It’s been nearly three and a half years since I started my PhD at UMass Amherst. Having spent my entire life in huge metropolis cities, I was curious to know what life in the small college town of Amherst, Massachusetts and Pioneer Valley would be like. Over the years, I have slowly fallen in love with the place. Through this blog, I will try to illustrate what I’ve liked best about the area and my university. I will also share some difficulties I faced, and why they are not as bad as one might think.

Disclaimer — This blog solely reflects my opinion. Depending on one’s individual circumstances and perspectives (mine are listed below), one’s opinions about life in the area can be very different. Emery Berger’s blog as a very positive outlook on about life in the area, while Katherine Thai’s blog is a more negative take on life in the area, but a very positive outlook on our PhD program!

My personal circumstances — I came to Amherst for my PhD in Computer Science straight after my undergraduate program in India. I didn’t know how to drive when I arrived here, but loved biking. Besides Amherst, I’ve lived (2 months or more) in New York City, Chicago, Pune, Mumbai. I have also visited several other places internationally.

Advantages of living in Amherst

  1. Safety and Cosmopolitan Environment — Amherst is by far the safest US city / town I have lived in, crime has almost been non-existent in my 3.5 years here (compared to daily crime alerts on many other university campuses and big US cities). I have never once felt unsafe biking late at night in the UMass area. University faculty, students, staff and retired professionals make up a large fraction of the residential body, and people are highly educated and liberal (Emery Berger’s blog says 42% people have a graduate degree, nearly highest in America). A lab alumni has said that even strangers on the bus can help them with your research! This is a perfect place to focus on your research without distractions. The area is not at all crowded, which means no traffic jams and safety during pandemics. The area is also very LGBTQ friendly, see the Wikipedia section on this topic for detailed statistics. Note that places north of the mountains (Amherst, Northampton, Hadley, Sunderland) are much closer to campus and safer than Holyoke / Springfield.

  2. Proximity to nature — Amherst is full of natural beauty. There are gorgeous mountains, lakes and forests all over the area (even on UMass campus — a beautiful pond and a forested hill!) There are several mountains to hike, trails to bike and gentle nature walks all within 10-15 minutes from UMass! I have really enjoyed biking / hiking the area — enjoying nature is such an excellent break from research. Amherst is also where I have discovered my passion for bird watching and photography (my birding page), which is my favourite outdoor activity. I doubt I would have discovered my love for nature had I gone to a big city for graduate studies.

  3. Affordable cost of living — Amherst is very affordable to live in compared to bigger US cities, especially monthly rent. Moreover, UMass has healthy graduate stipends and a strong graduate student union. The affordable cost of living allows you to pursue several hobbies which may be difficult on tight budgets (bird watching can be expensive due to camera equipment).

  4. Variety of Food and Groceries — Despite being a small college town, the area is full of excellent restaurants with a wide variety of cuisines from across the world (Emery Berger’s blog has many more on coffee shops, pizza, restaurants in the area). UMass has been named the best dining program in USA for five consecutive years according to Princeton Review (details). I can personally vouch for it — my parents while visiting USA prefered UMass Dining halls over restaurants in NYC, SF, LA, LV! Due to numerous local farms, there are lots of good options for locally produced groceries. Several farms offer activities like picking strawberries, apples, and plums in the summer seasons. The area also has very good international grocery stores — Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean you name it! Large shopping complexes for most of the popular US brands are also here / within 20 minutes drive.

  5. Active Communities — Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the community of people living here who share common interests. It’s usually easy to find on-campus / off-campus communities of people for several hobbies like sports, rock climbing, karate, reading clubs, contra dancing, wine tasting, South Asian / Jewish / Chinese communities etc. I have personally had a great time with the talented bird watching community in the area. We often go on bird watching walks together, share sightings, and get together for social events!

  6. Unique places to see — Western Massachusetts is not New York City, but it is unique nevertheless. Besides natural beauty, it is full of unique man-made places — Mass MoCA, a crazy hairpin with beautiful views, an art museum made of garbage scraps, Emily Dickinson’s home, the tallest academic library in the world with amazing views, a falconry, a butterfly conservatory, Yankees’ Candles’ wonderful headquarters, a large peace pagoda, Satan’s kingdom, one of the largest unfiltered water supplies in the United States with a fantastic nature reserve surrounding it, a children’s book museum, basketball / volleyball hall of fame, dinosaur museum and footprints, unique bridges, numerous farms with mazes / strawberry picking / mega-rare birds, an accessible summit house with stunning views right up to Vermont and Connecticut, interesting libraries and bookmills, several hydroelectric projects on the Connecticut River, self-sufficient houses and so much more. The area also has excellent movie theaters, a zoo, an Six Flags amusement park, casino, go-karting tracks, rock-climbing gym, escape rooms, laser tag, mini-golf, ice-skating rinks, numerous bars, contra dancing club, skiing resorts, flight school, water sport activities (on Connecticut River) etc., Amherst is conveniently located with regular bus services to Northampton (20 minutes away), Springfield (40 minutes), Boston (2 hrs away), New York City (3.5 hrs away). It is 1-3 hrs from Vermont, New Hampshire (Fall Foliage!), the beautiful Massachusetts coast (Plum Island, Gloucester, Cape Ann), Connecticut coast (New Haven, Stratford, Bridgeport), Rhode Island (Providence, New Port) and Cape Cod (Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard).

(TODO — points about CICS, UMass, UMass NLP)

Difficulties of living in Amherst

  1. Having a car can enhance your Amherst experience — For the first two years I did not have a car, I would bike everywhere or take the bus. While I still enjoyed myself on bike trails and had a comfortable life, buying a car significantly improved my Amherst experience. I visited most of the unique places I listed above after I bought a car. It also enabled me to bird watch and hike a lot more (at the expense of biking). Grocery shopping also became a lot simpler — rather than renting cars, biking or taking the bus, I could simply drive end-to-end. That being said, life without a car is very much possible. Public transport between residential areas and UMass is excellent and free of cost, there are several car rental spots right on campus (we have a driving school in Amherst too!). Grocery, food and Amazon delivery in the area is very good, reducing the need to drive from place to place (at the expense of some flexibility).

  2. The weather is not for everyone — Amherst, like several places in USA, gets all four seasons. Beautiful Fall and Spring season with colourful trees and pleasant weather, hot summers and cold snowy winters. A few people love the diversity in seasons, some others hate the cold (myself included). The cold weather does open up several winter activities — there’s an active community of UMass students who go to nearby resorts (within 40min - 1hr drive) for skiing; UMass has one of the best ice hockey college teams in USA; I recently discovered how amazing winter hiking is! One aspect of New England weather is the large variation in temperature from day-to-day and Noreaster storms. On the bright side, it is a meterologist / weather geek’s paradise — the region has one of the highest concentration of weather geeks (book on New England weather). Personally, I enjoy following meterologists on Twitter as they talk about the unpredictable New England weather. Biking around does get hard in the winter, but the area is bikeable on most winter days (except 4-5 snow days a year) with the right winter clothing.

  3. Amherst is not a big city — It does not have an airport (nearest domestic airport is 50 min away, nearest international airports are in Boston / NYC), it has lesser activity / things to do / concerts than a place like NYC, Ubers can be hard to get. But there is still a LOT to do, and the Pioneer Valley has lot more to offer than big cities in terms of outdoor activities (as I have described in the “Pros” section above). Besides, if you like indoor activities, life in Amherst is no different from life in a big city (yes, we do have good internet and fast delivery services).

If you like a rural (but still fairly cosmopolitan) setting, clean air, a calm atmosphere, natural beauty and a student town vibe, Amherst is the place to be!