Graduate school is a big commitment. You are looking at 5-8 years to get a PhD in most social science programs. That typically involves a few years of course work and then the remaining years are dedicated to research and making ends meet, either through fellowships, grants, or teaching. For a variety of reasons, it is tempting to leave your home institution during the research years. I left so that my husband could pursue a career. Here are some things I learned from my first two years away.
1. Being a part of an academic community is important. When you are in the grad school trenches colloquiums and works in progress can feel like a waste of time, especially if they aren’t immediately related to your research interests. But they are an important part of the academic socialization process that you lose when you are away. Outside of the university setting it is hard to find intellectually stimulating conversation, let alone theoretical or methodological discussions of interest to those in your chosen field.
I found that after the first six months away I was really rusty. Unable to recall contemporary sociologists and fuzzy on important theoretical traditions, I felt I was losing my credibility as a sociologists. No matter how many articles or blogs you read you can not replace the socialization that happens in the hallways. Long distance dissertation groups and periodic colloquium attendance helps to fill the gap but it can’t replace the immersion you get from living and working at your home institutions.
2. You will feel out of place. When I tell people I am a graduate student they assume that I go to a nearby university or am here doing research. When I say I am a student at University of Virginia they assume it is an online program. I have to explain that it is not an online program and I am away writing my dissertation, which non-academics assume only takes a semester. People wonder why I don’t get a job, I try to explain that grad school is a job.
Without other grad students around to make this lifestyle of writing and studying feel normal it is very easy to walk away. Without a supportive partner, it can be easy to fall into the trap of working full time and writing your dissertation on the side. If you don’t have strong ties back to your program, it is easy to fall behind in grad school as you get wrapped up in your new life in your new home. For me, it is resisting the pull of the housewives that yoga and lunch all day. It can be really difficult to strike that balance between asocial recluse and unproductive social butterfly.
3. Do not disappear. It is easy to get discouraged and think that even if you were living in town you wouldn’t see the faculty anyway, so it isn’t worth a special trip. Maybe you believe, rightly or not, that most of the faculty don’t remember you. We have all had that experience of preparing for a meeting with a professor who didn’t read our paper or forgot what we were supposed to be discussing. This is more frustrating after an eight hour flight. But don’t get discouraged! You will never move beyond neglect by failing to show up! An easy way to see the faculty more often is by going to conferences and setting up meetings there. Returning regularly to your home institute will go a little ways towards convincing people that you are still invested in your field even though you prioritized other aspects of your life.
4. Some faculty will no longer take you seriously. This is just a fact of academic life. Location matters and if you choose to move away some faculty will take it as a sign that you are not serious. It doesn’t matter how often you come back, how much progress you make, or papers you publish. There is a sense in academia that you should be willing to sacrifice for your scholarly pursuits. If you aren’t willing to move for grad school, why should anyone believe you will move for that academic job? If you aren’t willing to relocate for your career how serious can you be? There is nothing you can do when confronted with this line of reasoning because odds are it is true.
People have to do what is right for themselves and their family. But if you are going in to graduate school planning to move away you should make sure that you have the resources to succeed. A committee or mentor that is supportive, a partner that understands the pressures of academia, a social network that can keep you tied to your field, and the discipline to push forward no matter how lost you feel. My advice– graduate school is hard enough, if you plan to finish it away from your home institute make sure you are prepared for all that entails.