Contrary to the common perception that gap years are done between high school and university, gap years can actually be taken at any time of life.
As the idea of a gap year has spread throughout the world as a way to explore, rejuvenate, and invest in oneself, more people at different stages of life are interested in taking time off. Gap years can be taken after high school, after university, after a few years of being out in the working world, before getting married, after having kids, during mid-life career transitions, and during retirement. Actually, more people are realizing that any time is a good time to travel and invest in yourself. Heck, any time is a good time to travel and invest in yourself!
Nevertheless, many young professionals worry about derailing their careers by leaving a promising job and recent graduates worry about missing out on jobs if they take a year off instead of proceeding directly into the workforce.
Naturally, whether you've just graduated or already entered the workforce, taking time out for travel has to be balanced with your career ambitions.
As someone who took a gap year for the first time in her mid-20s (I left one job but then came home and was immediately hired into another one), I can vouch that taking a gap year does not have to derail your career. There are, however, ways to take a gap year that make it easier to integrate the time away with your promising professional life.
The biggest way to minimize any potential negative effects of taking a gap year is by A) having work experience under your belt before you leave and B) making your time off be meaningful.
I had worked for over four years before taking a year off to travel and freelance, but that much experience definitely isn't necessary. Having around two years of professional work history on your resume -- while not a requirement -- certainly increases your chances of coming home and re-integrating more seamlessly into the workplace.
If you're a recent graduate, it could be a good idea to line up a job before you leave. Most big companies will let you defer a job offer to travel, especially if it's to learn a language or volunteer, so go ahead and focus on getting a job first. Knowing you have a job to come home to can also help you relax fully into your gap year experience. If you have a job, consider negotiating a sabbatical with your employer instead of quitting entirely.
Then, set about having a meaningful, purpose-driven gap year that will build personal and professional skills and offer life-changing experiences. Challenge yourself to learn a new language, immerse yourself in a culture more deeply, engage in a community project, or explore a creative interest as you travel. This will not only help you to have a more enjoyable gap year, but it'll give you something interesting to talk about to prospective employers when you return home.
During Your Gap Year
Now that you're on your road, it's time to make the most of your gap year experience. Study the languages you encounter, offer to do more in your volunteer role, opt-in to unfamiliar experiences, and be grateful for every moment and opportunity you get while you're away.
By delving deep into the places you visit, traveling slower, staying longer, greeting everyone with an open heart, and focusing on learning, you'll inherently grow your career -- and yourself -- while you travel. Pay attention to all the skills you'll be gaining (just to name a few):
- Increased self-confidence and maturity
- Adaptability and creative problem-solving skills
- Experience in cross-cultural communication
- Improved sense of humor and increased tolerance of discomfort
- Budgeting and financial decision-making
- Expanded international outlook
- Courage to explore uncertain pathways, literally and figuratively
One of the other important ways you'll unconsciously grow your career while on a gap year is by meeting amazing contacts all over the world. Keep track of the inspiring people you meet and be open to everything they have to teach you.
You never know when a travel buddy from China could turn into a business partner as you toss around startup ideas around the fire in Kenya, or when an older traveler could offer to take a look at your portfolio when you get home. Travelers share the characteristic of being curious and wanting to help, so meeting people on the road is an ideal way to grow your global network organically.
After You Return
The most difficult part of coming home from a gap year is synthesizing everything you learned and all the ways you grew into words that can be readily understood by the people who weren't there. It's especially difficult to craft a story that makes sense to employers and keeps you in demand on the job market.
Fortunately, taking time off to travel meaningfully really helps you stand out. Sit down add your gap year experience to your resume. Think about some of the following questions, which can help you distill out the most desirable and transferable skills and experiences you gained from your time off:
- How did I adapt to challenging circumstances?
- How did I problem solve on the road?
- What new skills did I pick up?
- What am I passionate about and how did I explore that during this year?
- When was I able to interact profoundly with people from different cultures?
- When did I demonstrate initiative or entrepreneurial-type skills during my gap year?
- How does this experience further differentiate me from my peers?
Once you've crafted your story, you're ready to start communicating it with confidence to the right contacts in your network and to prospective employers. Remember, you set the tone. If you're proud of and excited by the experience you had during your gap year, employers will see it that way, too. If you're uncertain about its value, they will also pick up on that.
There's no doubt that a year of self-exploration and global experience will mature you as an individual, improve your cross-cultural skills, problem-solving, adaptability, and sheer knowledge about the world and yourself that will translate into desirable traits of a successful professional -- at any stage of your career.
By simply being mindful of the impact taking time off can naturally have on a career trajectory, you'll be that much more prepared to mitigate those risks and keep your personal and professional development on track.