Can’t Move for Grad School?: What If You Can’t Relocate For Grad School?


Moving far from home to pursue your graduate degree could be a life challenge. Geography is often a difficult barrier for getting your Masters or PhD. Geography should affect your grad school decisions, if you think it doesn’t then you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt, heartbreak, and stress. You can avoid the pain of not thinking about geography and relocation by using some tips from this article.

In my early days, I worked with maps, satellite images, and geographic information systems to transform raw data get a sense of distance. Yet, a map means nothing without an understanding of how we (as humans) fit in. Fifty miles (or kilometres) can be a long way if you don’t have access to a car.

Through my work and education, I gained a deep understanding of distance, environment, and the connection people have to their location (and each other). We are all affected by our location in unique ways. To some extent, our identity changes every time our location changes. Because we get access to opportunities, and our network changes, our geography is us, and we are our geography. (A note for any geographers out there: I will use the word “geography” in its broadest sense to describe human geography, physical geography, and social/cultural geography.) 

The R3ciprocity Team has already written an article on “What to Consider When Moving for Grad School“. I recommend you check it out; however, I will offer a different and more philosophical perspective. Much like the rest of the R3ciprocity Team, I have also traveled extensively and spent significant amounts of time in foreign countries. I will also explain what it means to live certain distances from home. I will also argue that many people don’t have to move far from home to pursue a graduate degree.

Nearly 40% of grad students moved to a different country for their studies. Additionally, depression and anxiety are very high among PhD students. Roughly one third of students have sought help for depression and anxiety. There is likely a correlation between being separated from one’s support network and mental health issues. (Quick note: if you are feeling down, please go see a mental health worker. You will benefit a lot from it!).

Some Assumptions About Geography

For this article to be the most helpful, I must make a few assumptions. First, I will assume that you have some group of people (family, friends, or community) that is very important to you. Not everyone does, but most people do. Your people are your support network. Second, I will assume that you have some location that holds sentimental importance to you. Third, I will assume that your people are located at your sentimental place. We will call your sentimental place your “home base.” Your home base is a place where you feel most natural and most comfortable. My home base is southern Kentucky, but for you, it could be anywhere. Fourth, I will assume that you are either a bit of a homebody or that your research will make it hard for you to stay connected with your community (regardless of location). If you do not fit this mold, you may still find some of the advice in this article helpful, so I encourage you to read it.

In my experience interacting with people pursuing graduate education or living far from home in other circumstances (such as being stationed far from home in the military), I noticed there is an underlying assumption many of them make. Many assume that once you reach a certain age (like 25) or have a family of your own, it does not matter if you live near your family/home base. I know not all people have this assumption, but many do. Enough people hold this view that I can say it is a pattern among some people in the 20 to 35-year-old age group. Perhaps, the assumption is an artifact of Western culture, which values independence above all. To base important life decisions on how close they let you be to your family/home base, would be to admit dependence on others.

Regardless, I must say that if one has good family or friends, then you likely want to be near them, especially as you begin to grow your own family or pursue your dreams. If you are like some of us, many grad students struggle with loneliness and depression because they are in strange new places without their support network. The strength you can draw from your support network is worth lowering your expectations for possible opportunities. That is, these opportunities have a slightly lower expected value in terms of financial benefit. For example, surely, you will make more financial returns living in Dubai than you will by living in Kentucky.

That is not to say that people should never pursue opportunities that place them far away from their support network. Instead, those opportunities need to be substantially more valuable than options that let people stay close to their support network.

To effectively weigh your options, you must understand your connection to your geography. Our geography can give us as much meaning as our careers. If our family/friends are rooted in a specific location, they are part of the geography. For example, grandma’s house is an essential place if you can visit her; but it is just an empty building if she is not around. For many people, being in a location with a sentimental attachment is worth more than being in a place where salaries are at 15% higher. As in the case of Dubai – it’s a beautiful place and the culture is wonderful, but if it does not feel like home, it might be a challenge. Additionally, being close to your home base should make universities closer to you more valuable than ones that are far away. 

