What no one told me about grad school: long-distance means far away

graduate admissions
By Kristin

long distane grad school programs

To say that I underestimated moving across the United States is an understatement.

I grew up in a small-ish town in Southern California and went to college a short 50-minute drive away. I thought this meant that I had “moved out,” like a real adult. But I would soon learn that going to your childhood home every other weekend to do laundry doesn’t count.

Like most Californians, I was certain that I was never leaving California. I planned to go to grad school programs somewhere close, but not too close, like San Diego or Los Angeles. I wasn’t even letting my imagination venture as far as Davis or Berkeley. It’s almost endearing to look back at how naïve I was.

So of course, after powering through a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I got accepted into the mathematics Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You know, 3,000 miles away from my beloved California. I was so excited, and all my friends and family were ridiculously proud of me. I was accepting that offer faster than you can say, “Pack your bags.” Every time someone mentioned how far away it was, I thought, “Pshhh, I’m an adult. I’ve lived away from home. I’ll be fine!”

True, it’s not like everyone abandoned me. I had Facebook, a smartphone, and Skype. How could I be alone when technology was on my side? But a pesky three-hour time difference, a dramatic change in scenery, and new cultural norms meant reading texts and occasionally seeing the faces I love on a screen wasn’t cutting it.

Now, I know that for international students, this shock is way more extreme. I have the utmost respect for someone who, not only leaves their state or province, but leaves their country to pursue educational or work-related opportunities. I’m hoping those individuals will give me a little slack here and relate to my story, even though I didn’t have to learn a new language or currency system.

I don’t write this to discourage anyone from traveling for college, work, or graduate school. I write this so that, when the time comes, you’re ready to make that transition and are prepared to work harder in your social life than you had in the past. Long-distance relationships can mean many things, so I’ll break mine down into three categories: Friends, Family, and My Partner.


No one tells you this on graduation day, but making friends as an adult can be rough. There’s no compulsory reason for you to be in the same place at the same time. There are no more convenient times where you all happen to be free every week to hang out. And the people around you are most likely no longer at the same life stage as you. My advice to you here? Invest in others. Be proactive, and be reliable. It may seem weird at first to have to schedule extremely specific times to hang out, (Can you get coffee with me this Tuesday from 1:30-2:00 PM at *inset central location here*?) but it’s worth it. And don’t flake out!

For faraway friends, I recommend scheduled online group chats like Google Hangout. This takes investment from all parties, but it allows you structured, intentional time to catch up on everything going on in your lives. It can be a lifesaver to have something familiar like this to look forward to, especially when you’ve gone on a few awkward coffee dates with potential new friends.


None of these topics have an easy answer, but this one may be the most difficult. Family relationships are tough, and this section only really makes sense if you want to stay in touch with your family. Some things that helped me were frequent, predictable phone calls. My mom commutes to work around 5:30 AM in California. I commute to work around 8 AM on the East Coast. Perfect timing for a daily car ride chat about the goings-on in our lives, the weather, the news, anything that was on our minds.

Another thing people typically love is getting real mail. I send more birthday cards than birthday texts, and I made it a conscious point to send a Christmas card every year. I didn’t know if these made a difference, but when I visited my husband’s side of the family, the Christmas cards were almost the first thing everyone mentioned.

Finally, book some trips. And remind your family that planes fly in both directions. I visited home often, but it was nothing compared to the excitement of showing my mom, grandma, and aunt around my new home in New England. It made me truly appreciate where I was living and created a fondness for my new home now that I had memories of my family having brunch at one of my favorite local breakfast spots.

My Partner

I consider my husband and me pretty much pros at long-distance. Not only am I a grad student, but he’s in the US Navy. Talk about jobs that take you to faraway places.  We met in California weeks before I flew to Massachusetts for grad school and he flew to Illinois for boot camp. While I continued to live in the Northeast, he moved to South Carolina and upstate New York over 2.5 years of training. Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in there we got married in California? Planning a wedding from 3,000 miles away when your partner is 1,000 miles from you is no joke.

The “two-body problem” of coordinating where you and your partner will be in a transitionary period of your lives is always difficult. You both need to be understanding and, above all, excellent at communicating. Compassion is key. This type of situation only works when you’re each willing to support the other, no matter how much you don’t understand what they’re going through. The enemies here? Jealousy, immaturity, and insecurity. Despite what magazines, romantic comedies, or Nick Jonas tell you, unfounded jealousy is not a compliment. These are things that need to be communicated through early and often. Nothing says grudge like waiting to address something until you see your partner in person 57 days from now.

The moral of the story is: long-distance means far away. Be realistic about where you’re going, and be ready to put in more effort than you’ve had to in the past. Relationships of all kinds require investment, communication, and empathy. But investment in others often leads to investment in your own wellbeing. “When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse.” – Rachel Hollis.


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