A Grown-Up ‘Gap Year’: 6 Considerations Before Taking the Plunge

High school seniors aren't the only ones who can benefit from some unstructured time off.

Malia Obama has given us yet another reason to be jealous. In addition to having the coolest parents in the world, an enviable 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address and access to Beyoncé and Ryan Reynolds, she recently announced her plans to take a “gap year”—some time off before starting college to explore the world. We’re starting to turn green.

According to The American Gap Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of the practice, the popularity of gap years continues to grow year over year. What’s more, the nonprofit reported as part of a larger survey with its partners that 96 percent of those that took a year-long break said that it helped them to develop as a person.

But what about those of us that have college, dollar beers and tanning on the quad far in the rear view mirror?

Just like your favorite pair of freshman year sweats, you don’t have to give up on the dream of a gap year. According to Annie Lin, founder of career consulting firm New York Life Coaching, unstructured time off when you’re in the workforce can still be a good move.

“You can clear your mind to contemplate your life without work obligations and the frequently numbing routine,” Lin said. “You will begin to see the world differently and restore your sense of individuality. If you want to leave your job to pursue your passion or start your own venture, you can use this time to decide if that’s what you really want to do.”

If we’ve got your attention, and you’re contemplating taking a gap year of your own, here are some things to be aware of before you type up that resignation letter.

Make a Game Plan

Roy Cohen, career counselor and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, said it’s crucial to do your homework before taking a break so you can justify the time off. This means creating a financial plan to make sure that you can actually afford a break without pay, and creating a list of goals for that time period.

Cohen recommends asking yourself, “What am I looking to accomplish? What steps do I need to make sure that this is a peak experience?” This can mean signing up for classes to learn a skill you’re hoping to pick up, or using that time to network in a field that you are interested in breaking into.

“The thing you need to remember when going into a time out is that it will end,” Cohen said. “So you need to know what you’re doing [beforehand] so you don’t end up scrambling [when you’re trying to reenter the workforce].”

Find Your Passion

Using your true interests as a guide is one way to make the most of this break.  Maggie Mistal, career and executive coach, says that time off in the form of a sabbatical can be enormously positive; since you’re not doing anything out of obligation you have time to really pursue your passions.

The positives of taking time off between jobs include having time to connect with nature, research and try new things and travel, noted Mistal. And once you do reenter the workforce, some of those unique experiences can help make you a more desirable employee, for example, it will serve as a conversation starter on interviews, she said.

Dr. Kieran Ayre, founder of Ayre Counseling, said these breaks can allow you to “see parts of the world, travel, learn a language, and you can engage in some type of work or activity that may be more difficult to do [later in life].”

Consider the Drawbacks

While there are obvious benefits to having the free time to explore your interests, travel, and possibly consider a career change, Mistal said that when it comes to gap years or sabbaticals, “you have to be prepared for the naysayers.”

There are going to be people that will judge you negatively for taking what some may consider to be a vacation, she said. Clinical psychologist Dr. Neill S. Cohen is one of those people who isn’t on board with the idea of a gap year. “The reason why it’s not a good idea for people who are working [to take a gap year] is that the optics are very, very bad,” he said. “People are going to see that you have had a year off and ask, ‘Why was this person off from work for a year? What was the problem?’ And most employers are not going to look beyond that.”

Put a Positive Spin on Your Time Off  

Because of this bias, it’s important to provide a context for potential employers when you return. If you do have a blank space on your resume, frame it as the rewarding experience it was—not as a vacation.

“You can easily shed positive light on the gap period, articulating what you have learned in this period,” Lin said. “Emphasize how you have been staying up to date with current industry development and relevant skills.”

Cohen recommended not disconnecting completely from an industry during your break if you plan to stay in it. If you’re planning to decamp from one field to another, then use your free time to network in the new industry. “Explain [your time off] with confidence,” he said. “You want to show that you’ve been productive and that you weren’t entirely disconnected from what you want to do next.”

Adopt a Gap-Year Mentality

Unfortunately while many of us would love to press pause for a much-needed break to refocus, financial restrictions, family obligations and other extenuating circumstances may not make it a viable option. So what about if you’re feeling overwhelmed at work and in need of a break for for personal development, but it’s not in the cards for you to take a sabbatical?

Don’t despair, there are options.

According to Dr. Cohen, you don’t necessarily have to take a break from work to reset.

“One doesn’t have to stop work to be less burnt out,” he said. “It’s a very extreme thing to do. The most common aspect of being burnt out is really feeling either marginalized or not making some contribution to some type of output. If people are going to be satisfied in what they’re doing, they need a sense of personal agency.”

Dr. Cohen said workers can start by aiming low—like asking your boss if you can present the points of a memo as a PowerPoint instead, if that’s the way you’d prefer to communicate. Making small changes like this will allow you to regain some sense of power in a work environment that may feel overwhelming and out of your control.

Be Careful That You’re Not Looking For an Escape

If taking some time to decompress away from work sounds appealing, Dr. Ayre suggested asking yourself what you would really want to get out of that time out.

“If you have a fantasy or this idea of ‘wouldn’t it be nice to take a year off and travel?’ part of what I’d recommend is [asking] ‘How can I achieve some of these things without having to leave work?'” he said. “If you want to travel and see different places, can you take long weekends? Can you use your vacation time or personal time to travel? If you want to learn a language, can you do that by taking classes or buying CDs? Look at what you’re trying to do. Ask yourself the deeper questions. What would I get out of that? Why am I seeking in that? Many times it can really be sensible goals and ambitions and other times it can be a kind of avoidance. Do I have healthy goals here or is it that I just don’t like what’s going on in my life and I’d rather be anyplace but here?”