Calculating the Return On Your Distance Away From ‘Home’: What Do Distances Mean to You?

Many articles about moving for grad school do not explain the relationship of living certain distances from your home base to your ability to access your support network. I know from personal experience that living different distances from your support network dramatically affects your connection with them. Distance can seem rather abstract when not tied to concrete examples. Living three hours away does not mean anything until the first time you drive from school to home. When I did my MA, I thought that living three hours from my home base was no big deal, however, I quickly found that three hours is a long drive. To assist you in the understanding distance, I will break down what various distances (measured by drive time), actually mean for your daily life.

What does it mean to live 15 mins to an hour from your home base?

For me, this distance is in the sweet spot. When you live close to your home base, you are less likely to suffer from extreme loneliness. You can visit your family/friends anytime you want. If you have kids and they want to visit the grandparents, you can drop them off on your way home and not mess up your routine. At this distance, you can go to family gatherings, spend time with old friends, and continue to be a part of the community you are attached to. 

What does it mean to live one hour to three hours from your home base?

At one to three hours, you can hypothetically visit your family every single weekend. You can attend birthday parties on the weekends. Your kids can visit their grandparents every weekend if they want to. You can participate in special events in your home communities; however, you will be more or less disconnected from your home community. This distance is quite bearable, but you will miss out on a lot of little things. 

What does it mean to live three to eight hours from your home base?

At three to eight hours, you will be completely detached from your home base. You can visit family/friends on three-day weekends, but you likely won’t be going home every weekend. At this distance, you will live too far away for your kids to conveniently stay overnight with their grandparents. I lived at this distance for several years, and it was quite unbearable. I am a homebody and at my home base, I had people who invited me to events. When I lived at a distance, I was pretty much alone all the time.

What does it mean to live more than eight hours from your home base?

When you live more than eight hours from your home base, you will likely only be going home on special occasions (holidays, summers, etc.). Driving home may be inconvenient, and you will probably have to fly when you live at certain distances. Flying is a terrible inconvenience, and it is expensive in many cases. So, if you are a student on a tight budget, you may not be able to fly home often. I hated living more than eight hours from my home base, because I did not have much to look forward to on long weekends.

Synchronizing Your Goals and Your Geography

Here is my central premise: if you have a good family/friends and you live near them, you can actively participate in each other’s lives and your life will be happier and more fulfilling. Every person has a limited amount of time on this Earth, but it can be easy to forget that fact when one is busy pursuing lofty academic truths. You can spend your whole life chasing knowledge and turn around and find that you have missed out on many important moments in your loved ones’ lives.  That is not to say that you should avoid doing a graduate degree. Only that, if you have people who are important to you, then you should try to make sure you are geographically close to them. A phone call or Skype call can only go so far. It has been said before, “most people underestimate how long things will take“.

The little moments which mean nothing to you now, will mean everything later in life. Little things like being able to go to your mom’s birthday party, eating breakfast with your grandma, spending time with your brother, and driving the roads you grew up on; will make all the difference later in life. For me, it took traveling the world and studying philosophy at the graduate level to see the value of the little moments in life. I am not trying to discourage you from traveling for your academic career or to discourage leaving your hometown in general. I am just trying to encourage you to look for creative solutions to pursue graduate studies and have close social bonds with your existing support network. Because, “making friends as an adult can be rough”.  

