeptical of your commitment and focus.

The important messages are provided here for your consideration:

  • If you’re finishing your undergraduate degree now and planning to pursue a graduate degree after a break, wisely plan your break. Be deliberate and plan a timeline of activities, so that you don’t lose your focus.
  • Carefully consider how you’ll explain your story in your application and anticipate how graduate admissions committees will perceive your commitment and preparation. Your explanation should address the major forks along your path and convince the admissions committee that you’ll remain committed and persist through the whole graduate program.