Living in the USA - A Guide for PhD Students
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Living in the USA - A Guide for PhD Students

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As the world’s most popular study abroad destination, the USA needs little introduction. Sprawling cities, idyllic college towns and hi-tech campuses – the USA has something to offer PhD students of every type.

But what’s it actually like to study and research in America? This page will give you a guide to some student essentials, from culture and transport to accommodation and work visas.

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Student life

America’s 50 states are endlessly diverse, encompassing arid deserts, rugged coastlines, rolling plains and ancient forests. Sophisticated cities like New York and Boston are world-renowned higher education hubs, while specialist research institutes can be found across the country.

Realistically, as a PhD student you could find yourself based anywhere in the USA – we’ll do our best to sum up what makes the United States such a great place to study and live.

Culture and tourism

Thanks to Hollywood, we’re all pretty familiar with what the USA has to offer tourists. Iconic sights like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls are among the most visited natural attractions in the world, while Disneyland(s), the glitz of Las Vegas and the lively back-alleys of New Orleans represent less sedate ways to experience America.

The USA is blessed with countless significant cultural institutions, galleries and museums, and it would be impossible to do them justice here. New York City alone has the cutting-edge MoMA, the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art and the spellbinding American Museum of Natural History.

Of course, the USA is a relatively young country but you can experience its revolutionary past in vibrant cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Washington DC has a world-class collection of museums with several excellent universities and research institutes.

Sport and leisure

Sport is inescapable in America – especially at its universities, many of which boast huge stadiums that rival (or even eclipse!) the biggest ‘soccer’ stadiums over the pond in Europe.

American football, ice hockey, baseball, basketball. . . wherever you study your PhD, it’s likely that you’ll be able to adopt a nearby sports team and maybe even give it a go first-hand. If you’re unsure of the rules, friendly locals will usually be more than happy to explain what everything means.

In terms of non-competitive leisure activities, everything depends on the region you’re living in. You could go hiking in the Pacific Northwest’s lush rainforests, experience New England’s glorious autumnal leaves or camp out in the woods of upstate New York. Over on the West Coast, give surfing a go and catch some gnarly Californian waves (in between long stints in the lab, of course). The Rocky Mountains are renowned for snowboarding and skiing, while the Florida Keys are perfect for scuba-diving.

Food and drink

American cuisine is a reflection of the country’s diverse nature, taking inspiration from the immigrants – past and present – that have made America their home. The Chicago deep-pan style of pizza is a product of Italian-Americans, while Tex-Mex food is heavily influenced by Mexican delicacies.

Up in New England, you can try out clam chowder and freshly-caught lobster. Twin Peaks fans shouldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy a slice of cherry pie with a pipin’ hot cup of joe at a quaint roadside diner in Washington state.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that attitudes to alcohol vary widely across the States and may be quite different to what you’re used to back home. The minimum age for the consumption of alcohol is 21, although unless you’re a child prodigy this probably won’t affect you. Many states have strict curfews for the sale of alcohol. And, if you’re at a bar, it’s important to tip the bartender at least a dollar per drink!

Accommodation

There’s likely to be a range of accommodation to suit every taste – and budget – wherever you choose to study your PhD in America.

University dormitories

Most universities will have their own accommodation buildings, some of which may be aimed specifically at mature graduate students. This could take the form of a self-contained studio, a shared apartment or a series of bedrooms with a shared bathroom and kitchen area. If you have a family, you may be able to apply for special accommodation.

It’s fairly common for undergraduates to share a bedroom with a fellow student but this is less likely to be the case for graduate accommodation.

University-owned housing will usually be cheaper than private alternatives, but competition will be tough so it pays to apply as early as possible.

There will often be a choice between on- and off-campus housing, each with their own benefits.

Private rentals

If you aren’t able to secure suitable university accommodation, there will usually be a good selection of private housing – often aimed at students. You may want to rent a single apartment by yourself or share a house with likeminded individuals to split the bills.

Be aware that tenants’ rights vary greatly from state to state. If you’re unsure about a particular landlord, ask your university’s international student office for advice.

Living costs

The sheer size and diversity of the USA means that living costs differ widely from state to state (and even within states). In general, the North East is the most expensive region in which to live, with New York City in particular renowned for being costly. Over on the West Coast, California can be pricy.

If you’re on a budget, parts of the South and the Midwest are more affordable.

Prices in the USA

This table lists some average prices for typical expenses that you’ll encounter during your time in the USA.


Student Cost of Living in the USA - 2019
Restaurant Meal USD $14.90
Cinema Ticket USD $12.00
Monthly Travel Pass USD $70.00
Monthly Utilities USD $152.00
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

According to the conditions of your F-1 student visa, you can work on-campus for up to 20 hours a week during term-time and full-time during the holidays.

If you want to work off-campus, you’ll have to satisfy strict employment conditions dictated by your student visa and wait until you’ve completed your first academic year. Your employment must fall under one of the following categories:

  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) – This is temporary work that is closely related to your studies, authorised for a period of up to 12 months
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension – This is an extension of OPT available to STEM students for up to 24 months
  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT) – This includes work placements and opportunities that are a compulsory part of your PhD programme

In terms of working hours, you must only engage in off-campus employment for 20 hours a week during term-time and full-time during vacation.

For more information, please visit the US Government’s page on student visas and employment.

Banking

It’s a good idea to open an American bank account as soon as possible upon your arrival in the States. It’ll make paying for bills and groceries a lot easier, and you won’t have to worry about the fluctuations in the exchange rate between the dollar and your home currency.

Most major banks offer student accounts, with perks and waived fees for those attending university. It should be fairly easy to open an account once you’ve arrived. Banks will usually require the following documents:

  • Passport
  • Student visa
  • An acceptance letter from your university
  • Proof of your US address

ATMs are widespread in the USA, although they do charge a transaction fee for withdrawals (often $2.50).

Transport

America’s huge size can make travelling interstate seem daunting. However, the country’s extensive highway network provides plenty of opportunities for iconic road trips. If you don’t drive, Greyhound buses (and plenty of other bus companies) are a cheap way of travelling between cities.

Rail travel

The USA’s railways aren’t as developed as those in Europe or parts of Asia. However, the famous Amtrak trains serve most major American cities (and a handful of Canadian ones), making for a comfortable way to experience the oft-stunning scenery of the American countryside.

Air travel

Domestic flights are often the best way to travel the vast distances between American cities. It takes around six hours to fly from coast to coast.

Inner-city travel

Urban transit options vary widely from city to city. Some – like New York City, Washington DC and Boston – have well-developed metro systems, while others are disappointingly reliant on the automobile. In general, you’ll find that American cities are much more car-centric than their European counterparts. If you don’t drive, there will usually be a relatively extensive bus network, or you can make use of local taxis and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft.

Find a PhD in the USA

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in America? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

Last updated - 01/11/2019

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