Kyle Henson | Gap year(s) as a cure

The Logical Skeptic | A step-by-step guide to avoiding Obsessive Career Disorder

· September 10, 2012, 10:43 pm

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Three years ago, I arrived at Penn, already in far over my head. I enrolled in Math 104 and Biol 121 because that’s what pre-med kids do. I barely even knew what it meant to be a pre-med, but I was quite certain I was one of them.

I’d fallen trap to a strain of OCD that afflicts many Penn students, particularly freshmen: obsessive career disorder. Its symptoms include premature concern with figuring out what comes after college, excessive worries with a few one-hundredths of a point on the end of their GPA and neurotic efforts to control the uncontrollable.

Many of these symptoms are encouraged during the college application process and even self-selected for at schools like Penn where some one-third of undergraduates enter with a career goal in mind. Even among the two-thirds of freshmen students in the College, many arrive with their lives already planned and decided.

This leaves a strikingly large portion of undergrads susceptible to the perils of OCD.

I feel fortunate that my particular case of obsessive career disorder seems to have been largely innocuous.

After drudging through the 15 or so pre-med credits, I still want to go to med school. I could have just as easily ended up hating myself for wasting even a single credit of my precious four years at Penn working towards a goal I barely thought about, but I didn’t.

I got lucky, but it took me three years to realize it.

Fortunately, it didn’t take more than a few weeks after this first realization to acknowledge an even more immediate treatment existed: the opportunity to take a few years off before entering med school — commonly known as gap years.

Here’s a short sample of the many reasons a gap year (or years) has great potential:

1. It gives you an opportunity to explore a new field or industry.

2. It lets you take advantage of the freedom to travel before you have a spouse or child.

3. Many professional schools, particularly medical school, have a set path after graduation, making the likelihood that you’d have such an opportunity in the future far less likely.

4.Taking a few years away from the classroom can have tremendously reduced grad school burnout.

5. It delays the need to decide your future while effectively helping you to cement your interests and previous plans.

While I still haven’t determined what my gap year(s) will entail, I’m learning to embrace the uncertainty that is a major underlying cause of obsessive career disorder.

This fear of financial and professional uncertainty that unites many Penn undergrads may help to explain the popularity of safe fields such as banking (21 percent), consulting (12 percent), medicine (5 percent) and law (4 percent), amongst graduating seniors.

This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with these fields so long as they’re chosen for the right reasons.

Problems can arise, however, for students that go through on-campus recruiting only because their friends are doing it or apply to medical school without as much thought as such a decision deserves (as I almost did).

That’s where the idea of a gap year or years becomes particularly attractive. Instead of rushing off to Wall Street or grad school, taking a year or two removed from college can go great lengths in avoiding the potential regrets or doubts that can come along with attempting to choose the rest of one’s life at the age of 22.

While there doesn’t seem to be a clear prognosis for many students infected with obsessive career disorder, embracing the idea of a gap year should be seriously considered as a preventative measure against its possible risks.

Kyle Henson is a College senior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is khenson@sas.upenn.edu. “The Logical Skeptic” appears every other Tuesday. Follow him @KyleHensonDP

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