The case for work over study

On the merits of taking time off from studies to contemplate your future.

emirati columnist Fatima for columnist picture. Photographed in New York city.
photo by Matt Carr *** Local Caption *** emirati columnist Fatima for columnist picture. Photographed in New York city.
photo by Matt Carr

At a friend's birthday dinner this week I found myself among a mixture of graduate, undergraduate and recently graduated college students. Although we all agreed that writing papers and sitting exams were unpleasant, there was no consensus on whether being out of school was better or worse than being in. With my own graduation looming, I've decided, after much deliberation, to take a gap year and then try my luck at graduate school.

One big concern among my American friends who haven't decided whether to continue studying is finding a job. "My parents won't have me back home," one of my flatmates said. Luckily, my mother and father would love nothing more than to have me back home. Of course, they don't expect me to be sitting idly by, living off them, but the idea of living at home is very acceptable, even expected, in the Emirates. And living away from the family, unless absolutely necessary, is unusual.

So while I am trying to figure out how I am going to spend my time over the next year, I know my parents will welcome me home with open arms. "Will your parents have us then?" my friend said wistfully. I appreciate the value of letting children fend for themselves, which could be adopted more in the Middle East, where our wonderful mothers like to keep us sheltered and make sure our every need is met, but having the family as a support system isn't a bad thing, either. After all, we are social beings and there's no shame in staying with your mum and dad, even after you've got your degree. If you do it in America, though, everyone assumes you weren't able to "make it" in the real world and thus have failed at growing up.

I felt it was important to continue with my education. So many people have a master's degree or doctorate these days that not having one places you at a severe disadvantage in the jobs market. Consequently, competition to enrol in a course is pretty fierce, as is the competition to get work placements to qualify for the course in the first place, especially for business and law schools. The temptation is to go straight from one degree to another, but two good friends studying on Columbia's international affairs graduate programme recommended I go out into the real world before continuing my studies. They're both nearly 30 and said I still have plenty of time to figure it all out.

The concept of needing time to figure yourself out is considered pretty odd in the Emirates. People are much more used to the European system of education where you specialise right away in college. The liberal arts systems that are predominant in the US allow (and encourage) you to dabble in the sciences and the humanities. So people expect that you go into university not knowing what you want to do. After nearly four years at Columbia, I am still open to the prospect that I might end up doing something completely different from what I had planned.

Most of my European friends opted for a gap year between school and university, spending this time doing a combination of travelling and working abroad or learning a new language. They've all said it was a great experience, allowing them to discover what they liked and didn't like and to experience life outside academia. There's something to be said for it. After all, learning about something and applying it to the real world are two very different things.

So hopefully, with a job or internship in the bag, I can spend the next year figuring out what I really want to do. And if not, I could always go home and try again after some tender love and care.