Academics move a lot. Sometimes they move to the next city, sometimes they move half-way across the world. It is one of those things that many people don’t realize about academia. People move around quite a bit from university to university and sometimes country to country. Going to graduate school either for a PhD or a master’s is no different. You may have moved some for your undergraduate, but if you pursue a graduate degree you are likely to move again. It’s not very common for people to go through from Bachelor’s to Master’s to PhD all at the same university. One of the big reasons for this is that at the Masters level and even more so at the PhD level you chose a university not only based on the university’s reputation and the availability of the degree you want, but also specifically based on the faculty and sometimes specific faculty members. Generally, people seek out specific professors to be their supervisors during their Master’s or PhD, and move to whichever university that professor works at. This means that for a majority of Master’s and PhD students they are going to have to move.
Moving at some point in your academic career is inevitable, but there are some things you should consider as you undertake that journey. You will be moving to a new place where you know very few people or possibly no one at all. You are going to be living there for some length of time, and the situation of moving and adjusting to graduate school is going to be exciting, but also challenging. You will have the opportunity to explore a new place, but also face the challenges that come with living somewhere without an established support network. Below is a list of some things to keep in mind when you are moving or planning to move for graduate school as well as some strategies to either make the most of the situation or combat the challenges.
(A note from Dave: This post is based on the following video, and was written by a recent PhD, but they wanted to keep their identity anonymous.) By the way, you should read this blog post about common grad school problems and some solutions.
You might also find this blog post about common PhD problems and some solutions if you find this one useful.
Don’t think in the short term
If you are like many graduate students, you are moving to a new place hundreds if not thousands of miles away from your home. Your new program has a proscribed course of x years and you are viewing this move as a temporary situation. You’ll go, do your degree, and then be off on your next adventure. If you are in a one-year master’s program this might be the case. I did a one-year MA in Ireland. It was a fantastic year in which I not only learned a lot, but met great people, and traveled quite a bit. I turned in my dissertation at the end of the one-year program and returned home to the US. This has been the case for a lot of people I know who enrolled in a one-year master’s programs, particularly if they go abroad. They went, they completed their program, and they returned home. Some did make the change permanent, but many returned home after their year abroad. If that is your plan, make the most of your one year.
A PhD or a more extended master’s degree (2+ years), however, is a bit of a different story. PhD programs are generally outlined as 3-7-year processes. Even on the shorter side, 3 years is longer than you think. Like most PhDs you will likely go over your proscribed timeline. It’s a common occurrence in PhDs to take longer than the outlined time. So potentially when moving for a PhD you are looking at moving somewhere for 4-7 years. 4-7 years is quite a commitment time wise, and it is far too long a period to just think in the short term, as you would with a 1-year master’s program.
If you want to learn more about the normal length of a doctorate, be sure to click and read this excellent in-depth post.
If you are going to be moving for a longer program try to think in the longer term, treat it the same way you would if you were planning to relocate permanently. Choose a place to live that you want to live in and are comfortable in, not just some place to get by. Research the area you are moving to, what is the local culture like, how can you get involved in your community? This new place is going to be your home for 4+ years, so make sure it is somewhere you want to live.
In addition to the length of time it takes to do the PhD you may find that yourself staying on at your university or a near by university in a different capacity. You’ve built a network there and have contacts so you may end up settling in that area. Even if you don’t permanently settle in the area still treat your graduate school move as a long term move rather than a short term move as in reality it is a long-term plan even if it is not permanent. Which leads nicely into the next topic.
Make this new place your home
Making your new place your home applies to both short term programs and long-term programs. Even if you are only going to be in this new place for a year, it is your home for that year. Really settle in. Get involved in your university and local community, go to local events. Not only will this make your transition easier, but this move may also be a once in a lifetime chance to explore this new place. When I lived in Ireland, I thoroughly explored the city of Dublin. I did everything from visiting big tourist attractions like the Book of Kells at Trinity College to spending weekend afternoons people watching in local cafes. My friends and I took trips around Ireland and saw all we could see. It was exciting, I was someplace new. I have since returned to Ireland on weeklong trips, but I haven’t had the opportunity to explore the same way that I did during my MA. That ability to really get into the minutia of a place, and really soak up its culture and history was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Really take the opportunity during your graduate degree to explore your new home. Learn the culture, attend events, go to the local farmers market. This not only allows you learn about your new home but will also provide much needed breaks from your graduate work and research. This mentality of settling in and making this new place your home also applies to your new university. Your new university will feel much more like home if you get to know the institution and get involved. Join the graduate association, meet other people in your department, and attend university events. You could potentially spend the better part of a decade in this place, so you should get to know it and its people. Make friends and set down some roots. You’ll likely move again once your degree is done, but that is no reason to not get to know the place you are living and the people around you while you are working towards your degree.
