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The Postbac: One or Two Years That Make Careers

Ted Greis

When Ted Gries was finishing his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington, he knew he wanted to go to graduate school--just not right away. "I really didn't feel like I was ready to go to graduate school," he says. Although he had done undergraduate research, "I needed to get that experience"--the experience of working in a lab all day--"before committing to 5 to 6 years to a Ph.D.," he says.

So a week after he graduated in May 2004, he started a job as a research technician for Indiana University biochemistry professor Tom Tolbert. In his year in that lab, he expanded his skills, learning how to work with yeast and Escherichia coli. "I also got a good idea of what I wanted in a PI [Principal Investigator] and a graduate mentor," he says. He applied to graduate school and started work on his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in August 2005.

The conventional path to a science career moves students directly from a bachelor's degree to a Ph.D. program so that they can complete their training as quickly as possible. But data from the National Science Foundation indicate that over the last 25 years, there has been a fairly consistent 1- to 2-year time variance in the interval between an undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. (on the one hand) and the time enrolled in graduate school before finishing a Ph.D. programs (on the other). So where does the extra time go?

That statistical oddity can be explained partly by "nontraditional" students who return to graduate school after years away. But part of it, too, is the "postbac": those relatively short working stints recent graduates often take between the bachelor's degree and graduate school. "Postbac" time allows recent graduates to mature, gain some perspective, and learn new skills before starting out on a long graduate program. A short hiatus before the long road, students and faculty members say, is almost always good.

Faculty weigh in

Most faculty members agree that if students have a clear idea of what they want to study and what their goals are (together, naturally, with adequate intellectual skills), they can make a successful direct transition to graduate school. But such students are the exception rather than the rule, says Richard Superfine, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "I think it's too easy in some ways to go straight from undergraduate to graduate school. Students don't really take the time to think seriously about specifically what they want to do and why."

"For the great majority of students, some time off is a good idea," says Deborah Goldberg, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Students with more life experience often have the maturity it takes to persevere through a Ph.D., she says. She has observed that students without that experience are more likely to feel burned out and to drop out of their Ph.D. programs than are students who take time off.

But the postbac has downsides, says Samuel Mukasa, a professor of geology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "I don't think there's any one model that fits all," he says, but "there are going to be speed bumps on their way to coming back to speed as a graduate student." Financial and time pressures can also weigh more heavily on older students, he adds.

Samuel Mukasa

Deborah Goldberg (credit: David Bay)

Admissions impact

Faculty members agree that 1 to 2 years away does not hurt a student in the graduate-admissions process. Jerry Houser, director of the career development center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, gives a seminar to undergraduate students about a "hiatus year." His conversations with faculty members, he says, confirm that "2 years is fine. Three or 4 years, they begin to worry a little about it. [But] a year is almost never a problem." Time away from school doesn't seem to hurt even if the time isn't spent doing science. Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or similar programs is at least neutral in its effect on your admissions prospects, Houser and other faculty say.

Michael Chapman (credit: Georgia Tech School of Physics)

But relevant work--especially research experience--often has a better-than-neutral effect on admissions prospects. As he considered graduate programs, Gries was able to discuss his research in one-on-one interviews with faculty members, and all of them, he says, considered his year of work an advantage. "I can't imagine that it didn't help to have had an entire other year that I was doing nothing but lab work."

Maturity and life experience are the main selling points for "postbac" time, but the details of what you learn can matter, too. In fields such as ecology, new graduates can use experiences such as hiking the Appalachian Trail or working in a different part of the world to gain valuable knowledge. Getting acquainted with different ecosystems can "broaden their background in biological diversity, and that certainly can be a plus," Goldberg says. And acquiring new lab skills on the job means you don't have to learn those things in graduate school.

In addition, many faculty members appreciate the perspectives students with added life experience bring to their classrooms and laboratories. "I personally enjoy teaching and working with students who have something extra that they bring to the table," says Michael Chapman, a professor in the physics department at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

No regrets

Individuals we spoke to who had completed a "postbac" expressed no regrets about their decisions. Sarah Walker sees only advantages to the time that she spent in the Peace Corps and working in Africa. After she finished her undergraduate degree at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1994, she worked as a biology and mathematics teacher for 2 years in Lesotho. "It was ... invaluable to me to take that time to have better sense of what place I wanted to have in the world," she says.

When she returned to graduate school at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, in 1998, Walker found that her experience in the Peace Corps made teaching assignments easier. Her experience in Africa shaped her career goals: Her thesis research in environmental science examined the impact of land-use changes on ecological systems. Her Peace Corps experience matched well with her adviser, who "was doing fieldwork in Africa and wanted to work with someone [who] could go into a small village" and thrive, Walker says.

Sarah Walker, during fieldwork in Indonesia.

Walker says her relationships with faculty members were also improved by her time away. "Because I was a little bit older, I was able to interact with faculty on [a] different level," she says.

Finding opportunities

Finding a postgraduate position outside of organized programs such as the Peace Corps requires undergraduates to mine a diverse network of resources. Talk to as many people as possible, Goldberg says; faculty members might know of colleagues who are looking for research assistants. Regional and national meetings present great opportunities for undergraduates to scout for positions. As Chapman points out, "it's easier to get into graduate school than to get a job."

Lauren Sullivan found an internship in plant ecology at Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Florida, by following up on an e-mail that had circulated 2 years earlier at the University of Michigan. Sullivan needed a break from coursework after completing her undergraduate degree and wanted to be sure that a career in research was right for her. "The whole science thing, it's a lifestyle, not a career choice," she says.

Lauren Sullivan during her internship at Archbold Biological Station.

The 6-month program at Archbold is one of only a few programs aimed at giving experience to recent science graduates. The program provides a small stipend and room and board. Interns work 20 hours per week assisting ongoing projects at the station and spend their remaining time developing an independent research project.

The independent research component is unusual, says Eric Menges, a senior research biologist at Archbold who started the program in 1989. "The interns start to learn and understand what being a scientist is about," he says. They also bring "a lot of fresh ideas." Many former interns have returned to the station as graduate students, postdocs, or visiting scientists.

Interns Amanda Brothers (left) and Orou Gande conduct fieldwork at Archbold Biological Station. Credit: Eric Menges

Time away that shapes careers

After completing the core requirements for her Ph.D. in 2005, Walker took a job at Winrock International, a nonprofit international development organization in Arlington, Virginia. Her job--advising projects that help limit carbon emissions and deforestation in the developing world--builds on both her Peace Corps experience and scientific expertise. Unsurprisingly, she's a strong advocate of the postbac. "Taking 2 years [off] has zero negative impact on your ability to continue on in school," she advises. "It allows you to grow as a person and have a better sense of what it is that you want to do."

Update, October 2007

Eric Menges recommends the following links for more information about ...

Sarah Webb spent a year doing chemistry research in Giessen, Germany, on a Fulbright fellowship before starting graduate school. She has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry and writes from Brooklyn, New York.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Photos credited to and courtesy of the subjects, except where otherwise indicated.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700114

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