Gap Years and Supplemental Opportunities for Education

I need to start this post with a disclaimer. I've been a student in "traditional" school systems the majority of my life. Pre-school, Kindergarten, Elementary, Junior High (some call it Middle School), High School, Master's degree, and almost (ha..) finished with my PhD in Engineering Education.

Lately I've been listening to Blake Bole's Real Education Podcast and as someone who's gone through a lot of formal schooling, Blake's interviews are really challenging me to rethink portions of the way we educate. Here's how Blake describes his show...

What does it mean to get a “real education”—one that prepares you for the most important parts of life, instead of just academic achievement? In this podcast, I interview the founders of innovative camps, schools, learning centers, and other educational alternatives, as well as authors, parents, and young adults. Topics include self-directed learning, leadership, 21st-century skills, entrepreneurship, college, unschooling, school reform, motivation, and parenting.

I won't do all of the nuances justice but the premise of the podcast is talking about forms of education that aren't conducted in traditional school settings.

One example of a non-traditional educational opportunity is a gap year. In short, a gap year is an intentional period of time away from traditional schooling to learn about yourself, a possible career or, well, anything really. I tried to do something like this during/after my sophomore year in college, but my parents "convinced" me otherwise. (Rightfully so as I had a pretty terrible plan.) But I still wonder how having that experience would have changed me, and listening to Blake's podcast has really made me think about the value of supplemental, non-traditional education in the personal and professional development of students.

Now, do I think we should get rid of schools and formal schooling altogether? Of course not! I think formal schooling has it's place and is extremely appropriate for many, many students. I think students gathering in a common place with their peers as well as students having trained educators to lead them in their learning is important. That being said, I've known many students and friends (including myself at one point) who would have benefited greatly from taking an extended period of time to explore the "important parts of life, instead of just academic achievement." I can't tell you the number of students who come up to me and say... 'I'm about to take the next step, but I have no idea what I'm going to do with my life. What should I do?' Could a well intentioned gap year help these students figure out possible paths before they finish their formal education and/or are faced with a decision that must be made? I think it could.

At this point, I have a lot more reading and research to do on the potential benefits of gap years and other forms of supplemental education. I have a lot of questions that I want to answer before I make any firm decisions. I must admit though, the subject has piqued my interest.

ATNO... Being a Father, Husband, and Graduate Student

I recently became a father. By recently... I mean a year ago two days from now. All I can say is being a dad changes things (well, everything really) - in a good way. Yes, it ruins any schedule you thought you had (or would have). It also really impacts your sleep (and, admittedly, our son sleeps really well). It can necessitate a change in your priorities. It gives you things to worry about that make previous worries seem downright foolish. It can put stress on your marriage. These are just a few of the many ways having a child impacts your life.

But here's the thing, having a child also brings more joy into your life than I can explain. I've been up rocking my son at 2 or 3 in the morning and as he slowly falls asleep in my arms, he'll start laughing in his sleep. No matter how much I want to be upset or frustrated that I'm not sleeping, in that moment, it is almost impossible. Seeing him smile and laugh when my wife enters the room pretty much wrecks me every time. It also brings a level of focus to my life. I am a very motivated and self-driven person to begin with, but now I have even more reason to strive toward excellence. Not only do I want to be able to care for and provide for my family, I also want to set an example for how to live and work. I want my son to have positive role models at home. My personal growth and gain has expanded into something more; a desire to do my best work because one day he's going to ask me where I go every day, what I do, and why I do it. I want to not just say words to him... I want him to see my example every day.

I won't sugarcoat it, finishing my PhD and starting a career would have been a lot easier if I didn't have a child. That being said, I wouldn't trade my current situation for the world.

Be Careful!! Progress Can Creep Up On You

Lately, I've been seeing signs of progress all over the place. The most obvious is demonstrated by the fact that I live in/near a college town, and as with most college towns, they are constantly building buildings, changing traffic patterns, and performing general maintenance and improvements. These things, in general, actually improve the town and the quality of life in it, but they don't all happen at once. Buildings are built slowly; move dirt, pour concrete, frame the structure, and in Virginia Tech's case 😉, carve and place Hokie Stone one-by-one. Between this example and the new 3-4 year highway interchange project, it's hard not to see how progress changes a town. 

I've also seen progress more personally too. I currently entered myself into the job market which has required me to update my online portfolio, LinkedIn page, and C.V. as well as produce letters of interest for the jobs that will allow me to start my career. The interesting thing about updating and developing these materials is the fact that this process makes you realize the progress you've made over the years. I've also personally experienced progress by training for the Hokie Half Marathon.

The progress didn't, and often doesn't, occur quickly...no matter how much we want it to. In this case, the professional progress I've made has occurred over decades - one class, project, publication, plan of study, dissertation, etc. at a time and by being open and willing to grow through one activity after another. The same goes with training for a long run. You don't start out running the race distance or hopeful pace. You slowly and methodically build up to your race distance and pace.

