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Kathleen Clarke is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.


I live approximately two hours from where I am enrolled as a graduate student. You might wonder why someone would enroll in a program this far away, but it was a decision that made sense for me for a couple reasons I list in this post. After I finished my master’s degree I knew I wanted to shift to a different institution and the program I was accepted to seemed like it would be a great fit.

Initially, being open to commuting had two major benefits.

1. Widening the scope of institutions to apply to. My partner and I were not willing to move but, because I was open to commuting, I knew I could still travel somewhere to go to school. If I wasn’t open to it, I would have been restricted to the one or two institutions that were close by.

2. Live in a place with cheaper cost-of-living. I go to the University of Toronto, and the cost of living in the city is very high. By living outside of Toronto I’m able to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. For example, because of where I live we own our house, whereas in the city we wouldn’t be able to afford it. If you’re worried about finances, commuting to a big city from the surrounding area might make it more feasible for you to attend a specific institution.

Even though there have been a couple benefits to commuting, there have also been days I’ve dreaded it. The primary drawback is the amount of time commuting takes. If you are thinking about commuting, I recommend that you think about how long you want to spend traveling, since commuting is a big, time-consuming commitment. And, it can take a toll on you emotionally and physically. I was not home very often when I was commuting several days per week, and it was physically exhausting driving or taking taking the train (all commuters know how much it sucks running to catch a train!) for a substantial part of my day.

When you are thinking about how long you want to spend traveling, also pay close attention to the structure of your program. Will the amount of travel time diminish after your coursework has been completed? In the first year of my doctoral program, I was going to school about three times per week, which meant I was on the road or on the train roughly twelve hours a week. Now that I am further along in my program, I don’t have to go in that often.

As a commuter, your experience will be different than that of someone who lives on or close to campus. It can initially be challenging to get familiar with the dynamics of the department and get to know various professors. Socially, it can be difficult to form relationships with peers because you are not on campus as often. However, there are things you can do to manage some of these challenges. In her post about commuting to school, GradHacker Katy Meyers shares several recommendations for those who are commuting. She suggests strategizing with advisors and friends, setting a schedule and developing good habits, finding ways to be involved digitally and in person, and making the commute productive. In another GradHacker post, Terry Brock recommends joining a writing group when you are a commuter, talking with your advisor and committee members on the phone, and flying home to meet with your advisor/committee.

These are great suggestions, and I would add the following:

1. Figure out what you need to feel connected and involved.

Feeling connected to your program and feeling like you are involved in your institution is an important part of student success. For a commuter student, this can be challenging when you may not be on campus as much. While Katy and Terry highlight some recommendations for how to get involved and feel connected to your program, I’d recommend you also reflect on what your needs are. In my first year, I felt I needed to be on campus frequently to develop relationships and get familiar with how to navigate a new institution by attending workshops, special speakers, and departmental activities. Now, in my fifth year, I no longer feel this way and going to school for one day every other week to meet with my advisor and attend a thesis group is sufficient. Throughout your program, you will develop as a graduate student and the things that you need from your program will also develop and shift.

2. Build your connections outside of your institution.

One of the big things that has helped me as a commuter has been developing connections outside of my department and institution. Get involved in a national organization and attend conferences. Find other graduate students that you can connect with over email, Skype, or text. I find that because of the other friendships I’ve built I don’t feel disconnected from the academic environment.  

3. Think about how you want to use your commuting time.

You can use your commuting time in a variety of different ways, depending on how you’re traveling. When I first started my program, I drove for one hour, took the train for another hour, then took the subway (about a te-minute ride) up to my school. During these trips, I sometimes did small tasks that I could get done on the train so that I could make that time productive. For example, I might check my e-mails, make to-do lists, or get my calendar organized. At the time, I hadn’t developed my awesome organizational system yet, but if I had, my time on the train would have been great for working on a semester or weekly plan. Other times, though, I did nothing. I enjoyed the scenery, took naps, and just had down-time. I mentioned earlier that commuting is emotionally and physically draining, and this is why sometimes you will just need to decompress and not do anything, particularly if you’re on your way home after a long day.

Now, I almost always drive to school so I don’t really get anything done. I typically use my driving time to make (hands-free!) phone calls to catch up with friends and family. But, if you wanted to you could listen to podcasts in your field or do voice-to-text notes about your dissertation or other things you’re working on. It just depends on what you envision for your commuting time.

How did you make your decision to be a commuter? What benefits have you experienced because you are commuting?  

[Image by Flickr user Jenni Douglas and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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