By Bree Yanagisawa
The gravel churned under my tires as I made my way down a series of unmarked roads. I tried to pace myself: going slowly enough to not spin out on the dry, dusty roads and fast enough to keep air flowing through the windows of my AC-deficient car.
Cornfields spread out on either side of me like an endless sea. Finally, on a turn down another dirt road, I started to see some potential. A large, red, barnlike building materialized in the distance.
I closed in on the building and parked next to a group of dust-coated, haphazardly arranged vehicles in what passed for a parking lot. As I turned off the engine and surveyed the surroundings, my chin dropped.
This couldn’t be the place, could it? Standing mere yards from my bumper were goats. Goats.
Notwithstanding the combination of farm animals and an absence of signs on the building, I straightened my interview clothes and headed for the only door I saw.
So began the first of the so-called gap years between my undergraduate and graduate training. Taking that time off felt more like a necessity than a choice back then. When I graduated from college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. So I did one of the few things I knew I could do with a degree in biology: I became a lab tech.
Some may feel gap years are reserved for people who are too afraid or soft to commit to a challenging future. The phrase itself can conjure inadequacy. Gap: a lack of something, something that needs to be filled, something missing.
In reality, I found those two years enlightening and critical. Not because I discovered my calling or identified a vocation and, suddenly possessed of a sense of purpose, dove headfirst into graduate school. My experience was quite the opposite, really.
I spent my first gap year as a lab tech at a tiny private lab in rural Wisconsin that happened to abut a small hobby farm for the owners (hence the goats). In addition to the unexpected element of goats, the lab itself was strange. It was so open. All the labs I had been in before were cluttered, stuffy and full of people. Given all the windows and light pouring in, my first moments in my new workspace felt like arriving in an aviary. It was also nearly empty of people. For the year I was there, I had just two direct co–workers.
Every day, I punched in my arrival on a time card and punched out on my way home. Every day, I processed the incoming patient urine samples on the same automated machine — unscrewing the caps, running the samples on the machine, pouring their contents into a smaller vial so they’d fit in storage and screwing the caps back in place. Luckily, I only spilled a few vials, and yes, it smelled as awful as you’d imagine.
It took just a few months at my new 9-5 job for me to realize this type of work was not what I wanted.
Making the nearly 140-mile commute there and back from Minnesota each day showed me that I didn’t like driving hours to get to work. The small company work space taught me I didn’t like cliquey environments. Running the repetitive assays proved to me that I hated doing the same thing every day.
So I decided to try something new. My first gap year helped me realize that I wanted to think critically in my work and was interested in human disease. So I enrolled in a one-year training program in medical laboratory science. I loved the coursework, but the actual practice was less than desirable. I didn’t like drawing blood. Nor was I fond of waking up for clinical rotations at 5 a.m. And engaging in clinical-machine babysitting for hours on end again only exacerbated my hatred for monotony.
With all of the negatives I experienced in those two years, you’d think it might be hard for me to endorse gap years. It is certainly true that at the time I felt like I was stuck in a perpetual vortex of trying one thing only to hate it the next week.
But it’s because of those experiences that I was able to hone in on what I did and did not want in a job. What both years also made blatantly clear to me was that I wasn’t going to find jobs that were intellectually stimulating enough for me without going to graduate school. So graduate school became the next step.
Even now, as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, I find myself wading through daily activities and gauging which ones I find enjoyable and which I’d rather avoid. I am simultaneously narrowing in on what my ideal job is and realizing the perfect job might not exist.
But that’s OK. Knowing what you do and don’t want in a job is important, and, as I learned in my gap years, each step it takes to get you closer to a good work fit can be its own informative experience.
Bree Yanagisawa was an intern at ASBMB Today when she wrote this story. She is a Ph.D. candidate in pathobiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
This piece originally appeared on the August 2016 issue of ASBMB Today and is reposted with permission.