My first five years of grad school, I lived within walking distance of the campus. I always felt that being close to the university community was important for bonding with other students and becoming a part of the general area. I loved spending my Sundays buying fresh vegetables from the university’s farmers markets, visiting campus on Saturdays for tailgating, and being able to quickly pop over to campus whenever I needed to. I would strongly suggest living near campus for your first couple years of grad school. However, that isn’t always possible and sometimes plans change.
This summer, I moved to a new city about an hour away from my university. Now, this isn’t a huge change in location—I technically could go to campus everyday if I wanted to. Commuting into campus does change things though. I can’t just run to campus to attend a meeting or pick up a book. You need to be selective about when you’ll be driving in, since you don’t want to waste hours driving every single day. For the first month of school this semester, I ended up driving a lot more than I had planned and had much higher stress levels than I expected.
I am completely happy about where I live, but you do need to be strategic about commuting and there are some important lessons I have learned:
1. Strategize the move with advisors: Communicate with your advisors and people you are working with on campus that you are commuting. People are willing to be flexible and make things work for you, but it’s important to keep the communication open from the beginning. If you talk with your advisor, you can come up with a plan to keep on track with your dissertation while working from home  and be strategic about when you’ll be on campus.
2. Strategize the move with friends: A good strategy is also to talk with friends who may have a spare room or couch you can crash on for a night just in case you need to be on campus for a few days straight. Sometimes it is just too much to drive back and forth, so having somewhere local you can stay is extremely helpful!
3. Set a schedule and develop good habits: Before the semester begins, create a schedule for being on campus and working from home. My first month I ended up on campus 3-4 times a week because I didn’t set a strong schedule; now I’m sticking to only Wednesdays and Fridays on campus. Also, make sure you set good work habits if you’re going to be researching and studying from your home. Create a workspace , and try to set hours for yourself as if you were on campus taking courses.
4. Find ways to be involved digitally: When you move away from campus you are going to distance yourself a little from the department (which is both good and bad). You won’t have as much hallway chat time, and you won’t get as many lunches with professors and other grad students. Find ways to connect with your department and colleagues online by participating in twitter conversations, taking part in online writing groups, and taking online courses.
5. Keep being involved in person: Be strategic about picking days when you will be on campus and try to overlap them with days when you can be more involved with the department. For example, I make sure that I schedule Fridays as a commute day since that is when my department does a Brown Bag Lecture. This gives me a chance to physically interact with my colleagues and professors, and shows that I’m still supportive.
6. Make the commute productive: The best piece of advice I got before I started commuting was to listen to audiobooks during the drive. If you’re commuting you have a lot of dead time in the car. If you’re listening to an audiobook, the ride feels more productive. You can use this time to catch up on novels you’ve wanted to read, or maybe practice your language skills. A good alternative is listening to NPR.
Commuting can be difficult, but sometimes it is necessary. However, planning ahead can make your life so much easier. If you end up being further away and can’t necessarily commute weekly, check out Terry Brock’s post from the archives on doing the dissertation from afar .
What is your advice for commuters?
[Image by Flickr user Matt Comwell , used under creative commons licensing.]