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Relationships when moving abroad for graduate study.

  1. Oct 1, 2012 #1
    I have put this post in academic guidance because I am not looking for relationship advice, but for info about how easy it is keep friend and family ties when moving to study somewhere completely new, as well as the practicalities involved.

    I'm considering graduate study in the USA(I'm from the UK). I've gone so far as to sit the GRE and start the applications so I'm quite serious. My main concern with US PhDs is that they take a long time, during which I would lose contact with a lot of people. I realise that facebook and skype makes it much easier to keep in touch over long distances, but it would still be impossible to pop over for tea on the weekend for example.

    As a PhD student on an average stipend, how often would I be able to fly home and visit?

    Does it sound reasonable to set aside $2k per year? If flights were $700 return, that would be about three trips home per year.

    How much time off could I expect to take?

    I would also be interested in hearing about how other people have dealt with these issues.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 2, 2012 #2
    Hi JesseC,

    I completely understand your concern about moving so far from home. I moved about an 8 hour drive away from home (not the same as overseas but just far enough where it doesn't make sense to just hop in my car on a whim and drive home for the weekend). There are times where I really miss being able to see my family on a regular basis and wish I hadn't moved so far away. I find the best way to deal with it is to remind myself that graduate school is not forever and that when it is over I can make every effort to move closer to home.

    Anyway, to answer your questions, on an average stipend plane tickets will be quite expensive anytime of the year. However, I think it would be doable to make it home a few times a year if you plan/save up ahead of time like you intend. Perhaps you could sign up for frequent flyer miles so that every now and then you can get a free trip?

    In terms of how much time you can take off, that depends on your research and your advisor. Most advisors I have seen are pretty good about this but some are more uptight so this is something you will have to gauge before you start working for a particular professor.

    Best of luck with your decision.
  4. Oct 2, 2012 #3
    Thanks Someone, air/sky miles are a good idea. My google search tells me that flights to the north east coast cost at least £400 and to the west coast cost at least £600. That translates to $650 and $1000 dollars. So I wouldn't be able to afford as many trips home from the west coast, which is a shame because I am looking at the UoWashington.

    As an undergraduate I got 3 weeks off for Christmas, 3 off for Easter and about 14 off for the summer, making a total of 20 weeks or just under 5 months. (Actually surprised by this, it felt like nothing at the time since Christmas and Easter were usually spent revising for exams). I understand that PhD students are expect to work through the summer and I don't want to sound like I'm planning to skyve off all the time!

    So, does 2 months off per year for a PhD student sound reasonable?
  5. Oct 2, 2012 #4
    It's terrible. This is coming from something with tons of experience doing this. 2 months per year? Yeah right. We get 3 weeks here. You're also poor, so flying is expensive. Hopefully your BF has money to fly to see you instead.

    You're not in college anymore, so get that mindset completely out of your head. Treat grad school more like a full time job. How many full time jobs do you know of that give someone 2 months off every year?

    I just bought a ticket to see the sig other after 9 months away. I expect it to take me practically all of next year to pay it off (or at least a major portion of it).
  6. Oct 2, 2012 #5
    School teachers do... :p. So you're telling me that taking 2 weeks off over Christmas, 2 weeks off at Easter and say 3 weeks during the summer is unheard of? I get that the US has some of the longest working hours and least holiday time of any country, but seriously...?

    May I ask how far away your significant other is and what your stipend is?
  7. Oct 2, 2012 #6
    School teachers are a special situation and of course get the entire summer off. Their paychecks reflect this though.

    Where I work is not atypical. Here, people get 2-4 weeks of vacation (depending on seniority), plus 11 holiday days (one of which "floats" and can be used on any day). That would be a total of 4-6 weeks off, not the 7 you are discussing here.

    This is also a job, not graduate school. You will probably work more in graduate school.

    As a graduate student, your bigger problem will be money though.
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2012
  8. Oct 2, 2012 #7
    Here are some other things you can try.

    This one is pretty obvious. Technology has made it so you can view the other person in real time as you communicate with them, use this.

