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I am currently a Junior majoring in Computer Science at a top university (in the USA). As I'm really getting tired of taking classes, I was wondering if taking a semester or year off to do an internship(s) is a reasonable idea? It seems like it would give me more experience programming (making classes a bit easier), and give me a chance to recover from the burnout that comes from taking 18 credits a semester. A friend suggested that I just take a lighter course load, but I only have 2 more semesters of financial aid, so I need to take 18 credits in each of them in order to finish.

Taking time off from school is not a normal thing to do, at least at this school. Since more internships are advertised for the summer (that I've seen), I was wondering if there are internships available in times other than the summer? If I took off for a whole year, would it be more valuable to try to stay at the same company for the whole time or to try to get a series of internships at different ones? Valuable in both the sense of resume value and personal value. Would it be easier or harder to get multiple shorter internships?

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Internships are very valuable, but getting back into academia after working is hard. –  Ben L Mar 11 '11 at 18:04
The more time you take off from school, the harder it is to go back. Finish school as young as you can, life tends to get in the way more the older you get. –  Tester101 Mar 11 '11 at 18:04
While getting a job is "not important" considering you have the next 40 years to work. It is something to consider when you no longer will be considered a student when it comes to having insurance. I can tell you from experience that the longer internships are hard to get even if you have the degree. I interviewed for an internship, I feel I did well in the interview, I am actually happy I didn't get it or any of the jobs I interviewed for. –  Ramhound Mar 11 '11 at 18:08
+1 to Tester101. I did 5 years at University getting 2 degrees concurrently... the last 2 years were a tiring exhausting pain and I could not wait to escape. Best thing I ever did was to stick it out. More knowledge is better, and the LURE and EXCITEMENT of being away from it doing real things means that taking a break = in all likelihood never going back. –  quickly_now Mar 12 '11 at 0:00
Actually, the way the industry is growing and number of people taking science, technology, engineering and math degrees is falling, job prospects look very good for programmers in the near future. –  rmx Apr 1 '11 at 10:42

15 Answers 15

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I "Co-oped" my way through college. That is to say, I alternated working, and going to school for the last few years of my bachelors.

Doing that was invaluable. It helped me to see the connection between what I was learning in classes and how that applies to the real world.

I would strongly recommend it to anyone.

Just make sure of the following things:

  • Your reason for doing this is more than just "earning money". Earning money is great, but if that is your only reason for doing it you could end up in a job that has nothing to do with what you are majoring in, and waste the learning experience.
  • You are willing change your mind about what you thought you wanted to do when you graduated. One thing that can happen when you work in the real-world is you find that it is what you expected it would be, and maybe (just maybe) it isn't what you want to spend 40 hours (or more) a week for the next 25 years doing.
  • Work you butt off when you are taking classes, and possibly even take extra course so you can get done with school and actually get out into the real-world for real.

Good luck with whatever you decide!

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There's a difference between co-op, which is part of your degree, and taking a year off. –  MetalMikester Mar 11 '11 at 23:40
could you explain what the difference is, please? –  astrieanna Mar 12 '11 at 0:57
@astrieanna: I don't know about Zeke's co-op, but currently I'm in a co-op program myself -- it is a university program that alternates work and study semesters (mine takes about 3 years, the same as just a normal degree). I start with 2 study semesters, work in the summer, study in the fall, work in the winter, study in the summer, work in the fall, then end with 2 study semesters (winter and summer). The difference between co-op and taking a year off is that co-op is sanctioned and organized by the university, and we only ever work for one semester at a time. –  Cameron Mar 12 '11 at 1:37
My co-op program was sponsored by the university, and they had a specific plan for when you worked (co-oped) and when you studied, although I kind of pushed that a bit. Also they helped place you based on your degree. So doing something like that "on your own" could be problematic and fraught with some of the problems people have cited already. –  Zeke Hansell Mar 12 '11 at 12:46
So doing a sort of "co-op"-ish thing on my own is problematic because I have to find the internships on my own and there's a degree of risk that I won't want to return to finish? As opposed to schools with an official program, where they find the placements and where you are likely to continue to finish school because you're still directly in their program, right? –  astrieanna Mar 12 '11 at 15:57

The people I know that did this never went back to finish their degrees, obviously many people do but there is that danger. You're in the home stretch and summer is approaching fast. A summer internship and powering through that last year is my suggestion.

