Location and Lifestyle in Graduate School
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
By Michael Whaby
So, I recently asked a question on Twitter and got some really good feedback:
If I hypothesized about what my feedback would have been before I tweeted this, then I would have been (mostly) correct in my assumption. Most people agreed that location and lifestyle were major players in their decisions when choosing graduate schools; however, many also agreed that these weren’t the biggest deciding factors.
Location and lifestyle played a major role in my decision to go the graduate school that I ultimately chose. For undergrad, I moved to another state, but still within reasonable driving distance in case I wanted to drive home. Then, after four years of living away, I moved back home for graduate school, Round 1: Master’s degree. It took one year to complete my Master’s degree, and, even though it was a renowned university, that was enough to convince me that I wanted to relocate for a PhD. And I did.
There are, obviously, many things to keep in mind when considering and applying for PhD programs. But if you’re like most people, your environment influences many aspects of your life and health—both mentally and physically. That’s why I want to talk about lifestyle and location and some things to consider before, during and after graduate school. Each person’s opinions on this topic will likely vary, but the point is to take the ideas and contemplate how they match with your own situation and goals.
1. Enjoying the location, not just the school…
To be realistic, you’re going to spend the majority of your time on campus, or in the lab. So, enjoying the campus life and the immediate surrounding environment is actually very important. And this is not to understate how important it is to actually like the school and program that you are considering for graduate school. But when you go home at night, or when you decide to take a weekend off, what do you want that time to be like?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and I was really, really over the cold winters. So, given the opportunity to move south—especially near the coast—I knew I would take it. And that’s what I did. I moved to Charleston, SC, to pursue a PhD at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The location and lifestyle rating of MUSC, for me, would be a 10/10. Not to mention, I love the campus, the program that I’m in was exactly what I was looking for, and I’m really enjoying the lab that I chose for my dissertation. Some would say I’m lucky; I would, too.
Keep in mind, though, that location is only what you make it. Location doesn’t affect lifestyle unless you take advantage of what it has to offer—for instance, I now live near the beach, my favorite getaway.
2. …but don’t over-consider location and lifestyle.
I think that this goes without saying, but choosing a school based off these factors alone can, and likely will, backfire. Imagine BS-ing your way through an interview for a graduate program that you actually don’t like, only because of the location and what you imagine the lifestyle would be like. You really have to sell to the interviewers that, not only are you a competent applicant, but that you are genuinely interested in the program.
As I pointed out before, you’re going to be spending most of your time on campus—especially for you life sciences people, like me, that will be in labs or in the field. If you don’t resonate with the culture of the graduate program that you attend, then there’s a chance that this might reflect on your academic performance and even mental health.
3. Consider finances.
This was a big deal for me. Part of pursuing a PhD—instead of dental or medical school—was because I wanted to end the student debt. All of the PhD programs that I applied to provide a stipend that was reasonable to live off of (for my standard of living at least, not everyone agrees with this), and they paid for tuition and health insurance as well.
Make sure you compare the stipend amount (if you are receiving one) to the location that you are considering for graduate school. Do you want to be able to save money? How affordable are apartments or other living scenarios? If part of having the lifestyle that you want in a particular location requires more money than you’ll have, then you’re going to have to think of some ways to compensate for that or consider another location.
4. Moving to new locations has some often-overlooked benefits.
When I was in the midst of my Master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, I had a pretty good feeling that I wasn’t going to stay there for a PhD. I told my mentor this, and, surprisingly, she told me that she thought it was a great idea to consider branching out and moving elsewhere for a PhD. And she had a good point. There is nothing wrong with staying at one institution for, say, a Master’s and a PhD; in fact, that might even provide some advantages over moving. Relocating to a new area, however, tests your flexibility and can offer a whole new range of connections. In conjunction with becoming more flexible and expanding your rolodex, moving earlier in a career can better prepare you for future transitions that may be similar.
5. There are always personal reasons to contemplate.
The hardest part of moving, for me, was “leaving behind” my family and friends. And still, it continues to challenge me. But asking one question helped me frame my reasoning for deciding to move: Why would this be better or worse for me? There were infinite personal reasons that aided in my decision to move, and a reasonable amount of general, logical reasons to move. For instance, I found it really hard to stay focused in graduate school when I was living in Pittsburgh—my hometown. Being around my friends and family was really great, but they sometimes didn’t understand that I couldn’t be as present as they wanted me to.
Little misunderstandings and communication barriers between my friends and family and me really took a toll on me. Living further away provides a better explanation for being absent than, “I can’t do [insert something that I may or may not want to do] this weekend because I have a time-sensitive experiment to attend to and a pharmacology exam on Monday.” As a graduate student, work usually doesn’t stop when you get home. Taking on the challenge of graduate school is taxing, and it does often require sacrifices. You have to find a balance for which sacrifices are feasible, and which you are simply not willing to endure.
These are some of the things that helped me choose a graduate school. And, as with many of the previous posts, these are to be considered in the context of your situation. I try to provide examples from my own experiences, which might be relevant to you, but just as well may not be as relatable. So, consider what you value in your personal and professional life, then come to a decision based on what aligns best with these values.
As always, feel free to reach out at anytime with questions or suggestions. Good luck!
Some other relatable reads:
Biomedical PhD Applications: Some things to consider
First Semester of Graduate School: Life as a Biomedical PhD Student
PhD Interview Weekend: A guide for aspiring scientists
So, You're Thinking About a Master's Degree: The pre-PhD perspective