    Try to hang out with her in a virtual world such as second life.

    Wait until tele-emerging technolgy develops.

    Soon distance will not be an issue. Think of how far we have come since the 1600s with respect to long distance communication. A hundred years from now there will also be virtual kinesthetic communication in real time, and later virtual (or not so virtual) sex.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  9. Oct 2, 2012 #8
    I live about 1800 miles from my hometown, even farther from where I spent my years as an undergraduate, which was my most recent home before this. It is difficult in the beginning, but if you have a good group of friends and find the folks in your research bearable, I think it eases the burden a lot.

    My first semester was tough, but now, I don't necessarily equate time off with going home. I'd rather travel other places or just explore my local area. I guess the point is that it's possible for the place where you go to graduate school to become your home. Once that happens, you'll enjoy time with your family when you see them, but your life will be wherever you are.

    If you save money and budget wisely, you should be able to afford a few flights per year. I've found I would rather be more social most of the time than be a stickler throughout the year just so I can see family more often. Maybe that sounds harsh, but most of the time you are at your graduate instiution. It makes more sense to me to maximize your day-to-day happiness. Your mileage may vary, though.

    I'm going to have to agree with gravenewworld. Two months is a lot. But it really is such a function of your advisor that it's hard to say. My advisor has the work hard/play hard mentality, so graduate students in our group typically get 4 to 5 weeks off per year. He also is from Europe, though, so he understands what it's like to live very far from your family.

    I have friends who complain that their advisors only give them off two weeks per year, but most of them only work forty hours a week. I just don't see how you can expect to put in the bare minimum that is required of you but then be rewarded with extradinary vacation packages.

    The key here is to speak with graduate students in your potential research groups. They'll be able to honestly tell you what it's like to work with that Professor: how time off works, how their social lifes are, etc.

    I agree up to the point that technologies like Skype and mobile phones have made it easier to stay in contact with family and friends, but it is still not the same as spending time with loved ones in person. The dynamic is mostly different when you're face-to-face for an extended period of time versus staring at eachother on computers for an hour or so a week. I posit that technology will never replace real, face-to-face interaction.

    It's much more difficult to do this with a significant other. Long distance relationships have varying degrees of success. But I will say that my friends that are in long distance relationships spend a substantial amount of time on Skype every night, to the point where they break social obligations in person just to "be" with their SO. A friend of mine from undergrad, also attending graduate school on the East Coast (who is dating someone halfway across the country) recently told me that he feels he has no friends, just colleagues. Why? When everyone else was getting to know each other, he was staying at home, talking to his girlfriend.

    My point is that distance is hard, and it's even harder when you're a graduate student who puts in a lot of hours per week.

    The main takeaway is this:

    Graduate school is something that you really have to want, pretty much for its own sake. I think it's awesome that I get paid to do science, even if that means working insane hours. Just realize you will have to make sacrifices, you will drift apart from some friends, and you may miss out on some things with your family. To expect otherwise would be naive. The great part is there is nothing stopping you from making new friends, being fulfilled by your work, and having a new home.
  10. Oct 2, 2012 #9
    Click on my link that I posted to see what I meant by tele emerging technology, if you already haven't that is. Your right, skype and other mobile apps are not as good as the real thing. However, in the future the word long-distance will be almost redundant as technology progresses.
  11. Oct 2, 2012 #10
    A lot of this entirely depends on your adviser. I know of advisers who expect students to take effectively no vacation time and others who effectively do not care how much you take at all.
  12. Oct 3, 2012 #11
    How long is a manageable commute? Is driving 5 hours manageable every few months and taking 3 days off sometimes to see friends OK? I've never driven so long before. The longest I've driven was 3 hours at a time stuck in traffic.

    Has anyone had similar experiences?
  13. Oct 3, 2012 #12
    I agree with the other posters that 2 months is probably too much to count on. As a domestic student who normally works 50-60 hours a week, the only time off I usually plan for is 1-2 weeks for Christmas and New Year's and 1 week off during the summer.