Putting off something that you have to do, but aren't looking forward to, rarely makes it better and often makes it worse.

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+1000 if I could. There is always a reason to delay going back. The longer you are out, the more reasons pile up. –  Bill Mar 12 '11 at 0:00
I took a "year off" break and did end up going back to finish my BS eight years later. It's hard as hell to get motivated to go back to school when you already have a job and bills to pay. –  Bill the Lizard Dec 27 '11 at 16:34
+1 but with reservations. Going into a high stress period of your life with financial difficulties is likely gonna be a drain on your mental and perhaps physical health. It's nothing to take lightly and if you take this advice you should ensure that you also take care of yourself (eat well, take proper breaks, etc.) and have emotional support. The alternative though is to take the easy way out. –  Eoin Carroll Jan 3 '12 at 15:29

I took a "semester off" from college back in 1993. That semester ended in 2005 when I finally went back to school and finished my degree.

Beware: Time gets away from you really quickly.

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Don't do it. Suck it up and finish.

I would recommend trying to do some travelling immediately after graduation, possibly some light consulting if you can do it. That will help the burn-out.

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As my uncle once told me oh so many moons ago ...

There can be quite the hidden cost associated with finishing your degree late (regardless of the reason). Not only have you (typically) lost the opportunity to earn money over that period, you are also losing the opportunity to make an return on investment on the money you could have earned. That ROI is the real killer. If you go on to work for 40 more years, you are guaranteed to be missing out on 40 years of investments.

At 4% growth, you are losing about 2.28 doubling periods.
At 5% growth, you are losing about 2.85 doubling periods.
At 6% growth, you are losing about 3.42 doubling periods.
At 7% growth, you are losing about 4 doubling periods.
At 8% growth, you are losing about 4.57 doubling periods.
At 9% growth, you are losing about 5.14 doubing periods.
At 10% growth, you are losing about 5.71 doubling periods.

You get the idea.

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Could you elaborate a little more, I don't understand what you mean by "If you go on to work for 40 more years; you are guaranteed to be missing out on 40 years of investments." –  Joel Gauvreau Mar 11 '11 at 18:54
@Joel: Let's say you will work until 65, and expect to graduate at 23 (or 24 if you take a year off). In the 1st case, you will work for 42 years, and in the second 41 years. The difference between the two is not $X in 1 year of savings, but rather $(X * (1 + i)^41). By not taking that year off, you have 41 years to make the savings from your first year work for (if invested wisely). If you take that year off, you are losing those 41 years of investment on what would have otherwise been your 1st year's savings. –  Sparky Mar 11 '11 at 20:33
Sparky - the power of compounding. –  quickly_now Mar 12 '11 at 0:02

Whether or not it's a "good idea" very much depends on you.

I'm currently a senior majoring in CS, and I don't feel that taking a year long break between my junior and senior years would have been beneficial. My theory of computation class requires me to be sharp on techniques and concepts I learned in discrete mathematics last year. Also, as DKnight said, there's a serious possibility that you might not end up returning.

However, companies do exist that will take interns for indeterminate periods of time -- usually until they've decided whether or not they'd like to keep you permanently.

If you go that route, I think that it would be more valuable to stay at one internship as long as possible. Both your ability to commit and your employer's willingness to keep you for an extended period of time will reflect positively on your resume.

Personally, I would reduce credit hours and take on a part-time internship while continuing classes. I have been taking 12 credit hours with a 20hr/week job for the past several years, and it's working out well. (Just remember to tell your employer that you need time off during exam weeks!)

