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Background: I'm in a precarious situation.

I'm currently in the sixth semester of a ten-semester (five-year) combined bachelor's/master's program in engineering. So far I've had two relevant industry internships and have been getting stellar grades, but I lack research experience in my field. I am still unsure if I want to pursue a PhD, and I'm a bit apprehensive to make that life decision now.

All six semesters I've been taking classes and conducting research in a not-so-relevant field (mainly because research in my field is hard to get as an undergraduate) - suffice it to say after three years of this, I've somewhat burned out.

I'm currently signing up for classes for my seventh semester, which is the first semester I'm required to take graduate classes. Because I've felt a lot of academic pressure, I decided to sign up for less classes than usual to give myself a respite.

In response to this, my academic adviser recommended that I conduct research at a lab near campus to prepare me for a prospective PhD. I'm reluctant to agree because I wanted to take the semester to relax and pursue various interests I've fallen out of touch with since the start of university.

I voiced my concerns to my adviser and he is continually trying to pressure me to conduct research, citing that not doing so would be a huge missed opportunity and might hurt my chances of applying for a PhD.

Question

I don't want to leave this as an open-ended question (a la "what should I do?"), so I'll try to make it more structured:

  • How important is having research in a relevant field when applying to PhD programs?
  • Would PhD programs look unfavourably upon taking a semester to "relax," considering that a PhD requires a great deal of dedication?
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    Some people believe that, unless one bleeds from every orifice and pore, one is not a worthy scientist. Well, there are certain phases, or certain fields (think animal biology) where one has to work crazy times and forget about any type of available free time. However, in most fields, and in regular periods, this should not be the case. If you feel you need to relax, that's a good thing because it means that you have an awareness for your own needs. A burnt-out scientist is not a creative scientist; sensible advisers will know that. However, if you intend to keep this adviser, YMMV. – Captain Emacs Mar 9 '16 at 0:28
  • "Would PhD programs look unfavourably upon taking a semester to "relax," considering that a PhD requires a great deal of dedication?" This may not apply to you, but if it is the semester after you apply, you do not have to tell them about it. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 9 '16 at 4:46
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Wanna relax, then do so. Don't be somewhere you don't want to be. You have to be mentally ready to do a research. I have seen many cases of young intelligent individuals who started doing PhD, and then for various reasons gave up, because some serious work needed to be done and they want to have well... some fun (rightfully so)!

I would recommend do not burn the bridge with your supervisor as you might start doing PhD in upcoming years. Tell him/her in a meeting that you would like to finish your studies and enjoy life a little bit; before committing yourself to doing research.

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How important is having research in a relevant field when applying to PhD programs?

Very. The more quality, relevant research, the better. The more researchers you can work with who can write you a good letter of recommendation, the better.

Would PhD programs look unfavorably upon taking a semester to "relax," considering that a PhD requires a great deal of dedication?

It's not a bad thing, but a lot of your competition isn't doing this and it'll be to their advantage. Although I think "the heaver workload of graduate classes" is a perfectly acceptable reason to cut back on classes for a semester. ;)

Ultimately, you have an obligation to yourself and your wellbeing. Doing this research is in your best interest if you want to look the best on PhD applications. But you have to figure out how to balance this with your physical and mental wellbeing.

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