    Sometimes, if there is a special occasion (like my mother's 60th birthday this February) I will ask my advisor if it is alright to take a day or two off here and there and she usually has no problem with this.

    Another thing you may want to consider is how being so far from home will impact what you can do during a family emergency. For example, my mother was very sick for a month and a half earlier this year. She recovered but it required major surgery. During this time, I appreciated the fact that I could get home pretty quickly and easily (just hop in my car go) but if you are living overseas this may be more difficult.
  14. Oct 3, 2012 #13
    OK, so you're suggesting cryogenic storage until technology becomes more advanced? ;)

    Yeah I realise that moving somewhere for 5 years means making a new life and being prepared to leave a lot behind. Some parents see this as essential for their children, for example I know a lot of Chinese students who go without seeing their families for years just to get good qualifications abroad. However, from my parents point of view it is not necessary for me to go so far since there are very good universities here too.

    I don't really understand this issue about being poor. I am a naturally frugal person and I've looked at the fellowships at the universities I'm interested in and they range from $25k to $30k per year, which seems like a lot to me. Here the highest stipend you can get is £16k ($25k) per year and that is special to London because the living expenses are so much higher. Are average living expenses in the US higher than London?! Or is the money not just to live on but also for academic expenses?

    I would do this, but some of the programs I'm looking state that prof.-student assignment doesn't happen until after you arrive. I would also feel awkward emailing random grad students about their social lives XD.

    Thanks for the advice though, it is helping me make more sense of the whole thing.
  15. Oct 3, 2012 #14
    $25-30K is about $2000-$2500 per month. If you wanted to go to Stanford, for example, you could easily spend all of that on a simple studio apartment. But you'd probably also want to eat, buy textbooks, and get around...

    It's not desperate poverty, but you'll think twice about taking too many expensive flights home!
  16. Oct 3, 2012 #15


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    There is one, maybe two, days off for Easter. There is a week off for spring break, typically. I don't think you're going to get 2 weeks off around Easter anywhere, especially if you have to TA.

    I typically go home (US to Canada) twice a year, once at christmas for 2-3 weeks and once in the summer, typically for about two weeks. I have taken week-long trips during Thanksgiving week and/or spring break week before, but I have not gone further than US->Canada for those. So, I suppose in early grad school I got around 2 months of vacation scattered about the year (though I still did some work on vacation), but lately I haven't really gone anywhere for thanksgiving and my last spring break trip was only about 5 days (2 of which were travel).

    So, I think it might be reasonable to go back to the UK twice a year, but 3 is probably going to be pushing it (and if you're not able to do work on vacation it may also extend your time in grad school!). Also, when I traveled home, it was usually my parents who bought tickets with their airmiles. If I paid for it out of pocket every time, I might only go home once a year.
  17. Oct 3, 2012 #16


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    When I was a graduate student (in Canada) we officially got 2 weeks of vacation, but no one really enforced this. As long as we progressed on our projects, kept our supervisors happy and fulfilled our TA duties, we weren't really monitored all that closely. Really the big issue is that the more time you take off, the longer it takes to complete your project.

    As fas as relationships go, you're basically starting a new life in my opinion. Sure you'll keep in touch with old friends - particularly the important ones. But if you do it more than a couple of years, you'll find that you'll make new friends and develop new relationships.

    I travelled to the other side of the country for graduate school (4 hour flight) and as a student managed to get home twice a year at first, later once a year. I quickly met an awesome girl and eventually we got married. Now the this is our home.
  18. Oct 3, 2012 #17
    When I was in gradschool, we got 10 vacation days (2 weeks a year) and how much it was enforced depended on the advisor. I generally took three weeks (one at Christmas, two in August) and my advisor was fine with that. I probably couldn't have taken much more.

    Stipend at my university was about a bit under 20k a year. 2k isn't an impossible goal to set aside, though for much of the US that will equate to one trip transatlantic a year.
  19. Oct 3, 2012 #18
    Well, I was just trying to get your hopes up. Cryogenic storage hasn't been made available yet, sorry for the tease! :devil:
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