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If you can pull it off financially. Are you really that dependent of the financial help? This seems the best solution. With a summer break, a smaller class load, and some real work to allow you to see what your education may be good for, it should be a bit easier. Also once you are a senior, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel (i.e. it doesn't seem like you will be stuck in student mode for the foreseable future any more). –  Omega Centauri Mar 11 '11 at 19:11
I couldn't afford even a semester here without the financial aid; they cover over $30,000 of tuition a year. I also work during the semester (about 10 hours a week as a Course Assistant (grading)) to help cover rent, etc. –  astrieanna Mar 11 '11 at 19:37

I saw this bumped and I recently read a dissertation that is relevant to this subject. The dissertation in question is Hiring and inequality in elite professional service firms (by Lauren Rivera), and your university library should be able to obtain a copy. I think it is one of the few sociological studies that actually measures what recruiters (in that tier of company) are actually looking for - as compared to what they say they are looking for.

Like the others, I'm going to recommend that you finish your degree. Your comment about "top university" is one of the major issues of the dissertation, and how professional service firms (consulting companies like McKinsey and KPMG, as well as upper crust law firms, like Cravath) recruit and sift through resumes. Taking time off because you're burned out is going to look poorly to someone filtering resumes (the major question being "is this person some delicate flower that will wilt here as well?"). Taking time off to work for a living would similarly look poorly to a "top tier" company, but favorably with most of the rest (this is what I found out because I ran out of money in college and had to earn enough to finish).

I'm also going to recommend you read the book Death March. High stress and stupid deadlines are a feature of our industry. These are a leading cause of why people leave our profession.

If I took off for a whole year, would it be more valuable to try to stay at the same company for the whole time or to try to get a series of internships at different ones?

One year of experience working for a living is far better than several internships that add up to the same period of time. It is hard to line up internships that are anything more meaningful than "busy work" or unpaid labor.

Most universities will not consider courses older than 7 years when applying them towards your degree plan. So if you drop out, work for 5 years, then try to return, you may find yourself repeating your freshman courses. This makes getting an associates degree beneficial as it "locks in" at least 2 years of courses so you won't have to repeat them again.

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I only have 2 more semesters of financial aid, so I need to take 18 credits in each of them in order to finish

Lighten your load anyways. Sure, you have to pay more for the classes. Borrow the money. This is far cheaper than it will be to push your career back two years (1 year of "working" at a substandard degree-less job and another year going back to school).

My last semester I had 1 class to take. I was able to use all my free time to enjoy myself and start looking for a job.

Not to mention, 18 hours of classes sucks even if you put it off until later.

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I would generally recommend against it.

Employers and graduate schools tend to examine the resumes and transcripts of students and future or recent graduates very carefully, and IMHO you don't want anything that looks a little suspicious to abnormal to anyone. You will have to explain why you took the semester off - and if it's not for a medical reason, you could score negative points.

In addition, taking just one semester off means that you'll be graduating in the middle of the year, which means you'll be missing the typical recruiting cycle for new graduates which will cause problems. Either take a year, or take none :)

You can do enough internships in the summers.

And honestly, college is not that bad. I went to school in a country where you have just classes and no fun, and then went to grad school for 10 years. 4 years of US college is not that unbearable.

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Im in favor of taking a break. But, its true, employers and headhunters are very distrustful from people who skip some time... –  umlcat Mar 11 '11 at 18:32
so, even filling the time with internships (as opposed to doing nothing or traveling or something), it still looks bad to have taken the time off? –  astrieanna Mar 11 '11 at 22:33

As has been mentioned it becomes very difficult to go back once you've taken time away. Most internships are available for three months during the summer. I'm sure there are other internships (though I don't personally know of any) that are offered not during the summer. But if you want to take an internship (which would help with the job search) you could easily do one during the summer then be back in time for the fall semester. Also if you just push through, in a year from now you'll be finishing up rather than looking at 1-2 semesters still. Why not just get it done and over with? Coming from one who just recently did this myself I can assure you that if you can push through this next semester, when you're on your last you'll be SO grateful you did!

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I've seen way to many friends think they needed a break and take it. I have no doubt at the time they took the break they had every intention of going back... but they never did. –  Kenneth Mar 11 '11 at 19:01

Not really an answer, but I can tell you my story:

I had to suspend my studies after 2 years at uni. I started getting headaches, which become more frequent and enduring. This deteriorated my concentration and motivation, and subsequently my grades, until I could proceed no longer; I had to take a break or I would slam into a wall.

