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




Since about, oh, November 8, 2016 or so, rural America has taken some heat in the form of articles, analysis, and celebrity thinkpieces by authors hailing from more densely populated places. The political divide between urban and rural dominates the headlines but, after splitting my years with near-perfect symmetry between town and country, I’m more interested in the lifestyle differences that don’t show up in the ballot box and, particularly, how a rural environment might lend itself to graduate study.


This isn’t to disparage city folks (even if they just don’t get it). In fact, I’m more Son in Law than Ray Kinsella: an urban cowboy looking to prove country bonafides. I’ve personally relied on the myriad benefits of graduate school in a big city: coffee shops open past 6:00 p.m. for those marathon writing sessions, airports with direct flights to conference destinations, large academic and cultural institutions besides your own in which to find collaborators, etc. But those benefits are so obvious that grad students evaluating potential academic homes might never consider what’s outside the city limits.


For starters, it’s affordable. Grad students are notoriously hard-pressed for cash - so much so that this publication has its own in-house (and excellent!) financial adviser. Living on stipends, fellowships, loans, or some combination thereof encourages grad students to be master bargain hunters, so why not investigate places where the entire cost of living comes at a reduced price? Consider, for example, how much farther a dollar can get you in Champaign instead of Chicago, Athens instead of Atlanta, or Binghamton instead of the Big Apple. Yes, the presence of a university in a small town does tend to create a bump in prices compared to truly far-flung rural hamlets, but your rent, groceries, and other necessities will still be less than what your urban colleagues are paying.


You’ll have an easy time calculating the money you’ve saved because rural life is also quiet. Some detractors might substitute the term ‘boring’ though, anecdotally, I find those critics’ boredom to be the product of conscious disengagement with their surroundings rather than a lack of community activity. True, no one will ever label Bloomington, Indiana as “the city that never sleeps” but I would consider this advantageous to grad students who, by the nature of their work, lead somewhat monastic lives. It’s easier to spend more time in the library or the lab working toward graduation (i.e, the whole point of grad school) without the distractions and hassles of urban life. As with cost of living, dropping a large university into a town tends to boost the amount of distraction available beyond that of the tumbleweed trope you might associate with rural life. That said, I doubt you’ll confuse the nightlife options on Manhattan Island with those in Manhattan, Kansas. Admittedly, many of those urban distractions are quite fun; there’s a reason cities establish tourism bureaus. However, keep in mind that people shell out absurd amounts of money to escape even fun distractions on writers’ retreats. What are grad students, if not writers?


Completing graduate school in the so-called middle of nowhere can also broaden your perspective in unexpected ways, particularly if you’ve never had a reason to spend an extended amount of time outside of urban areas. I’ve written before about how new surroundings can improve your grad experience and choosing a rural school can be a means of changing that scenery. Rural schools, by their location, tend to attract rural students, who bring unique insight to academia. Even outside the walls of your institution, you’ll have a greater chance to meet interesting people from varying backgrounds than you might guess.


Finally, earning your graduate degree in flyover country might give you an advantage in the academic job search. Finding an academic (alt- or not) job is hard, and GradHackers have given their advice and ideas to jumpstart your job search, but the sheer paucity of job openings means applicants can’t afford to be picky. If you have survived living and studying at a rural institution as a grad student, you’ve discovered an important fact about yourself: you can, in fact, manage to succeed in academia even without the typical resources and advantages of urban living. This allows you to broaden your job search, even if only slightly, to include institutions further from skyscrapers and subway stations. While this advantage might not manifest on your CV, it will help you overcome any apprehension you might have about that assistant professor job at Endless Cornfields University.


What advice do you have for grad students considering forays into rural academia? Any urban legends that became rural success stories? Let us know in the comments!


[Image courtesy of Flickr user Matthew Baron and used under a Creative Commons license]

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