Career clinic: Should I take a gap year?

Should I stay or should I go now?


I am a 26 year old IT manager hoping to progress to IT director some day. However, I very much want to take a career break and go travelling. A lot of my friends have already done this and I am eager to travel before I settle down. My problem is when to actually take that career break. Would it be advisable to take it now or wait until my career is more established?

Panellist biographies

Simon Buehring is a project manager, consultant and PRINCE2 trainer. He is the founder of KnowledgeTrain, which offers PRINCE2 project management training in the UK and overseas. Simon has extensive project management experience within the IT industry in the UK and Asia and has worked in the financial, transport, health and education sectors.

Denise Plumpton joined the Highways Agency in January 2005 as director of information and a member of the executive board of the agency. Denise has a particular interest in helping organisations through periods of change and is on the strategy board of the Corporate IT Forum.

Alistair Russell is development director at CIO Connect, working with CIOs on their leadership and professional development. Prior to joining CIO Connect, Alistair was director of programmes for executive development at Durham Business School leading programmes for Halifax Bank of Scotland, Barclays, United Utilities and the Department for Education and Skills. Alistair is a qualified member of the Institute of Management Consultants and as a Chartered Mechanical Engineer.

Simon Buehring says:

Let’s face it – you’re still young – and potentially have a long career ahead of you in the IT industry. In my opinion, there is no time better to travel than when you’re young and still bursting with energy.

You might also find you can combine career development and foreign travel at the same time. Having the right technical experience and being a native English speaker will open many doors to you.

With so many countries investing in IT, developing countries in particular are hungry for talented people with experience. You might find that you get catapulted up the career ladder by several rungs if you choose a country where the IT base is low. You might not earn so much, but you could enjoy a great cultural experience.

I took the step some years ago to go abroad to search for work and found consulting work in New Zealand and became Technical Director for a software outsourcing company in Asia. The work experience was rewarding, the lifestyle terrific and I had great opportunities to travel in the area. I can thoroughly recommend it.

Denise Plumpton says:

This can be a real dilemma. There never seems to be a right time to take a career break; there always seems to be another great career opportunity just around the corner to keep you in the corporate life. It very much depends what you plan to do during your break. If the travelling will also involve some sort of local work as you go, rather than simply sightseeing, then it could prove to be a valuable addition to your CV.

Experiences outside of the ‘norm’ can make you stand out from the crowd when you decide to return to your chosen career route. And that’s assuming that you do return; there are people who have their new life so compelling that the original plans are forever put to the back of the cupboard. That’s exactly what happened to the originators of the Lonely Planet travel guides.

See the career break, not as a break, but as a chance to develop skills and experiences which will complement your current career path and actually improve your chances of reaching that Director level to which you aspire.

Good luck.

Alistair Russell says:

There is no definitive universal rule here and I would counsel against believing anyone that tells you that there is.

My experience is that as soon as anyone observes that most people take career breaks before they are 30, a case emerges of someone who has gone on to be a CIO following a career break earlier or later. I would encourage you to develop your own answer - your own story or rationale for whatever you plan.
Whatever it is, you will be totally committed and that will shine through far more powerfully than a decision based on an industry expert’s opinion.

So, how to develop your answer? First, develop your personal life plan. Start from where you want to get to in ten years and include your goals at appropriate milestones. Be very clear and explicit about what you will be doing, where and with what type of organisation. Whilst you can be sure that the future will not pan out this way, the clarity of thinking that it achieves is helpful.

Second, test and develop this picture in conversations with key people in you life such as your colleagues, your mentor or coach, your current boss or someone doing the sort of job you would like to do in the future.

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