“Location, location, location”, they say in Real Estate.
So it goes in PhD programs as well.
Your experience in academia will be shaped by many things—the institution you choose, your cohort, the relationships you build with faculty and the location in which you wish to study. You have many options: urban vs. suburban vs. rural; east coast vs. west coast; college town vs. metropolitan campus; international?
Thinking about your graduate program’s location may seem like a fairly obvious thing however, here are some overlooked aspects of choosing your program’s location that I had to learn the hard way, through experience.
Consider Familial Obligations
I was in my third year when the unthinkable happened. My aunt called to tell me she was taking my father to the hospital for an emergency surgery. I was a month away from my third comprehensive exam and it was a Friday morning but I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how to get home quickly given the limited money in my bank account at that time. I had picked cities that I knew would let me be home in 7 hours or less so I hopped on the next bus for $20 and went to my dad’s side. When considering your dream PhD program, don’t forget to research (a) its proximity to and (b) the average price of trains, buses and planes home. We often think about this in terms of holiday traveling and summer vacations, but you never know when an unexpected trip may come up. This tip will be especially important for anyone in a long distance relationship as well.
Self Care, Recreation and Entertainment
Do you like hiking, dive bars, going to the movies, thrift shopping, sporting events? All of these activities are things you should seriously consider when choosing a program. Look, you’ll be spending the next three to eight years in this place and much of that time will be stressful. Very stressful. So be sure to pick an institution in a location that will allow you to de-stress in whatever way(s) works for you.
Equally important is considering your proximity to your support system. We’re not suggesting you only consider going to institutions where your friends are however, we are suggesting you think deeply about what level of support you may need through this highly competitive and stressful experience. Technology may make it so we can connect with our besties fairly easily over long distances (skype, fb, google chats, etc) but being able to have someone you trust and love be with you during tough times is irreplaceable. Again, if your support system is further away, consider the cost and ease of which they could come visit you, or you them, whether by plane, train or bus.
Car vs Public Transportation
From getting to classes on time to budgeting for transportation expenses, whether your graduate program is in a location that requires a car or is accessible using public transportation will be another important decision to consider. Often, people tend to think in terms of: Do I have a car? Can I bring it? However, we encourage you to think more about the cost and efficiency of transportation when considering a graduate program’s location. Questions to ask yourself are: is this location bike friendly? What are gas prices? Is parking available on campus and will I have to pay for campus parking? What are traffic patterns in the area? Does uber exist there? Does the train or bus system have student or monthly unlimited discounts? Don’t forget to contextualize this information in light of each program’s stipend offering. You may even end up ruling out several programs!
Community & Student Populations
While you can research the percentages of different racial and ethnic groups at a given university, you may not consider the population in the general area as much as you should. Of course, you will make friends and socialize with people from your program, in your cohort and in graduate school, however you may also find friends and companionship in the greater community. We often have a preconceived idea about how diverse an area is however, I recommend doing more thorough research on each institutions surrounding neighborhoods. Look up what kinds of meet up groups or intramural sports exist. Look up what types of immigrant populations are in that area? You may be surprised to find out that Michigan has the biggest Iraqi population in the US. That may entice you or it may not. Either way, it’s good to know.
The question of diversity will also affect you in the classroom (as a professor, TA and student). Each institution has its own classroom culture and it’s often a reflection of the types of students who attend the school. Do professors and students engage with the local community or are people less likely to venture outside of campus? Are your colleagues locals or from other parts of the world? These kinds of things impact the types of discussions you have in the classroom as well and, trust me, your exposure to fresh perspectives while developing your research will be a real asset to your academic career.
On the long list of things to consider when choosing your PhD program, location may seem like a relative ‘duh’. Hopefully after reading this article you can push past the more superficial aspects of location research and consider the long term realities of the environment in which you chose to grow intellectually and professionally.