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I plan to apply for PhD programs in foreign policy this upcoming year. It's a field I'm passionate about and something that, after much deliberation, I am positive I want to pursue. With that said, I'm currently in a field unrelated to politics/policy - having studied business in college. I have been working in this field for several years.

I've always dreamed of traveling the world, experiencing other cultures, and having some time to myself to learn a new language/write a book. In the past, I've always been a working hard in school or work to do these things for myself - and I'm sure I won't have the time upon starting a PhD program.

Thus, in a perfect world, I would like to quit my job, travel the world, and have the experience of a lifetime as soon as possible - for as long as possible - until the start of my PhD program. My main worry is that, in approx. 8 months when I apply for PhD programs, I will have to put 'unemployed' and attempt to explain to admissions what I've been up to for almost a year (as opposed to putting down a very good, well respected job - albeit one in a different field).

I want this experience of a lifetime but, at the same time, I don't want to jeopardize my chances at top programs. Some people I have consulted have said that taking on such an experience can actually be seen as unique and increase my chances of admission (though I am skeptical of that).

I am extremely grateful for any tips/advice. If anyone has familiarity with the admissions process of top PhD programs and how they would view someone with a current 'unemployed' status, please provide any insight you can.

Thanks so much!

closed as primarily opinion-based by Wrzlprmft, Jeff, Scott Seidman, Dmitry Savostyanov, Cape Code Feb 9 '17 at 16:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    You might want to rephrase your question as "Will taking a sabbatical to travel the world before my PhD hurt my chances of admission?" or something like that. afaict you're trying to assess the risk for something you want to do. What you actually should do is up to you. – Cimbali Feb 9 '17 at 13:08
  • Please take extended discussion to Academia Chat. – eykanal Feb 9 '17 at 15:01
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The way PhD admission works is that you usually apply during the fall, receive admission decisions in the following winter/spring, make a decision around April and enroll in the fall. This means that there is usually a four-month(ish) long gap between the admission process and enrollment. Many students fresh out of college will use this period to relax, maybe even travel around the world. So if you can afford to quit your job or make certain arrangement with your employer, this time window could be a compromise between your need to enjoy life and appear productive, since people don't usually expect you to work hard just before you formally enroll in the program. On the other hand, if you urgently need to travel well before application and still want to impress the admission committee, my general advice is that a generic travel plan will not achieve the goal here. For your travelling to be viewed positively, it should yield concrete outcomes demonstrating excellence in whatever skills valued in your field of study.

I should also say that this is based on my experience with Ph.D. programs in science. A political science Ph.D. may have difference culture/expectations.

  • Thank you for the comment. I do hope to travel prior to the fall applications. Do you think it would be a detriment to my application to travel, especially if I can show that I am working/studying to prepare for graduate study? For example, in foreign policy/international relations, languages and experiences with other cultures is surely something worth spending time on. Additionally, practicing my writing can be essential for preparing myself. I actually think I will be much more productive if I quit & travel, but my concern is how it will appear to admissions committee. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 4:20
  • @o999 Please see the updated answer. I think if your main goal is to have fun and do some work on the side, how it will be received is hard to say. Some people might ask what such an extended leave of absence say about your work ethics, but others may view it neutrally. It probably depends on who's reading your file and how the experience is presented. – Drecate Feb 9 '17 at 4:43
  • thanks for the insight. Your point on 'concrete outcomes' is a great one and well received. Food for thought. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 4:49
  • I am just realizing I didn't mention this - but I will be actively volunteering at a variety of local organizations I come across and (attempt to) work as a freelance writer online. Do you think this activity is more 'concrete'? – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 4:51
  • @o999 Sure, but if I were on the admission committee I would find it hard to see how these activities distinguish you from the other applicants, who probably all have similar/equivalent experience (if such experience is considered a must for your field of study). Without knowing the details of your plan and your ability it's hard to tell. – Drecate Feb 9 '17 at 5:07
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Adding some kind of work to your trip, that's what could make a difference for an admission committee.

Examples: Visit all or a lot of european parliaments and trial some sessions open to the public. Contact some foreign NGOs and learn about their ideas and activities. Some activities like this could even be postive for your application.

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    I actually have a side plan kind of along these lines (but too much to get into for this thread). Thanks so much for the help. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 15:10
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Employment is necessary to pay the rent. But you have built up some savings, so that's apparently not an issue. Whether it is or not is none of the admissions committee's business.

I haven't sat on any admissions committees, but I would think that the committee will be trying to predict, from your application, whether you seem likely to succeed in the program you're applying to. I would think that your undergraduate record, your essay and your references would carry much more weight than a precise accounting of how you spent the gap between finishing the degree and submitting your application.

