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Build your career over the summer break


If you’re looking for a challenge over your summer break, you’re not alone. It’s the perfect time for a change from the repetitive and familiar aspects of work, and a chance to expand your toolkit by learning something new. Here are a few bright ideas to consider for a short-term opportunity that will be helpful in building your career.

Enroll in

summer school

If you’re looking for a niche or specialization, summer school is a great way to build your expertise. A well-designed summer course will be open to people with a wide range of experience.

Professor Mihaela Gadjeva, who teaches an introductory course in Graduate Studies and Scholarly Writing in the Biological Sciences at Harvard Summer School, says she has students with backgrounds ranging from software engineering to journalism. By the end of the course, she says, her students have “learned how to think in scientific terms more broadly,” laying the basis for working in any analytical field and communicating well across fields too. These benefits aren’t limited to a career in research, she points out: “This can be applied to many different aspects of life where we ask questions and seek answers.”

Some universities offer courses abroad, where you can study in a different environment. “Studying abroad is a different kind of academic challenge,” writes Sarah Philips, who took part in a placement in Florence for the Bing Overseas Program at Stanford. Staying on top of your normal workload is only part of the challenge; on top of that, she explains, you’ll need to “navigate an entirely new group of friends, plus learning a new language.”

Traveling may be an awesome experience on its own, but it comes with vital career skills, like getting comfortable in a range of different working environments. Your academic network will typically include researchers from all over the world, and you’ll need the soft skills to work efficiently and sensitively with people of different backgrounds.

Of course, enrolling in an on-campus graduate summer school halfway across the country, or across the world, isn’t possible for everyone. Many prestigious summer schools also offer more affordable online courses, which can be taken from anywhere in the world—sometimes even for course credit.


Look for community engagement opportunities in your area, where you can apply your theoretical knowledge in practical ways.

Volunteer with

a local organization

Experimenting with a different line of work can be a daunting prospect, but if it’s only for a six-week experiment, there’s a lot less risk. Taking part in summer volunteer work means you’re free to test out new industries or experiences related to your research that you otherwise couldn’t have dabbled in without committing to a long-term position.

Many universities run summer volunteer programs like this through their community development department. But if your university doesn’t have an official volunteering program, don’t let it stand in your way. Look for community engagement opportunities in your area, where you can apply your theoretical knowledge in practical ways—for example, volunteering in an educational project, or trying your hand at science communication. Even if the industry itself turns out not to be a good fit, you’ll end up with a better understanding of what your priorities and goals are.


Where should you start? For most graduate summer schools, enrollment closes between 3-6 weeks in advance, although most work on a “first-come, first-served” basis, so it’s best to get your application in as early as possible.

If you’re looking to volunteer locally, your timeline can be a bit more relaxed. It’s still important to do your research, however. One great way of finding out more behind the scenes is to contact previous volunteers and hear about their experiences. Sites like CharityNavigator and the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search are helpful for confirming an organization’s claims, and most successful organizations will have data-driven results for their summer volunteer programs and be open to sharing them.

Whether it ends up being the first step in an exciting new direction, or just a useful way to understand which industries are not for you, a well-used summer break is a great way to get some useful experience under your belt.

  1. Harvard Summer School Course Catalog, (2019). Retrieved from:
  2. Yale Summer Sessions (2019). Retrieved from:
  3. Career Tips for First-Generation College Graduates (2019) Retrieved from:
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