Navigating your interests, your talents, and your local jail: Should you take time off?

Elizabeth L. Johnson

There is considerable pressure in college to prepare for graduate school – to take the GRE, work out a research statement, take important classes, and maintain a stellar GPA. This is not the right path for everyone. Deciding whether or not to pursue a graduate degree is a decision that not only impacts the next several years of your life, but also sets the stage for the rest of your career. For some it may be worthwhile to try something else before making that leap, for example, seek additional experience to build up your application, or take a break between college and graduate school. But this, too, may be a stressful decision. You may worry about losing focus during your time off or losing interest in going back to student life after spending time away from academia. This article is the story of my journey between college and graduate school.

An impromptu journey

I did my undergraduate work at the University of Chicago. I was trained as a researcher, spent years working in labs, and used my senior thesis as an opportunity to present original findings on memory. I loved it and thought about pursuing a career in memory research, but I had no intention of deciding the rest of my life at 21 years old. Many of us decide our goals during college, or through some series of dreams at age six; if you know what you want to do with your life, run with it. For me, I was not ready to commit to a career in psychology before trying something else. I knew what topics I found most interesting, but I lacked research direction.

Following graduation, after a summer of living out of a car in Chicago and a series of botched job interviews, I seriously considered getting a big dog and just heading west. Then I found myself on a plane headed to New York for an interview with a consulting firm that works with government and civic agencies. We sat around a table and talked about their interest in converging areas of research, making a commitment to the public good, the qualities they were seeking in an applicant (including analytical, problem solving and people skills, writing prowess, and the drive to ask unasked questions), and the diverse team of individuals who make up the company. Little did they know, they were looking for a psychological scientist.

Little did I know, I was soon to spend months on end traversing the local juvenile detention facilities. On contract with the City of New York, my coworkers and I went to observe activity at all hours of the day and night, from shackle and search procedures through the secret safe full of contraband, and to interview staff. One morning, a veteran officer told me: We operate with the mindset of: These are not bad kids, they’re mixed up. They need guidance. But, in all honesty, we also get the City’s roughest and toughest, and safety is a very major concern. Our interview was cut short minutes later by a fight that broke out in the hall. Overall, these visits made for a very sobering experience.

Our task was to conduct an in-depth analysis of juvenile detention centers, from fieldwork to forecasting to national practices research, and to craft a plan to restructure New York City’s juvenile detention system following the closing of Spofford Juvenile Center. My task was to lead, design, and implement the project.

My job was a both a challenge and an incredible opportunity. I learned to adapt my academic training to fit in the realm of public practice, manage a project team, and hold myself together over months of taxing interviews. I also got to experience an historic moment for New York City’s justice system. I left this job with a newfound dedication to my work, an increased appreciation for academic training, and a career goal to integrate cognitive research and practice. Once I had decided to take time off, going back to school was something I had to choose, and my journey put me in the direction to do it.

Should you take time off?

I will not answer this question. This article is not meant to tell you whether or not to take time off; it is to offer perspective from someone who temporarily strayed from the field. Think of your journey as a learning experience. If you are considering graduate school, your journey may solidify your decision to apply, and it may include a series of stops on the way to an impressive personal statement. I can offer a few pieces of advice on making the most of your experience:

  1. Think about what you would most like to be doing, whether that means research or volunteer work, or banking, bartending, or roaming.
  2. Commit to what you decide to do. Take what you do seriously, even if you regret the decision to do it.
  3. Do not be afraid to take time off. Do not be afraid not to take time off.

There was plenty I did not like about my job, but I take commitments seriously. Do this. If you join a lab, make it into a job. If you take on a job, whether or not it happens to be in your field (or intended field), act like the professional you signed up to be. Whatever you choose, stay in touch with your mentors and peers; they will prove invaluable if and when you decide to make that leap back into academia.

Though I decided a year out that I wanted to go back to school, my time in public service was an experience I did not expect and would not trade in. My colleagues appreciated my science background, and I learned about the world while working with them – in both the public and private sectors, navigating big city jails, working in a small team of problem solvers, and working with a range of government and nonprofit executives. I also learned to work consistently under contract and financial pressures, and I gained the professional experience I needed to envision a career beyond graduate school. But I missed psychology. I missed reading and writing about it, doing scientific research, and collaborating with people who shared my interests.

Once the Spofford Juvenile Center closed, it was time for me to move on. I found my research direction somewhere between the ivory tower and the holding cell. For you, psychological scientists, whether you knew your direction at six or you’re still searching, I will leave you with this. My greatest compliment came from a client who, upon hearing I was leaving for a PhD, said: That makes so much sense… How so?… I actually majored in cognitive science (before law school). There is something about that field that really trains you to think. I am grateful to have worked with you.

Whether your journey is about navigating your interests and goals, honing your skills and crafting an impressive personal statement, or taking a break between college and graduate school, make the most of it. There is a place for a psychological scientist in the so-called real world and a place for the real world in psychology; take time off if it is right for you. At best, you will love your journey. At worst, you will still learn about the world and about yourself. It will come together.

Author Bio

Elizabeth L. Johnson will begin graduate school this fall at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a bachelor’s degree with honors in psychology from the University of Chicago, and she thanks her mentors for their unwavering support. She can be contacted at