Where to?
August 27, 2010 11:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm 26 and have a gap year before starting grad school. Where should I move to? (Chicago / Seattle / Portland / SF / other)

I'm itching to move somewhere I've never lived (or even been!) before, just for one year, and trying to choose between several cities: Chicago, Seattle, Portland and SF.

Some factors I have to consider --
- Public transportation, bike-friendliness, and general ability to get around without a car (which I don't plan to own in the near future)
- Rent: ideally around $550 with roommates in a reasonably safe neighborhood. (I currently live in Somerville outside Boston and love it, if that gives some idea.)
- Cost of living: reasonable for someone in their mid-20s paying their own way and who wants to save some. (Does this rule out SF..?)
- Job opportunities, specifically clinical research at a hospital. (I know, Boston can't really be beat in this regard, but I have to get out.) Other public health-related work would be fine too, but less ideal.
- I love the hustle and bustle of a city as much as getting away and doing outdoorsy things. I like getting to choose from a variety of things to do, but a happening weekday nightlife isn't a must. A laid-back vibe would actually be great.

and last, but definitely not least --
- Ease of meeting other people roughly my age (26): I don't really know more than a few people living in any of these cities (zero in Portland) and will have to start from scratch to find a social circle without the benefit of being a student. I'm psyched to leave my comfort zone in the northeast, but also a bit intimidated, as I'm pretty shy and reserved at first. I've heard about the Seattle Freeze and worry that although I'd love the pacific NW in theory, it would be hard to make friends who would be welcoming and actually make overtures to hang out and do fun things. Is this Freeze just a myth? Does it apply to Portland too..? (I think that with time, I could eventually find a solid group of friends, but worry that a year is too short to accomplish this. This is probably the most important factor for me, because ultimately, it doesn't really matter where I am as long as I'm not struggling to get to know good peoples.)

Dark horses: Atlanta, Philly, Montreal (which sounds terrific, but I've heard it's freezing cold, and there's the added hassle of getting a work visa); could be persuaded by other suggestions.

Any input at all would be appreciated. Thanks for your help!
posted by amillionbillion to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I live in Chicago and find it to be bike-friendly. Nice, wide roads and generally understanding drivers. It's easy to find somewhere to park your bike on the street, and many big stores even offer somewhat-protected bike parking areas. (Whole Foods will even loan you a lock.)

I have never owned a car and don't have a driver's license, and my bike + the CTA meets my transportation needs.

It gets cold in the winter, but that only bothers me maybe about 15-20 days a year. Most days, I have no trouble riding my bike to work. Summer is generally wonderful.

Cost-wise, I think you'll be OK. Chicago sales tax and Illinois income tax may make things less appealing than Portland. Decent apartments can be had if you want to share with roommates. A few years ago, I rented a 2 bedroom apartment for $900 in a safe neighborhood. There was nothing exciting there, but it was only 10 minutes to the loop on the L, and there was a nice independent coffee shop. Can't complain.

(I have a 1 bedroom apartment in a highrise downtown for about $1400 now. But I am not particularly trying to save any money, and I love the 10 minute bike ride to work.)
posted by jrockway at 11:15 PM on August 27, 2010

Not on your list, but if you're up for something truly adventurous Australia and New Zealand give out 1-year working holiday visas like hotcakes. You can get approved within hours, and it only costs a few hundred dollars to apply.

I'm 26, American, male, living in Melbourne without a car... and it is pretty rad. I didn't know anyone before I showed up, but over time more and more things are clicking into place. I can vouch for everything you seem interested in except the job opportunities in your particular field... no data for you there, but I know that I'm finding software work just fine. The job market in general seems good.

I post an awful lot of questions/answers lately that include this information, but hey, it's something I know and care about. I won't go into it too much right here, but if you do a bit of research and want some more information, just shoot me a MeFi mail.
posted by adamk at 11:29 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think the financials may rule SF out, sadly. I have a studio in a safe but not particularly trendy neighborhood, and I pay $904 a month. This is widely regarded as a very good deal.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:45 PM on August 27, 2010

San Francisco is ridiculously expensive, nearly on par with New York. It's a great town, but our public transportation sucks, and even living in a sketchy part of town, you're probably looking at $650 a month for a walk in closet, um, bedroom.

