I'm a year away from getting my undergrad degree in (computer) engineering, with a minor in Japanese. I never had the opportunity to do a study abroad due to the rigors of the major. As some probably know, the JET program is a program by which selected individuals move to Japan to teach English at public schools for a year (or two or three, but not more, I believe). I've always been very interested in doing something like this, but I have always assumed that doing so would ruin my chances of getting into a graduate program or landing a good job upon my return.
It wouldn't be like attending grad school before entering the industry or vice versa, in that I would be teaching English for a living, not studying or working in my field. I could still self study, and my field gives me the advantage of still being able to apply my skills working on personal projects and open-source software, but I would certainly be removed from the industry and academia, I would expect.
I feel like leave from the field would look bad to any prospective schools or employers. How accurate is my assumption? Would a leave of absence to do something like this reflect poorly on me in the eyes of potential schools or employers?
In my experience (biology), I think that taking a couple of years off before grad school provided me with an advantage during applications. Granted, I was working at a biotech company, so I was still developing "relevant" expertise (though in the end, it wasn't really relevant to what I worked on for my dissertation).
I think that the most important consideration is that you continue to learn during your hiatus. Fluency in a foreign language can be very valuable in academia -- I expect that there are a lot of top-notch computer scientists in Japan. Ideally, you would be able to establish relationships with Japanese CS students/researchers; I'd bet that many of the students are itching for help learning/practicing English.
There are a few reasons that older applicants may be more attractive in general:
- They are not continuing in school by default/inertia, and so are more likely to complete the program
- They are more mature, so they are less likely to cause drama in the department.
- They can bring outside perspective into their research. The academic career machine places a big emphasis on "shaking things up" and learning from a wide variety of situations/mentors.
I also see a couple of possible downsides:
- Some fields have a youth cult, where they think that radical thinking comes from young researchers. Specifically, I'm thinking of mathematics, though this may apply to CS. In contrast, the conventional wisdom is that biologists value experience and perspective.
- You will be older when you graduate and start your academic career. This may not be a big deal if your grad programs are short (5 years). A low salary and the need to chase jobs across the country/globe may not seem like a problem when you are 21 and healthy, but things are different when you are 30 and have responsibilities and are not as strong as you once were.