For example, while I was stationed far from home (for the military), I came up with a creative solution to have my family near me, and so can you. In the beginning, I brought up a close friend of mine (Devon), and we shared an apartment. I got married and Devon moved out. Inspired by many immigrant families, I bought a duplex in Ohio and moved up my parents, brother, and cousin; so that we could all stay close together. My cousin found a job and moved out. My mom went back to school and earned her Associates Degree. My dad found a good-paying job, and my brother eventually went back to our home base in Kentucky. After my time in the military was up, I did an MA in Philosophy and I moved three hours away.  Eventually, my grandparents started to get in bad health, so we all moved back to our home base in Kentucky. I am now doing my PhD at a local college (University of the Cumberlands) in a completely different subject area (business). Staying close to my support network has been the right choice. I have been able to synchronize my geography, my goals, and my family. I tell this story to remind you that you don’t have to sacrifice your family/social network to pursue your goals; you just have to find creative ways to synchronize them.

Practical Tips for Synchronizing Your Goals and Geography

Here are three practical tips for synchronizing your goals and your geography.

Bring your support network with you

Bringing your support network is probably the most challenging option to implement. Finding appropriate housing is a logistical challenge. In my example of bringing my family to Ohio, I had to buy a duplex to be able to implement my plan. From a human standpoint, it will be hard for you to convince others to move from their home to help you chase your dreams. This is a personal challenge.

There are two ways you can bring your network with you. The first is just bringing a close friend or sibling. That is what I did when I brought Devon to Ohio (I am eternally grateful that Devon is my friend and moved up to live with me). The second way you can bring your support network, is to bring a bunch of family members. Bringing your whole family is impractical for most people. However, if you are blessed enough to bring your entire family with you, it pays enormous dividends. For example, when my daughter was born, it was nice to have my parents near to help with child care. It took much stress off my wife by having some people we could spend regular time with. It was also nice to be involved in my parents’ lives and not miss spending time with them.

Do something online

With Covid-19 around every corner, we will see more programs migrate online. This may not be as difficult a proposition as one might imagine. However, if more programs move online, funding will likely be an issue, and fewer funded positions will be available. If you don’t want to leave your support network, a remote option may be good for you. However, you need to research what opportunities your school provides for networking with classmates. Part of the value of a degree is the connections you make with your cohort.

An important note, even before the Corona Virus crisis, some PhD traditional programs would allow students to do their dissertation research remotely. So, after roughly two years in residence, you might be able to finish your program online. Though, the ability to do the dissertation remotely varies from program to program.

Note from Dave: You will likely have to negotiate with your PhD advisor that you can do this remote option. You will gain a lot by collocating close to the PhD program, and most often, online or distance PhDs are discouraged by most doctoral programs that will net you a positive return on your investment. Please look into this. Be careful – do not overspend on an online PhD Program! However, if you are productive, and your advisors understands, they may be OK with this.

Try a different program to allow you to stay close to home

The final method you could use to synchronize your geography is to try a different program. I know this sounds extreme, but hear me out. In many disciplines, there are intersections between areas of study. For example, my BA and MA are in philosophy. Still, since the school near my home base does not offer philosophy at the PhD level, I am studying business. So, I am planning on doing my dissertation on a topic in Business Ethics. If I had studied mathematics, I could focus on econometrics. If I had studied healthcare, I could focus my dissertation on healthcare administration. Finding the intersection between disciplines may seem difficult at first, but I think it can be more exciting than working in a single field.

Conclusion

If your goal is to teach at a college or have “PhD” after your name, then your doctorate is just a means to an end. You have to figure out what your goal is with your degree. If you have a support network that is very important to you, then you want to be geographically near them. As we age, it becomes harder to make friends, and it is harder to maintain friendships. You don’t want to lose valuable friendships or grow apart from family, because you did not take the time to reflect on their importance. Even though family and friends might encourage you to chase your dreams; once they don’t see you every day, you are more or less forgotten. It sounds harsh, but all people are busy, and it is hard for them to pay attention to people who are not near them. Your relationships don’t have to be the first thing to get sacrificed in the pursuit of knowledge. You can be near your support network and pursue your dreams; it just takes creativity.

I know you can pursue your goals and maintain your relationships; I believe in you.

This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Zachariah Renfro

Guest Writer, PhD Student at University of the Cumberlands, and a USAF Veteran.

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