Mind the gap year

Thinking about what it takes to get from birth to a tenure-track position in the sciences (and other fields, too), we’re really rushing people through the process before they are ready.

One extra year of maturation during pre-school is essential for a child to be prepared for kindergarten.  Finishing kindergarten is a critical step in one’s education, but then one should take a gap year and improve their lego skills to have the maturity to handle the numbered years of elementary school.

I know some places define “junior high” differently, but if we take it as 7th and 8th grades, then obviously a kid needs to take a gap year after 6th grade to be better prepared to enter puberty in junior high.  Plus, that important gap year after 8th grade to develop the personal hygiene skills to be successful in high school.

There’s no argument about whether someone needs that critical gap year between high school and college.  That almost goes without saying.

Of course, the gap year after college to find oneself is also extremely important, as is the gap year after passing quals/comps to figure out what one wants to do for their dissertation.  Then the gap year after grad school to work for a year at…somthing.  Whether one is in the sciences and more or less has to do a post-doc position, or in other fields where people often do a non-tenure track position, there’s still the all-important gap year before starting on the tenure track.

Look…of course a person is going to be better prepared for the next step in their education by doing something else for a year, just because they are older and have had more experiences.  However, at some point a person has to get on with their freaking lives!  We already have a problem in higher education with people trying to strategize when to make babies and then when it doesn’t work out just right, the woman often leaves academia or at the very least her career is hurt.  I’m male and happen to have no interest in starting a family, but even finishing my PhD at age 28, I had an extended post-doctoral period before landing on the tenure-track and didn’t end up with tenure until I was into my 40s.  There are plenty of people who were fuck-ups in their 20s who have good careers by their 40s.  Busting your ass every damned year of your life past age 14 and still not having a career until nearly 30 years later sucks.

Having to spend unnecessary time on the already epically long journey seems rather cruel.  Any extra time spent on one stage or in between two stages should be strategic in nature, i.e., staying in grad school or in a postdoc position to finish a couple papers or because that year’s job search wasn’t going well.

Furthermore, you don’t get good at something by screwing around with beginner’s stuff until you can 100% nail it backwards and in high heels (to borrow a line about Ginger Rogers’ dancing prowess).  One’s education and training is a lot like the writing process; at some point you have to call it good and move on.  Waiting until you have “just one more” skill or experience is usually counter-productive.

However, a gap in the form of a three-day weekend…is a good thing.


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