So I quit my studies, traveled around Europe for a month and later got a job. After that job I got another, and another after that. On that last job our project got shut down after a merger, and I had been working for nearly 2 years. At that point I was faced with a decision: resume and finish my studies, or continue working and, I was sure, never returning to uni.

I picked the former, and will start writing my master thesis in about 4-5 months. I'm glad I made that decision.

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I had to take a "semester/year off" in the middle of 2009 to work. I'm still working and will be doing so for an undetermined period of time. I still intend to finish my degree though. I've also been "lucky" to not have to go through that interning phase. I jumped right into full-time positions. Practically, my current job and position puts me at around the same level of college graduates with 2-3 years of work experience in my country. I'm thankful for that since I know it is the result of my hard work and continuous self-learning despite not having completed a formal degree. However, I feel that the lack of a degree definitely limits yourself not only in terms of foundational knowledge (obviously) but also in terms of the spectrum of opportunities that will be available to you immediately upon graduation and even years from now.

While your reason is mainly academic burn out and some (more like almost nonexistent) financial pressure, mine was purely financial. I couldn't afford it anymore and I was also at a top US university, but as an international student.

Be very thankful you have financial aid and I advise you to finish your degree while there are no other significant obstacles in the way. Time will go so fast you'll probably have a good laugh years from now when you reminisce about it.

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I've done this, actually I've done something even more drastic ... I quit two semesters before getting my degree. At that time I thought it would be easy for me to just make a ton of money without any experience.

But soon I realized that it wasn't so easy. I spent about one and a half year trying to do business before starting at another university.

It might seem weird, but it was the best decision I ever made. I wasn't slacking, quite the opposite, I spent the whole time learning new things, trying to do projects that would make money, and in general trying to get better. Being on my own for a year gave me a lot of experience, that college/uni won't give you.

Thanks to that, I know how it feels to have do to everything yourself. Trying to find customers, convincing them, negotiating terms, working insane hours and having all the responsibility while earning almost no money. Some might consider this a huge failure and wasted year of life, but for me it's the most vital experience of my whole programming career.

After the break year, I came back to a new university, started from scratch and everything seemed so easy, because I already had some real life experience.

tl;dr: If you do it, you will get a completely different perspective to things. Do what feels right and have no regrets.

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It depends. But, not to do an internship. You may be tempted to continue working without finish your collegue / university. That paper degree means you did learn several skills that certify you as an I.T. professional.

People that adquire several experience (internship ?) without getting a degree have a problem to get a new job or a job promotion. Managers, I.T. bosses, and H.R. have a hard time trying to check thousands of prospects, or are too busy with their current job to confirm if a prospect does know the stuff he / she says he knows. Having a degree is a way to confirm it.

If you want an internship, you should organize your time (school and personal), and find a half time internship.

Maybe, the problem isn't the internship. Maybe you have a personal problem, school burn out, not sure wheter is the ok career, existential crisis, whatever. It's ok to have some of that problems.

Perhaps you should go to psychotherapist, career assesment, counselor. I personally, stop studying one year before getting to University, and actually, didn't finish studying none of the careers I originally intend.

Many people think that people that stop studying for a while, are lazy, loosers, and sort of. I'm a workaholic geek, and got school burn out after high school. But, you still be aware, that once you stop studying, is very tempting not to continue, after a break.

You may want to check if you are have a balace of school with free time, sports, music, other stuff. It's bad that students do not study because they getting drunk / "stoned" / sex. But, the extreme opposite is also bad, students that doesn't have a social life, very common on Computer Science geeks.

Good Luck.

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I know this is an old question, but just to add my 2 cents for someone else who reads this in the future. A friend of my wife's did her last co-op for her BS in Electrical Engineering, and they loved her so much that she decided to accept a full-time job offer less than a year before she was to graduate. 15 years later, she was laid off, and now has a very narrowly focused skill set with no degree to fall back on.

If you do take an internship/co-op, just make sure you don't forget about school and don't forget to finish.

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