People take breaks from academics all the time for family and other personal reasons. It isn't necessary to explain the details when it's not a very long break. Three years would take some explaining, because some fields change quickly, and one could get rusty with some of the material and skills learned as an undergraduate.

If you enjoy writing, go for it -- but please go into it without high expectations of size of readership or income gained. Just do it for the satisfaction of writing and perhaps being read. Given the unpredictability of the success one might have as a professional writer, it would raise the stakes too much for you during your gap time to set too specific a definition of "time well spent."

Just follow your instincts, using your hunches about what would bring you personal growth, and what would help you prepare for the hard work of the PhD to come. Experiences living abroad can help you get perspective, and build your self-confidence.

(I personally would recommend that you consider picking a small number of destinations, so you can immerse yourself in a language and culture, rather than skimming the surface in a grand tour; but only you can decide what sort of itinerary would be best for you.)

  • Thanks for your insight--and I hear you on the writing expectations. I will take that to remember. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 15:08
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I don't know how admissions work in your country, so I'll leave the others to advise on that, but here's something that I learned after completing my PhD:

A PhD will put the rest of your life on hold until you complete it and pass your viva (and you better do much more than simply pass your viva).

My wife and I both got Physics PhDs, emerging out the other end practically in our thirties with no money, no house, no marriage, no kids, no relevant industrial experience. This might not be as much of an issue for you as you've already been in work.

Additionally:

A PhD is only as good as the amount of time and effort you put into it, and there is practically no ceiling to this investment.

If you want your PhD to be worth more than the certificate, you need to publish good, novel work and make yourself known to the community. If you want to be really good, your PhD will drain everything from you.

To conclude:

I would advise you to do whatever it is you want to do now, before starting your PhD, because you won't be able to justify the time away from your work during it.

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Let me start with a disclaimer: I am a math professor and have no knowledge of how admissions to foreign policy PhD programs (or any other aspect of such programs) work, so take my answer with the appropriate grain of salt.

That being said, I personally think your plan is totally awesome, and am already somewhat impressed with both your desire to grow as a person and with the specific plan you have come up with for doing so. To me, your desire to learn about other cultures not from books but from actively traveling in other parts of the world speaks to a much higher level of curiosity and independent-mindedness than almost anyone I can think of who has come up with some pretentious-sounding plan for filling the year before starting grad school with some internship, work experience or other CV-padding gig. Moreover, I strongly believe that at least in the US the value of traveling abroad is seriously undervalued by most people, even within academia. My personal philosophy is that traveling (if done seriously and with the right intent, and ideally if done for extended periods of time) is far from the frivolous, hedonistic activity it is made out to be in popular perception, and can actually be a profound learning experience that changes people and their outlook on the world and even on themselves in ways they could not appreciate beforehand. So again, your plan really resonates with me personally. Now, it's quite possible I am not representative of anything or anyone, but I thought it worth stating my position in case you find it useful to know that people like me exist. After all, if I hold such views then quite possibly there are others like me who can recognize the value of what you are thinking of doing and be impressed by it. Maybe some of them will upvote my answer or weigh in in the comments section.

Now, getting to the practical question of whether your travel plan may undermine your grad school applications: I can't say with anything approaching certainty, so definitely seek advice from better informed people. One thought I have though is that if you present your plan correctly it might mitigate the effect of being technically "unemployed". For example, you hinted that you plan to write a book. Well, that by itself is a wonderful idea that is sure to make you stand out (especially if you realize the plan successfully); suddenly your trip can be not a sightseeing trip but a book-writing/research expedition, and you no longer sound so unemployed while you're doing it - see what I mean? The point is that your travel-the-world idea is actually (in this one person's opinion at least, as I said) very worthwhile, so the trick is to find a way to communicate that value in your CV, statement of purpose and other application documents. If you do that successfully, I think it's indeed quite conceivable that you will actually put yourself at an advantage rather than a disadvantage compared to other applicants. Anyway, good luck, and send us a postcard.

  • Thanks so much for the response, it's definitely relieving to know people like you exist. And I agree with your thoughts... for me, this is genuinely NOT a "frivolous, hedonistic" activity, but the EXACT opposite. The primary reason I so desperately want to go is because I know how much of an opportunity it would be to learn new things/read/write etc. that I would never have the time to do otherwise--and I expect these things to grow me as a person and make me a better student when the time comes. Thanks again for your thoughts, much appreciated – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 15:06
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I'll speak about my experience from a workplace perspective, as I've not experienced your particular problem, but have had to deal with periods of unemployment for various reasons. I'm from the UK, and when I was 22 I quit my job (working in a call centre while I studied for my Master's degree) and left to go travelling in Canada, as it was something I was keen on doing. I'm a bit older now, have a good job and recently bought a house.

