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I'm a year away from getting my undergrad degree in (computer) engineering, with a minor in Japanese. I never had the opportunity to do a study abroad due to the rigors of the major. As some probably know, the JET program is a program by which selected individuals move to Japan to teach English at public schools for a year (or two or three, but not more, I believe). I've always been very interested in doing something like this, but I have always assumed that doing so would ruin my chances of getting into a graduate program or landing a good job upon my return.

It wouldn't be like attending grad school before entering the industry or vice versa, in that I would be teaching English for a living, not studying or working in my field. I could still self study, and my field gives me the advantage of still being able to apply my skills working on personal projects and open-source software, but I would certainly be removed from the industry and academia, I would expect.

I feel like leave from the field would look bad to any prospective schools or employers. How accurate is my assumption? Would a leave of absence to do something like this reflect poorly on me in the eyes of potential schools or employers?

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    if you just want to travel to Japan and work there, you can do so academically. Consider this answer. – Artem Kaznatcheev Jul 26 '12 at 22:45
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    As someone who has never taken a gap year, I'd encourage you to take the opportunity. The experience alone would be worth it, but having a break to think about life and where you want to go is also useful. – Dave Clarke Jul 26 '12 at 23:49
  • That answer is very interesting Artem. Something I'm definitely going to look into, thank you. And I have little doubt it would be a magnificent experience, but I'm worried about the consequences after it ended. – Fulluphigh Jul 27 '12 at 16:36
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This might have a small negative effect on your chances of admission, by making you look less committeed or sure of your long-term goals. However, I believe the effect would be quite small, and in many cases it wouldn't be an issue at all.

One way to avoid this issue completely would be to apply to grad school and then defer for a year after admission. Deferring may or may not be possible, depending on the field and university. In my department, several grad students defer each year, usually for things like Part III of the Tripos at Cambridge. I don't recall a case where someone was teaching English for a year overseas, but I imagine deferring for that would be allowed.

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    P.S. I should clarify that I don't think it should affect your chances of admission, but it might if the wrong person ends up on the committee. – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 27 '12 at 17:25
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This will not hurt your future plans. International experience and second language skills like this will likely help, even if they are not related to your undergraduate or graduate career.

  • I often hear (On workplace, etc) of how poor it looks when a candidate has been out of work for a long period, even or especially of their own will. While I wouldn't be out of work, per say, I wouldn't be working in my field for a year, which I fear wouldn't look good. As Anonymous Mathematician said in their answer, it seems like it would reflect poorly on me. Perhaps the experience and language skills would outweigh that? – Fulluphigh Jul 27 '12 at 16:40
  • A year is not a long period between college and grad school, although it might be if you're out of work without having a good reason to be. – Peter Shor Dec 2 '13 at 21:55
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As others have said, a year teaching English won't look bad on its own.

That being said, if you are thinking of graduate school, you might want to figure out who will write you letters of recommendation, and ask them to write the letters now. You want your letter writers to write for you while their memories are still fresh, rather than having to remind them of what exactly you did with them a year later, by email.

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I don't think a gap year of the kind you describe would influence my admissions decision adversely. If anything, it would make me more intrigued. As with all things, you should make sure to articulate your story well in your personal statement if you think it needs explanation.

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In my experience (biology), I think that taking a couple of years off before grad school provided me with an advantage during applications. Granted, I was working at a biotech company, so I was still developing "relevant" expertise (though in the end, it wasn't really relevant to what I worked on for my dissertation).

I think that the most important consideration is that you continue to learn during your hiatus. Fluency in a foreign language can be very valuable in academia -- I expect that there are a lot of top-notch computer scientists in Japan. Ideally, you would be able to establish relationships with Japanese CS students/researchers; I'd bet that many of the students are itching for help learning/practicing English.

There are a few reasons that older applicants may be more attractive in general:

  • They are not continuing in school by default/inertia, and so are more likely to complete the program
  • They are more mature, so they are less likely to cause drama in the department.
  • They can bring outside perspective into their research. The academic career machine places a big emphasis on "shaking things up" and learning from a wide variety of situations/mentors.

I also see a couple of possible downsides:

  • Some fields have a youth cult, where they think that radical thinking comes from young researchers. Specifically, I'm thinking of mathematics, though this may apply to CS. In contrast, the conventional wisdom is that biologists value experience and perspective.
  • You will be older when you graduate and start your academic career. This may not be a big deal if your grad programs are short (5 years). A low salary and the need to chase jobs across the country/globe may not seem like a problem when you are 21 and healthy, but things are different when you are 30 and have responsibilities and are not as strong as you once were.

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