You are going to get lonely
Making your new location your home and making friends will also help with one of the eternal plagues of graduate school, loneliness. At various points during the graduate school experience you are going to get lonely. Loneliness during graduate school occurs for a few reasons. Sometimes it is the simple nature of your work. You might be in the library, an archive, or a lab all day mostly working by yourself. After a couple of days, you’re going to want to see and speak to someone else. Loneliness will also be caused by the fact that you moved away from your established community. You may have moved completely by yourself very far away from your extensive network of family and friends. You may have moved with a partner, but that is still only one person you know in this new place, and while comforting its still not a full support network like the one you left behind.
Check out this YouTube video on how to deal with loneliness during your PhD:
The best way to combat this loneliness, in my experience, is by getting to know the other graduate students in your department and in the university generally. They are all likely going through a similar experience. They too moved across the state, the country, or maybe the world to do their degree at that university. They’re lonely too. Find a group of friends and go to local events. This will help. You will of course still be lonely sometimes. It takes a long time to establish the kind of network of friends you likely left behind to say nothing of the lack of family in your new location. Your networks at home can’t be replaced and you will sometimes still get lonely despite your best efforts.
There may be specific times that you get lonely, and it is best for you to learn to recognize these times so you can minimize the effects. For instance, I found that I more often felt lonely on the weekends than during the week. During the week I had work to do, lectures to attend, sometimes lectures to write, but on the weekend, there was more downtime. There are also fewer people around on the weekends. Students who didn’t live too far away would go home, and people generally travel more on the weekends. I wasn’t as busy on the weekends and there were less people around so that was really when I missed my friends and family from home. Occasional feelings of loneliness are inevitable, but I found that if I planned activities on the weekends, I was less susceptible to these feelings.
Invest in a good means of communication
Another good way to combat these feelings of loneliness and stay connected to your friends and family at home is to call them. When you’re feeling lonely and miss your friends and family call them, they miss you too. Phone calls are good but using video chat is actually better. It is a good idea to invest in a means of video communication, such as Facetime or Skype. Being able to see the person you want to talk to makes it feel more like you are with them in person. I called my mom on Skype 3 or 4 times a week when I lived in Ireland. It was much more comforting (and cheaper at that point) to be able to see her as well as talk to her. Video chats go a long way in alleviating the loneliness that comes with moving to a new place. However, it is important to find a balance. You don’t want to become too dependent on your family and friends at home for your social network, make sure you are also making new connections in your new home. Balancing the old and new will help you settle into your new home and also keep you connected but not dependent on your old networks.
Travel home when you need to
There’s no getting around it, you are going to get homesick and will need to go home sometimes. As much as you might like your new location, sometimes it is just nice to go back to your old home. Most graduate students I know go home at least once a year if not more. Those that come from very far away often go home for multiple weeks at a time. During my PhD I was an 8 hour car ride from my parents so I was able to go see them more often, and they could easily come see me, but during my MA I only went home once for a few weeks due to the expense of an international flight. Regardless the few weeks home were very rejuvenating. I loved living in Ireland and I had made many new friends, but I did get homesick, missed my family, my friends, and did suffer from some culture shock, so it was nice to come home to a place where I knew everyone and could fall into an old routine.
If you do relocate abroad for your graduate degree do know that most professors understand that you are going to have to go home sometimes and that trip is going to be a bit extended. Likely they were in a similar position at some point and understand the necessity of seeing and being with one’s family and friends. Even if you don’t move abroad, your professors will understand that everyone needs to go home occasionally, particularly around the holidays. So, if you feel like you need to go home for a visit, don’t hesitate just do it. You’ll feel much better once you do.
Moving for graduate school can be a great and, in some cases, once in a lifetime experience. You get the opportunity to learn about and explore a new place and possibly a completely new culture. Make the most of being and living some place new. However, be aware that moving for graduate school can also be a trying experience. Plan for the long term and get to know and become involved in your new community. Understand and know that you will get lonely, but there are ways to combat the effects. However, sometimes it is also good to just embrace the feeling of loneliness and also enjoy the time you do get to spend by yourself working on your research. When you do want company reach out to those around you both in your new place and at home. Talk to people, make plans to see them, and know that the loneliness won’t last, and that you are not alone in your feelings.
If you need more help with graduate school / doing a PhD, you really need to read these helpful and detailed blog posts: