Science in the City: On life as a graduate student in NYC

By: Allison M. Roth


“Congratulations on your admission to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. We look forward to welcoming you to Columbia.” I remember opening my inbox and being greeted by these words. I recall the excitement, the relief, and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment. However, I’ve always considered myself to be a small beach town kind of girl, and I was unsure of what to expect from New York City. I’m happy to report that I’ve adapted quite well to big city life.

My name is Allison Roth, and I am a first year grad student at Columbia University in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (also known as E3B). Attending Columbia has been the best decision of my life to date. Not only am I enjoying my research and my classes, but both the professors and students here are always happy to help when I need to bounce ideas off of someone. Additionally, Columbia has an extensive network set up in the city with schools such as NYU and CUNY as well as institutions like the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History. Living in such close proximity to these universities and institutions allows us immediate access to a great variety of collaborators and resources. Moreover, there are frequent visits from intriguing scientists from around the globe. I imagine that we would not be quite so privileged if our university was located in a smaller town.  

There is never a dull day as a grad student living in New York City. It is always possible to find some interesting seminar or talk to attend, whether it be at Columbia or one of the aforementioned establishments, and I feel that this is truly an advantage of living in such a large city. However, this stimulation does come at a cost. It is sometimes easy to get distracted, and it can be difficult to accept that one will not be able to attend every talk that one might wish to.

Additionally, I must admit that being surrounded by this “concrete jungle” is a bit depressing as an ecologist. I look to nature as a source of inspiration and emotional nourishment. It is a bit strange that I see more wildlife sitting in a classroom staring at a projection than I do by opening my front door in the morning. Living in the city has me yearning for my approaching field season in Kenya, Africa more than ever. People say that the longer you have to wait for something the more you appreciate it…. and well, let’s just say that I will definitely be grateful to be surrounded this summer by the lush trees and diverse fauna that is characteristic of our Kakamega Forest field site.  

However, the New York environment is not all bad. I attended the University of California, Santa Cruz as an undergrad, and as much as I miss sitting on the calm, quiet beaches of Northern California, I love the hustle and bustle of the city. Seeing everyone rushing about puts me in the same energetic mood, and I feel that it is incredibly easy to be productive when there is so much going on around me. New York City is indeed a city that never sleeps, which is great when you are a grad student who constantly feels that there are not enough hours in the day. It is satisfying to be able to set my schedule around my work and not have to worry about the regular business hours that come with small town living. Everything is at your fingertips 24 hours a day in this city, and personally, I find this to be quite liberating. 

All in all, there will always be tradeoffs in life, much like there are in nature. All I can say is that to be happy, the good must outweigh the bad, and for me, the benefits of New York City living definitely outweigh any pitfalls. If you are a potential student looking to join our small, close-knit department, I hope that this short blog entry might help you with your decision.