So, I leave you with this. How have you seen progress lately in your life? Isn't it great to realize how all that hard work has developed you into something more than you were before.

Always Strive for Growth - Developing a Growth Mindset

Do you know what I love the most about working in research and the academic environment?

It's the fact that I'm always learning something.

There are always new things to discover. There are always interesting conversations to be had. I am constantly making mistakes and learning great lessons through those mistakes.

Over the last four years, I've really worked to develop what Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset. In short, a growth mindset focuses on learning and improvement, not success/failure or being perfect (she calls the latter a fixed mindset). If you want to read more about it, I highly recommend reading her book Mindset: The New Psychology of SuccessI have to admit, though, for a person who leans Type A on the personality scale (like me), breaking out of the fixed mindset can be hard. In certain contexts, I still find myself struggling to focus on learning and improvement above making the grade or being "perfect." However, over the years and with a lot of practice, I find myself asking more and more often "What can I learn from this?" or "How can I improve next time?"

So this is my question for your today - What mindset do you currently have? Do you have that mindset in every context or does it change? Are there contexts in which a different mindset could enhance your quality of life? I encourage you to start to be more mindful of your mindset and the impact it has on your life.

The Yearly Organization Spiral

Every year, just as the academic spring semester ends, I go into what I call an Organizational Spiral. Basically, it's a spiral where I try to organize my life and, when all is said and done, am happy if I made any progress at all. My wife makes fun of me because she says I spend more time figuring out ways to get organized than I do actually getting organized. Inevitably she's right, but each year I do the same thing. The worst part about it is I often realize I'm in the middle fo the Organizational Spiral and just can't shake the desired to continue trying to overhaul my organizational life. Allow me to provide some examples.

Example 1: Workflows

I love the idea of workflows. Linking 2+ applications or process steps together with the goal of being more productive and saving time. For example, I want to be able to take meeting notes and when I establish something as a to-do it is automatically added to my to do manager OmniFocus. I've found a way to do this with Evernote and OmniFocus (TaskClone, but it costs too much money and I like to try to figure out how to do these things on a budget (aka... free).

So far, I haven't found a solution other than to manually enter each of my to-dos using the OmniFocus keyboard shortcut. I use DEVONthink Pro, so I could take notes in DEVONthink and use the reminder script, but that links to the whole note in DEVONthink and I just want the individual action items from within the note. This is just one example, but over the years I've explored a lot of other things like optical character recognition (OCR) using Tesseract, using Skim and DevonThink to auto-extract my reading notes from PDF files, etc... etc...

So here's my point. I often spend a lot of time (possiblity more time) trying to figure these things out, when I could just manually do the organization.

Example 2: Note Taking

I am the worst for taking notes in random places. I currently have notes in the Apple Notes app, Evernote, DEVONthink, Notability, NValt, handwritten notebooks (if not on single sheets of the closest crumpled-up paper), and probably other places. Here's the problem with all of this. For some reason, scattering my notes around like this drives my brain crazy. It's like my brain knows there is information out there, but it focuses on the fact that it doesn't know where it is or have an organization mechanism for it.

Make a Choice and Be Consistent

So here's my plan for getting out of the Organizational Spiral this year. I'm going to just make a choice and consistently do the activities needed to be organizated. I'm going to take all of my notes in DEVONthink and manally enter the to-dos after each meeting. I'm going to forget about workflows, Evernote, Notability, and all that other stuff for the summer.

Not sure if it will work, but it's better than where I currently find myself.

A time for celebration, reflection, organization, &... more work.

It's that time of year. The semester has ended (and I've finally finished my last course while in graduate school - 😃 for being ABD). Some friends are graduating and moving on to post-docs or real J.O.B. jobs, which is simultaneously sad and exciting.

At this point in the year, each year I celebrate the opportunity for each of us to get some rest. Grad school isn't physically difficult. (Although some would say that sitting and starting at a computer for the number of hours we do presents it's own physical challenges.) It is however mentally taxing. No matter what stage you're in, you have to think hard for long periods of time. Additionally, my advisor has us all out to her place for some social time and this year we got to celebrate three people who have either complete their PhD or are very near completion. We also celebrate the other achievements within our research group (e.g. passing exams, getting jobs, winning awards, etc). It's really good to intentionally celebrate the good stuff, because at times it's easy to get bogged down in the mud of criticism and feedback.

I also spend a good amount of time reflecting on the year. Did I make progress? Did I achieve the things I wanted to achieve (or at least make progress toward those)? How's my work-life balance? How's my timeline for completion? I try to think about my goals, where I find myself, and how to adjust or what new goals to set.

Last, but not least, I use the week after the semester ends to try to get organized. The summers go so fast and being organized can really help you be productive. It also helps you not get behind when all of the regular semester activities and deadlines get into full swing in the fall.

So to everyone finishing another school year, I encourage you to celebrate, reflect, organize and GET BACK TO WORK.. ha!

We all know there's always more to do.