My sister, on the other hand, lives in Seattle and loves it. She pays half of what I do for rent in a neighborhood twice as happening. I'm pretty fond of Seattle and if I wasn't hopelessly in love with SF and Northern California in general, I'd move there in a heartbeat. They have better coffee *and* a better indie rock scene if that's you're thing. Also lots of natural splendor nearby.
posted by smirkette at 12:05 AM on August 28, 2010

I moved to Seattle knowing nobody and feel that the Seattle Freeze is a made up concept. I met more people here than when living in NYC or Boston.

We've got some real good hospitals! And the bike culture is great, although of course it's rainy as hell. Drivers actually slow down and wait for you. Transit is pretty good, depending where you are. All those aforementioned hospitals are near transit hubs.

You can find a good place with roommates for $550; 99% of my friends live in that range, in nice neighborhoods like Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, Fremont, etc.

+1 to SF being psycho expensive.
posted by zvs at 12:17 AM on August 28, 2010

(Is there even outdoorsy stuff in Chicago? We've got them and SF beat... and probably Portland too.)
posted by zvs at 12:18 AM on August 28, 2010

It is extremely easy to get around Portland without a car; I pay $300 in rent with roommates, we live very close to gorgeous natural adventures and have a very chill nightlife. There are, however, no jobs at all, and I don't know anything about careers in your field but I can't imagine it's much better.
posted by verbyournouns at 12:19 AM on August 28, 2010

Seconding verbyournouns, Portland is great and meets all your criteria except the job market is dismal. Check out the LiveJournal community DamnPortlanders, there are often housing posts on there or people looking to meet folks (plus just enough snark to make me laugh) to get a feel for one aspect of PDX. (This housing post just went up and looks super nice, and is in my second-favorite neighborhood!)

Good luck, whatever you decide!
posted by girlalex at 12:35 AM on August 28, 2010

Philly definitely meets your requirements. Definitely affordable, easy to get around by biking, public transportation, or walking (I was born and raised in Philly and I don't even have a driver's liscense). Philly's public trans gets the job done, but it's not superb. However you can walk and bike most places as well, as long as you are within the city (in one of the central parts.)

Philadelphia is beautiful, with plenty of public park space, tons of museums, beautiful architecture, history, an arts scene (galleries, concerts, theater, etc), a music scene, great restaurants, interesting, down-to-earth people. It's also a very culturally diverse city, something which may not be as true of Portland or Seattle, from what I have heard (though I haven't been to those cities). There are lots of universities and young people in Philly, and lots of things to do.

Philadelphia does have it's crime and not-so-safe areas. Some people consider it kind of "gritty", and while I consider that to be part of its charm, it's not for everyone.
posted by bearette at 1:10 AM on August 28, 2010

I'm currently living in Seattle, and quite like it here. I'm car-less, and find getting around by bike and bus works well. My rents for a room in a shared house and for a shared two-bedroom apartment in Wallingford has been around your price range. Cost of living seems reasonable to me. I'm not in your field, so I can't speak to specific job prospects.

I find the city to be a nice mixture of urban and less urban. From where I am downtown is one bus away. I'm in a quiet residential area with plenty of single family homes, but can walk or bus to several nearby neighborhood downtowns with plenty of shops, restaurants, bars, and nightlife. Seattle also has plenty of outdoors nearby. There are some nice parks and beaches in the city, and although it's easier getting outdoors with a car (or a friend with a car), there are bus-accessible hiking options.

I also haven't experienced the "Seattle freeze." I'm about your age, and I've met plenty of friendly people here, and it's been easy to make friends in several social spheres.

What I would warn you about is the weather. The summer weather is beautiful, but it can often be cloudy in the winter, lots of light rain/mist/drizzle, and short northern days. It doesn't bother me, and know some people who miss it when in sunnier climates, but I also know people who the Seattle winter (and spring and fall) bothers quite a bit. Think about what sort of climate you like and or need.

