On why New York is the best place to go to graduate school.

It's either this or collegiate gothic.

It’s either this or collegiate gothic.

What, you ask? What about the neogothic campuses, the intense and intimate academic atmosphere, the greenery and constant sight of bustling undergraduates, all the stuff that gets put on university websites and seems to embody the academic dream? What about the lack of commutes, housing problems, insanely long shopping lines, and people barfing on the subway.

Well, going to graduate school in New York rocks precisely because it forces a daily distance between yourself and academic dream. Look, when I was applying to history programs, one of my favorite professors sat down with me and recounted her own Princeton experience, not that long ago. What stuck with me was one sentence: “It’s just another job. It can’t be your life. Block time for it, and block time for things that are not it.”

It was excellent advice, but extremely hard to put to practice. There is no nine-to-five schedule to academia, and in fact, there are plenty of aspects that force you to step out of a routine and have your work spill over to every other aspect of your life. Whether it’s writing final papers or grading them, talks and workshops that start at 6:30 or conferences that take up entire week-ends. It’s not like any job does not have moments of high-pressure overwork – when I was working in journalism, I often got up at 4AM to head to a remote town to cover a spring festival and worked weekends when national crises arose – but there was at least an acknowledgment that these are exceptional circumstances that ought to be rewarded, rather than just par for the course.

So it is tremendously helpful, if the logic of New York real estate forces you on a crowded train every night for half an hour. It’s time you get to spend with yourself (this is something, I’m told at yoga, is really important) – and while you could conceivably spend it reading for your dissertation, you quickly discover that squeezed between 8 million commuters, you’re better off listening to a podcast, or simply, your own thoughts.

It’s also a constant reminder that the world is larger than grad school, which, as anyone who’s lived on-campus can tell, is tremendously easy to forget if you spend 90% of your time at your university. And I mean this both in the positive and negative sense – you are reminded that there are plenty of other exciting things out there that people are doing, and that your job is not so special that you should sacrifice your life to it… but also that not everyone gets to make their own hours and travel around the globe for their research/conferences. Which, despite being awesome, is also all to easy to take for granted once you get used to it.

It also imposes a natural break into your day, one that you’d otherwise have to create solely through self-motivation. I’ve made it a rule to never write at home (partly because I can’t, since the allure of other things like sleep and cooking tends to be quite overwhelming) – which means that once I jump on that train, I’m done for the day. Sure, I might read, do e-mails or other incidentals, but no big stuff. And man that feels good. Plus, there is no decision fatigue involved, because you just get on the train when you get on the train (usually as you’re starting to feel hungry).

Finally, if the PhD does not work out, hey, at least you spent six years of your life in New York!

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