I have always loved the natural world, so there was plenty of elation when I found out that I would be studying Biological Sciences at my first-choice university. Nearly everyone else who was in Year 13 with me was also set to jump straight from being a secondary school student to being an undergraduate. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this meant that hardly anyone out of nearly 200 leavers was taking a gap year. It had certainly never seemed like a good fit for me — I had no money to travel, had never made an international journey by myself, and didn’t fancy my chances of getting a job with only GCSEs and A-Levels. Couple this set of reasons with the fact that almost everyone who taught me had me down as a future scientist, and the transition to higher education seemed merely to be part of a long but rewarding process. If academia were a mountain, there was an expectation from myself and others that I would reach the summit and stay there as a permanent occupant.
Fast-forward three years, and the phrase “shadow of my former self” didn’t quite cut it. Going into the maximum possible level of detail would use almost as many words as the average novella, so suffice it to say that I did not enjoy my degree. There were a few bright spots, but all were set against a background of atmospheric toxicity, suicidal thoughts, and generally not wanting to go back after each vacation. I was still thinking of doing a master’s, but knew that my low marks would mean that I had to switch institution. When I felt no emotion at the passing of all the deadlines, it became clear that I hadn’t really wanted to carry on studying anyway. I even graduated in absentia because the thought of going back to do it in person filled me with sickening dread.
Apart from securing week-long volunteering positions at two British bird observatories during the summer of my degree’s conclusion, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I signed up for what seemed like all the job alerts under the sun, crafted a proper CV and even made a new personal email address (apparently, employers disapprove of hotmail). Application after application was sent from my bedroom to the outside world. Some recipients never responded, others gave me instant rejections, and the rest interviewed me before hiring other people. Even more disheartening was that the jobs for which I applied were far outnumbered by those that I fancied doing but for which I didn’t fulfil all of the stated criteria. I had felt like a worthless lump of multicellular material since way before the end of my degree, so my self-esteem was only going to take a further battering when I found myself incapable of getting the work and money that I desperately desired. Worst of all, I put on so much weight that I had to buy a whole new wardrobe.
You’re probably wondering how I survived this bleak period. When I wasn’t on the job hunt, Netflix and Amazon Prime were outstanding friends, and I was pleased that I ended up more cultured as a result of our association. Music too kept me alive, as it had during the miserable undergraduate years. However, my fortunes really started to improve when I landed a three-month residential volunteering position in Dorset for the conservation of a rare seabird — such long-term appointments form the natural next step after the short-term stuff that I’d done in the past, and I was keenly aware of the fact that my absence from university was the only reason why I was free to go down there. Just before starting, I hastily applied to four master’s programmes just as a means of escaping pure unemployment, and got an offer for each one. Attractiveness of course content, location and reputation meant that I plumped for St Andrews over Imperial, York and Newcastle. After leaving Dorset, I also discovered that all of my excess weight had gone.
The take-home message is that you shouldn’t be afraid to consider time off if you genuinely feel like you need it. I never saw myself going down that route, but I’ve come out the other end with useful experience for my professional and personal development. I don’t actually want to become a scientist, but I think the appetite for my subject has gone back to something like its previous state. What is definitely true is that I feel reborn in St Andrews, and I’ve been all the better for it so far.