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How a gap year can turn your life around

Hi, I am Conrad.

My gap year wasn’t exactly the most adventurous backpacking trip, but it had a profound effect on my life and career.

When I was choosing my A-levels, age 16, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Based on what I thought were my best subjects, I chose math, physics, and geography. As a student, I did well in these subjects and had a general interest in them. For most things, I wasn’t the smartest in the class, but I was in the top sets. And although I did a graphic design GCSE, I’d always thought of myself more as a technical than a creative person.

Me at the Bondi Icebergs swimming pool on my first day of my year out in Australia

Growing up in a very typical middle class household meant that I never really questioned the idea of going to university, it was just a given. So, based on the subjects I was studying at A-level and the fact that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after university, I decided I should look for physics degrees. My thought being that physics would be general enough that I could do whatever l liked afterwards. 

The idea of a gap year didn’t cause much debate either. My dad is Australian, I have an Australian passport, and I have more family in Australia than in the UK – spending a year working and travelling in Australia seemed obvious.

So, age 18, with my accepted offer to study physics at Nottingham University deferred and my (not as good as I’d hoped) A-level results, I packed my backpack and headed to Sydney.

Traveling Australia

When I arrived, I went to stay with my uncle in Surry Hills, an inner city neighbourhood with plenty of atmosphere. My uncle was an art director who worked on TV commercials. 

Back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s the film industry in Sydney was thriving. I heard all about the projects he was working on and he paid me for a few days as a runner, sitting in a van picking up props from all over Sydney, then helping him out on set during pre-production days. His girlfriend at the time was working as the wardrobe assistant on Mission Impossible II, which was filming in Sydney. She’d come home and tell us all about what Tom Cruise had got up to that day. 

All of this made me realise the film industry was a realistic idea for a career. 

Conrad Olson

As well as spending time with my uncle, I had some great experiences during my gap year. I worked in pubs and restaurants in Sydney. Traveling along the East and West coasts of Australia, I saw some amazing sights. In Perth, I worked at a fairground, and in Queensland, I worked on a tomato farm. The people I met and the lessons I learned helped me make it on my own.

I also took a lot of photos. It was probably the start of my photography hobby. 

Billabong in the North of Western Australia

Heading back to university

Despite all this, when I got back to the UK, I went straight to Nottingham University to start my physics degree as I planned. But, while I found the idea of physics interesting, I really struggled with the maths. I had dropped a mark in my maths A-level, and then taking a year out had really made me forget the stuff I had known at school. 

Because I was struggling, I realized I wasn’t as engaged in the subject as I previously thought. I started spending more time messing around with the new Mac I got when I started university. I borrowed a video camera from the film club and began making short videos instead of studying maths. 

By Christmas of my first year, I realised I wasn’t going to be able to complete my physics course. But I also knew that I liked being in Nottingham, and I wanted to work in the media industry.  A friend told me about a new multimedia production course at Nottingham Trent University across town, so I applied and started there the following September – and the rest is history.

Looking back…

Having a gap year between high school and university allowed me to think about what I really wanted to be doing.

I think if I hadn’t taken a gap year, I would still have struggled with degree-level physics, but I would probably have forced myself to keep at it for longer, even though I wasn’t enjoying it. I might still have dropped out, and maybe without any idea of what I really wanted to do instead. 

By Conrad Olson (Multimedia production 2004)

Portfolio Website:




Conrad is an NTU Alumni Fellow. You can find out more about how to get involved with the Alumni Fellowship Programme here

Blog Administrator. Currently ran by co-author Emilia Denis. Emilia has studied Fashion Communication and Promotion at NTU between years 2017 and 2020.

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