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Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




The graduate school admissions process is a favorite topic of grad-centric publications, my own favorite publication included. Much is made of perfecting your application and before that much is made about deciding where to apply and before that much is made about knowing if you should even bother. I don’t consider it too much of a stretch to postulate that most people considering graduate school enjoy (or at least have a high tolerance for) being a student. True zealots, like us GradHackers, might even love it!  Whether you tolerate, enjoy, or love your graduate studies, chances are that prior positive experiences in your education thus far - classes where you grew, teachers you admired, a town where you were comfortable -  played a major role in encouraging you to stick with it for a few extra degrees. If those prior positive experiences happened at your undergraduate institution, it might make sense to consider a graduate career at the same school.


For reasons I’ll just assume made sense at the time, I went to graduate school twice: once at a school I had never visited before applying to and once at the same school where I spent my undergraduate years. Although both stints were overwhelmingly positive, my behavior, interactions, and overall experience at each were wildly different. While it doesn’t quite have the rigor of a control group and experimental group, I’m hoping that comparing these experiences could be useful to a student deciding between ‘home’ and ‘away’ graduate programs.


First, if you’re considering staying home for graduate school (particularly within the same academic department), do a self-assessment of how you might be perceived by folks you’ll be working with. According to the clichés hanging on career counselors’ office walls, you only get one chance to make a first impression. That could put you at a disadvantage as a graduate student if, like me, your first impression involved falling asleep in class and writing multiple term papers explaining why Mary Ann was actually the hot one. Graduate school has elements of specificity, networking, and career building beyond the more general goals of undergrad and it can be a little awkward, at age 25, to solicit a make-or-break recommendation from an esteemed faculty member who can remember what you were like at age 18. College freshmen are always looking to reinvent themselves and the same can be done, as needed, by moving away for graduate school. Conversely, if you’re already beloved by the decision-making faculty and administrators, I don’t see anything wrong with staying home and exploiting those relationships.


Another component worth considering is what role you see your social life playing in graduate school. Joining a cohort of entering graduate students from around the globe is an exciting opportunity to participate in a built-in community of equally-new-in-town folks and, when I first moved away for graduate school, I had great fun exploring our new hometown and forming close bonds with people I would never have met if not for our shared interest in acquiring esoteric degrees. The second time around, I returned home for graduate school and my social engagement with my classmates was essentially non-existent. I’m sure they were perfectly wonderful people but, when Friday night rolled around, blindly trying out the crappy pizza place with a bunch of relative strangers simply couldn’t compete with joining my oldest ride-or-die homies at the pizza place we already knew was the best in a 100-mile radius. I didn’t care about exploring the town; I had mastered it years ago. That said, opportunities to justify picking up and moving to a new town are limited, if that sounds like something you want to include in your graduate school experience.


I would also recommend having a serious conversation with yourself about whether attending a new institution will impact your academic goals differently than attending a familiar institution would. A quick survey of opinions on the matter indicate that staying put for graduate school can be everything from “career suicide” to “the fast track for direct involvement with research,” so it might be worth your time to talk to some trusted faculty about the norms for your particular field. Schools of like prestige and quality tend to look identical on the inside, so if degrees from multiple institutions will be an expectation on your CV several years down the road, moving away might have an irresistible upside. After all, graduate school does end eventually and you want to leave with whatever credentials you hoped for.


Although I think these variables are important enough to affect your choice between home and away graduate programs, it doesn’t actually matter what I think. Like most graduate-school-related decisions, no dispositive flowchart exists for this one; your circumstances and goals should take priority. That disclaimer out of the way, I’d really like to know what influenced your decision between staying home and moving away for graduate school.


GradHackers: did you have a home/away decision as a prospective grad student? Did you stay put? Or did you deliberately seek out new surroundings? Why? Would you make the same choice again, knowing what you know now? Tell us about it in the comments!

[Image provided by Flickr user Jenny Scott and used under a Creative Commons license]

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