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Posted on 14 Feb '20

Can You Commute for a PhD? And Should You?

Thinking of living away from campus during your PhD? Is commuting to university during a doctorate really as bad as it seems? Or can it actually be an advantage? Here Marcus reflects on his commute while working towards his PhD.

A question I get a lot is – Why? Why don’t you just live closer? Why do you put yourself through this?

People are always curious as to why I live so far away from the university. The main reason is family, both my partner and I started our PhD projects at the same time, hers in cancer biology, while mine is in protein structure and function.

However, they were in different cities (luckily the same county) meaning one of us would have to commute if we wanted to live together.

So, it was either we live in one city and I commute, we live in the other city and she commutes, or we live somewhere in-between and we both commute. The last option didn’t seem very practical. You could say I drew the short straw, but the deciding factor was that we both liked one city over the other. Another factor is the project type: her cell cultures need a lot more looking after (and a lot of weekend work) whereas my project has a lot of 16-hour incubations – you could say my cells do all of my work for me.

And so I catch a 1 hour train there and back every day (almost). With a bus ride either side it’s 2 hours door to door (4 hour round trip – eek) which may sound dreadful, but it’s not as uncommon as you may think. At Postgraduate level, a lot of people already have existing lives and family or don’t have the money / notion to move to a new city. But what is it really like?

So, here are some of the ups and downs of commuting as a PhD student and why it’s possible to do a PhD and commute.

The good

#1 Time to catch up on some reading – Spending two hours a day sat (if I’m lucky) on a train gives me time to read those all-important research papers . . . or not. A lot of the time I end up reading a novel, catching up on the latest TV series or listening to podcasts (just maybe not all at once). This isn’t wasted time, though: having a bit of leisure in the morning helps me focus when I get to the lab. My journey is also a good opportunity to have a deep think about my results without being distracted. Or I can prepare notes for monthly meetings. Either way, commuting sets this time aside without distractions.

#2 City living not to your taste? – So you’ve found the perfect project at a nice university but the city isn’t up to your standards, or maybe you just prefer living more rural? Then you’ll be glad to know that commuting is a great solution to your problem. The UK intercity rail network is great for this with some places providing about 3 trains per hour – at least in theory.

#3 Cost of living – Most of the time it’s cheaper to live outside the city centre (or even in a different city). Having said that, train tickets aren’t cheap! Season tickets are the best way to go and some universities even offer a travel scheme that allows you to buy a year ticket (cheaper than the weekly or monthly option) and pay it back every month to spread the cost. This may not be available everywhere so it’s worth checking before making your decision.

#4 Permission to work from home – Working from home can be very useful, especially towards the end of your PhD. Personally, I find it easier to analyse data and write-up on my own computer. And because I live 2 hours away I feel it’s more acceptable to work from home.

The bad

#1 Rush hour – Standing the whole way home after being on your feet all day isn’t fun, especially if you’re cramped on a stuffy train and standing next to the toilet. Having said that, you’ll probably get quite good at avoiding the busy trains – I quickly picked up the best trains to get, and even the best way to get that table seat every day.

#2 Train cancellations / delays – Ahh the notorious punctuality of the railways. Of course, it’s always someone else’s fault “because of a slow running train in front of this one” and don’t get me started on the weather – first sign of snow or those dreaded leaves on the track. There’s always the option to drive but with the number of times that I’ve fallen asleep on the train home – not the best idea! Plus city parking can be a nightmare (and expensive!).

#3 Early start / late return – Most days I’m out of the house before 6.30am and don’t usually get back until gone 7pm. You have to bear in mind a PhD isn’t necessarily a 9-5. Because of these long hours tiredness can reduce work efficiency – that odd wrong calculation or adding the wrong volume of acid – it can set you back quite a bit having to restart or end up with the wrong result.

#4 Miss out on nights out – If I want to get home at a somewhat reasonable hour (and not get the 6am train home only to get the 8am train back in again) I very often have to pass on that pint with my lab mates. This is where my ‘we’ll see’ philosophy come in, usually it means no but is also doesn’t prevent all propositions, just in case one day I do feel up to joining them.

And the ugly

Sometimes with travel you get these unavoidable events.

One day I had to stay later than I usually do, just so happens that this was the day the football team of the city I work in was playing the football team of the city I live in – the train was overcrowded with semi-drunk fans shouting and singing– not great after a full day in the lab. I now find myself regularly checking the football fixtures – call it research.

Final remarks

All being said, over the past four years I have spent a large portion of my time travelling. But it’s not so bad: I still get my work done, get to attend most seminars and get to meetings on time (9am ones are killers though). But one thing commuting has taught is me how to better manage my time.

I have only covered a few areas and of course everyone’s situation is different but hopefully it gives you a good idea of what commuting as a PhD student is like.

So, whether you decide to commute or don’t think it’s for you, it might not be as bad as you think. And even though it can be difficult at times, it is very much possible.

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Last Updated: 14 February 2020