Super commuter: Grad student edition

I recently learned that there is a name for the thing I do nearly every week: super-commuting. Most Friday afternoons, I catch the bus in downtown Montréal and go home to Trois-Rivières for the weekend to see my cats, my home, and my boyfriend. Admittedly, the distance is only about 150km, so I don’t know if it counts officially as a super-commute, but it feels like one to me. It is certainly better than my previous super-commute, which was between Panama and Trois-Rivières, was closer to 7,600km, and only happened every 4-6 months.


Everyone’s favourite Friday afternoon.

As a graduate student, particularly once you start to get older and have things like partners or spouses, the super-commute becomes less uncommon. Graduate studies are often very flexible in terms of how you use your time, but certain aspects are constraining, such as field seasons (summer is but once a year) and study sites. These limited times and places mean that you have to be physically away from your home, and often for long periods. Not to mention visits to far-flung collaborating labs, conferences, and even family – my own family has currently limited its dispersal to only two continents, albeit the two that have a 16 hour flight between them. This is all fun and games when you don’t have any attachments – I love to travel, and have always sought out ways to incorporate interesting trips into my studies (a week in Venice here, a month in Cape Cod there), but it’s more challenging when you are trying to maintain a relationship.

My situation is probably something unique – my two house situation and frequent commute comes from having a partner with a steady job outside of Montréal, and the field requirements of my PhD program. Initially, I was spending months away in Panama, and it wasn’t worth it for him to relocate on account of me. Things do get a little crazy though. At its worst, I spent 9 out of 12 months in another country, forget in the same city as my partner. Things have calmed down though, and I try to limit my travels. Even if the distance is less, living between two cities no walk in the park. It is draining, both financially and emotionally. Maintaining two homes means not only paying twice to live somewhere, but also dealing with those menial things like laundry, groceries, and housekeeping twice. And you don’t get to have the nightly reward of sharing a meal with your partner, going to the movies together, or even just deciding to go out for a walk together.

The scary part is that the end of my studies in no way guarantees an end to the life of an academic nomad. In fact, it is probably only the beginning. After the PhD comes a postdoc (or two), and then if you’re good and lucky, a position somewhere. But there are no guarantees that the place you want to end up and the place the next steps are will be in the same spot, and even less chance that they will be in the same spot as your partner. This leads to the famous two-body problem in academic couples. Who’s career takes a backseat to who? How much super-commuting can you do once kids start to enter the picture? These are difficult questions, and ones that I don’t think anyone is coming up with truly viable solutions to. And I am loathe to sacrifice my personal life for the sake of a career. Academia is full of smart people – we should be able to find a better way!

In any event, my near-term goal is to wrap up my lab work as soon as possible, so that I can stick to living in just one place for at least a couple of months.

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