Location, location, location!

Graduate school and postdoctoral stints offer
a nice change of place, so choose wisely

Young scientists repeatedly hear that they will not have the freedom to be selective about where they live when they are searching for faculty positions. Unfortunately, this is true in most cases, especially now, with only about 20 percent of Ph.D.s obtaining academic, tenure-track positions. But this is also great motivation to put a lot of thought into where you will live during graduate school and during your postdoctoral years.
Since location can influence your happiness, here are stories of scientists who determined their paths partly by location and have never looked back.
Justin Crest is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He started his higher-education path on the California coast, attending graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. But before accepting UCSC as his graduate school of choice, he was offered a fellowship at Columbia University in New York that would cover five years of funding. Despite the wonderful offer from Columbia, he says, location was key to making his decision:
“Graduate school is a difficult initial step into academic research. Choosing the wrong program can make this step even more difficult, which is why I considered many factors – from prestige, to class size, to distance from my family. Not to mention, living in a beautiful location like Santa Cruz makes every failed Western blot sting a little less.”
Having grown up and completed her undergraduate studies in Arkansas, Shondra Miller had become accustomed to a reasonable cost of living. Regardless, she applied to graduate schools across the U.S. She was fortunate enough to get accepted to several schools, including The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Ultimately, she says, the decision came down to affordability of each location:
“I considered my options. I could go to Scripps and live with four other people in a studio apartment, or I could go to UTSW and actually own a two-bedroom, two-bath home. I figured I could do excellent science at either school, but I would be happier doing it with a little space to call my own.”
After completing his Ph.D. in Dallas, Mark Chen considered his options for his postdoctoral research. He had grown up in Michigan and Southern California and was fond of both locations. Knowing that he would be happy in either place, he limited himself to Ann Arbor, Mich., and San Diego for postdoctoral labs. In the end, he decided to live in San Diego and enjoyed his time back on the West Coast. He explains:
“I was very interested in the work of both labs, in Michigan and San Diego. Ultimately, I wanted to experience not just science but life in a new location. While I had a soft spot in my heart for Ann Arbor, I felt going to San Diego would be new and exciting. It didn’t hurt either that the average temperature of San Diego was 70 degrees. Looking back, I think choosing a location that you are happy outside of work is very important to your mental well-being. In the end, your experience is what you make of it, but there are certain characteristics of a location that appeal to your interests that makes the grind of a postdoc more bearable.”

Respondent Location Salary comparison* Difference
Justin Crest Santa Cruz, Calif. $40,000 32.1%
  New York $58,952  
Shondra Miller Dallas $40,000 26.7%
  La Jolla, Calif. $54,607  
Mark Chen San Diego $40,000 −28.1%
  Ann Arbor, Mich. $31,224  
Shaila Kotadia Santa Cruz, Calif. $40,000 −52.6
  Kansas City, Mo. $26,214  
* All data collected on CNN Money with closest comparable city:

And then there’s me. When choosing my postdoctoral lab, I had it narrowed down to the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo., or the University of California, Santa Cruz. Both offered wonderful mentors who I knew would help me flourish as an independent scientist. The faculty members I spoke to encouraged me to go to Stowers, given its prestige and limitless resources. My friends didn’t understand why I was even thinking about it; clearly, Santa Cruz was the city for me.
As much as I struggled with the decision, and while Kansas City was unexpectedly charming, it took just one look at the ocean to know that I was moving to Santa Cruz. It was the best decision I’ve ever made and an experience I never will forget.

Shaila KotadiaShaila Kotadia (skotadia@
berkeley.edu) is the education and outreach manager for the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at the University of California, Berkeley.