If you'd like to talk to someone living in Seattle, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by JiBB at 3:20 AM on August 28, 2010

Have you looked into Minneapolis at all? Minnesota's job market isn't nearly as bad as most of the other places you've listed, and it really isn't that much colder than Chicago. It's much cheaper than most of the other cities you've listed, and there's a ton of young people there. It's very bike friendly, and while the public transit is pretty much bus and one light rail line, it works well enough that a friend of mine has lived there for several years without a car.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:16 AM on August 28, 2010

For clinical research in Portland, OHSU seems like the only game in town. Googling "OHSU jobs" will give you a list of research positions. There seems to be quite many, but I don't know how up to date the list is.
posted by Pantalaimon at 7:29 AM on August 28, 2010

Wow, I'm in basically the exact same position as you, but I'm 22 and not doing clinical research. I'm from Oregon, and if I wasn't I'd move to Portland in a second, but I want to get a bit farther out than that. You won't have any trouble meeting people as long as you don't sit in your house all day (which is sometimes harder than it sounds during the winter). Both housing and jobs suck right now, though, and any job posting you see anywhere public is going to have a million and a half applications. Rent's cheap if you can find a place - finding a room in a house in SE on craigslist is probably your best bet.

Seattle would be my next choice for basically everything JiBB said.

I'm 99:1 going to end up in the bay, because that's where the jobs in my area tend to be, and I'm facing just biting my tongue & paying the $700 in rent for a room. Everything, including public transportation & food, is just more expensive there, but salaries are adjusted to match and jobs seem more available there than in Portland by a long, long shot.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:18 AM on August 28, 2010

I totally agree with adamk. If you've ever thought you might want to live in another country, this is such a perfect opportunity to do that. Work and holiday visas were pretty much built with gap years in mind.

If you're a US citizen, you just about automatically qualify for the 1 year work and holiday visa (subclass 462). It's really easy to apply for. You get to work for a year anywhere in Australia. The economy is fantastic here right now. Unemployment is under 6%. Rent is slightly more expensive than $500/month, but wages are also generally much higher (minimum wage is about 18/hr; most jobs pay over minimum). It's easy to find a place to live. There are lots of backpackers here in similar circumstances, so it's easy to make friends. I know Aussies, Kiwis, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Germans, South Americans, etc. Plus, your eligibility for this visa expires at 31, so you should take advantage of it now while you can. You can work in the cities: I know people who have worked in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns and Perth. You can work in the countryside: I know people who have worked the ski fields in the winter, fruit picking in the summer, tour group leading with sea kayaks, camels and sail boats. I worked as a cafe waitress for a few months in Broome while living practically on Cable Beach (a two minute walk away). I've also done office work in Melbourne through temp agencies. I have never had a problem finding a job. As for your particular field, I'd recommend seeing if any of your professional contacts have any contacts here. There are a lot of hospitals and universities here, so I don't think it should be a problem, but it never hurts to have an introduction when you're trying to work in a specific field.

Like adamk, I sometimes feel a bit like an evangelical about this program. If this sounds like something you could be interested in, shoot me an email/memail with any questions. I'd love to chat with you about any concerns/questions you have.
posted by mosessis at 4:46 AM on August 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The job opportunity/cost of living thing is pretty much a direct tradeoff -- e.g., portland has shitty job opportunities but is cheap, sf has great job opportunities but is insanely expensive. (It's kinda just economics on that -- jobs = more people moving there + more people having more money = higher cost of living.) I know nothing about the health industry, mind.

I will say that SF is pretty unfriendly, in my experience (having grown up in LA, for comparison's sake). Also, SF is a really shitty place to try and date. So I'd rule that one out.
posted by paultopia at 8:32 AM on August 29, 2010

Seattle Freeze is real. Don't get me wrong, I love it here, but when I first moved here from Boston 4 years ago (I was 22 at the time) I experienced it first-hand. Takes a while to meet people here which might be problem if you are only here for 12 months.
posted by stilly at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2010

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