You'd like to take a few months or even a year after college to do something off the beaten career path, but you're worried about the effect on your job prospects after your self-imposed sabbatical is over. Take heart: Such a break can often be empowering and beneficial to your career.
"If an employer thinks you wasted a year by biking in Eastern Europe or tutoring children at a homeless shelter, then why would you want to work for that employer?" says Jerry Houser, director of the Career Development Center at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California.
Besides, says Colleen Kinder, author of Delaying the Real World: A Twentysomething's Guide to Seeking Adventure, potential employers will just as likely respect your decision as question it.
"I gathered the stories and tips of over a hundred young adventurers for Delaying the Real World," says Kinder, a 2003 Yale graduate who after graduation lived in Cuba, traveled throughout Latin America and volunteered with the elderly. "So many of them stressed how much their unconventional experiences have benefited their careers."
Time Off Shouldn't Be Just a Vacation
But unconventional shouldn't mean unproductive. Investing your time, energy and money in traveling abroad, volunteering or otherwise expanding your horizons can pay career dividends if you learn about yourself along the way.
"Learn what makes you happy, sad, angry, hopeful; learn about your integrity, how you make decisions, how you interact with others, because [as an employer], I'm going to ask you about these," says Steven Levy, principal of Huntington Bay, New York-based Outside-the-Box Consulting, a human resources development company.
Scott Dinsmore has plenty of answers for any interviewer. A 2004 graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara, Dinsmore spent last year in Sevilla, Spain, where he not only taught English to native Spanish-speaking professionals but also launched and ran a business around his instructional activities. Now he's searching for a consulting job in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his Spain experiment is only helping his cause.
"So far, the interviewers and people I've met with have been very impressed with what I did last year and the experience that I was able to create for myself," says Dinsmore.
Allison Aiken shares similar sentiments. After graduating from the University of South Carolina in May 2000, she spent three months working and saving money so she could head for Edinburgh, Scotland, in September. There, through a "working holidays" program called BUNAC, Aiken served as a receptionist in a doctor's office before traveling through Europe and the Philippines.
"Most employers have thought it was a great thing for me to do," says Aiken, who now does media relations, event planning, media research and PR strategy/planning for clients as an assistant account executive for Tugboat Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina. "They all have come to me as a sort of international expert in work-related situations, and they've often told me that even though I may still be young, my experiences have proven that I'm wiser than my age."
Manage the Career Risks
A postgraduation hiatus, as Houser calls it, does pose some career-related risks. For starters, you'll have to work hard to reconnect with old contacts on your return, warns Krystal Temple, a 2005 Arizona State University grad who is now an account coordinator for Tempe, Arizona-based advertising and public relations firm Off Madison Ave.
"Many potential employers questioned why I didn't have a job right away after graduating, and some were not that impressed or didn't admire the fact that I was trying to better myself," says Temple, who participated in a postgraduation seven-week study-abroad program in Spain. However, "some did take into consideration that traveling abroad was interesting and worthy and important."
So while there's always that voice telling you to take the conventional career path right after graduation, give equal time to the one saying, "Do something different, and do it now -- while you still can."
"I cannot express the importance of it enough," Dinsmore says. "Some people see me as being a year behind compared to everyone who jumped into the grind straight out of college. But I'm confident that my experience put me leaps ahead."
This article originally appeared on Monster.com.