On to grad school? Maybe later

A year off shouldn't hurt your prospects, and might improve them

As a senior at Rice University in Houston, Chris Ruehl knew he wanted to go to medical school. Or he thought he knew. But as he watched his classmates rush into graduate programs, he concluded that he couldn't make such a momentous decision before graduation. ''I couldn't picture myself being that sure of anything while I was at Rice,'' he says. He got the med-school entrance exam out of the way, and took a job through Teach for America teaching 9th- and 10th-grade science in Oakland, Calif. The past months of real work and independent living have clarified for Ruehl that he does want to go to med school–and that he has what it takes to make it there. After establishing California residency, he'll apply to schools in the state's university system.

Would-be graduate students ''stop out'' for a variety of reasons: the lure of the paycheck, a case of wanderlust–or burnout. A December report by the Council of Graduate Schools found that after years of steady growth, enrollment in graduate programs has declined for the second year in a row–a change attributed to an unusually go-go job market. There is no direct evidence that a year off has any bearing on performance in grad school later–although an ongoing 12-year study by the National Center for Education Statistics should soon shed light on the issue. Not surprisingly, though, research does show that the most interested and committed students complete their graduate degrees at higher rates. Better to wait, says Robert Thach, dean of Washington University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in St. Louis, if you have ''any doubt at all'' about your professional goals. Law school is an expensive place to discover that you want to design software.

Serious fun. The delay shouldn't hurt your admissions prospects and can actually improve them; for business and nursing schools, work experience is often a requirement. This assumes, of course, that you don't idle away the year studying reruns of The Simpsons in your parents' basement. It's OK to have fun, says John McGrath, director of career services for seniors at Providence College in Rhode Island, but even outstanding students should make it ''serious fun.'' An admissions officer will want to know why you think the time off has made you a more qualified, desirable candidate. Even a year spent delivering pizza or backpacking across Europe won't necessarily hurt your chances. You can use your personal statement to describe why you did it and what you learned, says McGrath.

Time off, spent well, can enhance the application of borderline candidates in particular. An applicant who didn't make the cut at her first-choice law school will be far more attractive after a year as a paralegal, with a senior partner as a reference. Jeff Andrews, a 1995 engineering graduate of Harvey Mudd College, landed a job developing software at Qualcomm, a San Diego cellular communications company, after applying to Ph.D. programs his senior year and failing to get into first choice Berkeley. After 18 months, he realized he'd need the degree to advance in cellular systems design; this time, he got into his top pick (now Stanford) with a full scholarship and stipend, thanks to a professor's interest in his work at Qualcomm.

Often, a dose of real-world worries makes the subsequent stresses of grad school easier to take. Dan Diffley, a second-year law student at Wake Forest University, says getting called on in class is far less nerve-racking than the demands of his pre-grad gig: coordinating the petition drive to get Republican candidate John Hager on the ballot for lieutenant governor of Virginia.

There are drawbacks to a timeout, of course. Study skills can atrophy, and you delay the start of potentially handsome future earnings from your future career. A common concern of college seniors (and their parents) is that they'll ''lose momentum'' and never return to school. That certainly does happen–and sometimes, for the best. John Bakel, who graduated from New York University in 1995 with degrees in history and physics, decided to make a little money by taking an internship at Tommy Hilfiger Jeans while applying to think-tank jobs and grad school in social science. Less than six months later, he was presenting his own designs to Hilfiger and is now a full-time shirt designer. ''It was this natural talent I never knew I had,'' he says. Grad school is permanently on hold.