I'm so glad that I went to Canada as it was a great experience, and I wish I'd actually made more of it! Now I have a lot more responsibilities, I can't imagine just dropping everything and doing that. It's something you really want to do and you have a chance before things start getting serious, so go ahead and do it. Don't worry about things in the future, if you're passionate enough about the subject that will guide you to it. I also ended up getting a casual job for a small research company while I was in Canada that helped me get my first proper job role when I came home, in a field I really wanted to work in. Like others said, if you work while you're out there, it will be seen as a good thing.

Although not academia, lots of people worry about how periods of unemployment will be seen when applying for jobs, and you probably will get the question. But all you need to do is be honest about it if they ask and that's it. I've been sacked from a job before because I got in a dispute about a lot of workplace standards, my next employer asked me why I had a period of unemployment and I just told them the truth. That was it. I was so worried about how it would be seen, I thought I'd never get another decent role again, but in the end it was absolutely nothing. You won't be the first person to have a period of unemployment and you certainly won't be the last. Truthfully, if somewhere didn't want to take me on because I'd been unemployed for a bit, I wouldn't want to be there.

I'm more writing this just to say don't end up regretting not doing something fun that you really want to do when you've got the chance. You can't predict what others will think, so there's no point in worrying about it. You only get one life, so you might as well make the most of it!

  • Thanks so much for your comment. It's good to hear firsthand experience from others. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 15:03
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Yes! Do it! I did it, and I am in a PhD program. There are a couple ways to go about it.

One way is to apply to a program, get accepted, then defer the start date. Not all programs allow this. Check the top programs you are interested in, and see how long enrollment can be deferred. This is what I did. It is called "Delayed Matriculation"

Another way is to travel until you are ready, then do the applications. Do some charity or church work while you travel - it makes spending a month in a place much more enjoyable anyways. I have found when I travel that work and helping people seems to jump out at you. (disclaimer: I have never been on an admissions committee, so not sure if this is ok.)

Yet another way is to travel a few years, re-enter the work force, then apply.

Yet another way is the Peace Corps. Travel for 8 months, join the peace corps for a year or so, then do applications.

Another way is the "back door" method. Some programs allow graduate students to take a few courses before application. With this was method, you can get some A's in some courses, get to know some faculty and do a research project. Then, when you do apply for formal entry into the program, you'll be a known entity. It won't matter if you travel before or after this plan.

Yet another idea is to approach a faculty member that you are interested in doing research with prior to application or your trip. You can then combine your travel with your research project - which will help with entry to that particular school, or other schools as well.

Yet another idea is to start the program for a year, then take a break while in school. This way is fairly common - in my program, I had to take a semester off for family reasons. They had me enroll in a class to maintain my status as an enrolled student. Not all programs will have this option. I forget what it was called!

The big problem for me was that a year wasn't really enough - I wish I had about 3 years, but I had funding issues.

  • +1 for combine your travel with your research project. – scaaahu Feb 9 '17 at 14:06
  • @axsvl77 Thanks for the comment and good to know others have done it/similar ventures. – o999 Feb 9 '17 at 15:04
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I am in my second year of PhD in theoretical physics in France, and I took a year to travel and focus on personal projects before applying to the PhD program. I guess it strongly depends on local culture, but in my country there is nothing wrong about it as long as you can justify why you did it.

As it has been stated in other answers, it would be even better if you combine your travelling with a personal project : writing a book, doing some volunteer work... (for me, it was recording an album). The key point is to convince your PhD admission committee that you had a real motivation to travel. As sad as it may sound, if you don't provide such reason they might assume that you just needed time to think because you weren't sure about going for a PhD program, which from what I read in your question is absolutely not the case.

If you are convinced that this gap year is a good thing for you and that you have a solid project, then go for it ! It will even be an advantage in the eyes of an admission committee as it shows you possess qualities that are very valuable to a young researcher : hard work to pursue a personal project, creativity, or the ability to adapt to an unfamiliar environment. And then again, you definitely won't have time for that once you start your PhD so now is the time ! Good luck.

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Yes do it, it is the best way to growing up and understand the world in much of its aspects from a different point of view as in your home town now. All the experiences you will absorbe in this time will help you so much more with your study after. Take the risk, without risk you have nothing in live what is real value to you. Wisch you all the best

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