Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad.

This is bad because it means that the student has to pay for conference registration (often months in advance), travel (probably at least weeks in advance), and then accommodation out of pocket, with no guarantee that they will get the award and be reimbursed after the conference. Even if the funding is guaranteed, the cost of the registration and travel are coming out of a budget that’s almost certainly already stretched thin, and the award isn’t going to pay interest accumulated on the student’s credit card.

Maybe this is a thing that only happens at Canadian universities. I encountered it the first time earlier this summer when I carpooled to a conference with another Canadian grad student, who told me about this ludicrous funding scheme. At my previous institution, students applied for a departmental conference travel award in advance by submitting a budget with their supervisor’s approval (in this case supervisor had to match whatever the department gave, up to $500). Then the funds were disbursed and after the conference the student submitted all their receipts and proof of attendance to the departmental finance officer, and repaid the difference if necessary. This was reasonable for students, and it was obviously feasible for the department and the financial office.

I was appalled by the idea of not being able to apply for funds until after the conference was done and paid for. Surely this would prevent some students from being able to attend conferences at all! Then I found out that the situation at my current school is exactly the same. (I had a travel award from the conference-holding society and wasn’t eligible for funding from my institution for the meeting I attended this summer because I was presenting research from my previous degree, so I only recently found out about the details.) Students can apply for a “conference travel grant” of up to $400 per year, but only after the conference is complete and with receipts in hand.

This way of providing funding for conference travel is obviously bad for students, and almost certainly excludes some students from being able to go to conferences. Yes, there is also often funding available from the society holding the conference, but these awards are more competitive and cannot be relied on for multiple years (related: conference travel awards that don’t announce whether your application was successful until after the deadline to pay registration fees are also bad, and also exist). If an institution is prepared to provide up to $400 in funding per year for students to attend conferences, like mine apparently is, surely they can do so in the form of travel advances? The only party who benefits from the after-the-conference application scheme is the financial office that only has to deal with the application once, instead of two times. So I suppose what it comes down to is saving the university time and money at the expense of students.

I just paid a conference registration fee on my credit card (which already has a balance that is uncomfortably high, but I have exactly enough actual money at the moment for pay my September rent, so that’s how it is), and I won’t be able to apply for grant money until mid-October, after the conference. Luckily for me, it’s an inexpensive conference and the travel coincides with travel I was going to do anyway. I will be able to pay off my credit card bills after I get my semesterly scholarship* deposit in September. Other grad students will not have this flexibility. We are often living paycheque to paycheque, and it’s wrong to expect us to take on debt in order to attend a conference when there is money available to cover the costs.


*To maintain this scholarship, I have to produce an annual progress report with evidence of professional development, including (you guessed it!) attendance at conferences

On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions


As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading

Let’s nominate folks for NSF’s Waterman award, including women


Every year, the National Science Foundation gives an award to the most bestest early-career scientist in the US. It’s up to the scientific community — that’s me and you — to make sure the pool really has the best. Which means it has to have a lot of women in it.

Months ago, we had a small spike in traffic here at Small Pond because we joined the chorus wondering how NSF can manage to go thirteen years without giving the Waterman Award to a woman. Continue reading

Accessibility isn’t the key to mentorship


When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:

Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.

At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.

Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore. Continue reading

Recommended reads #84


Are you familiar with the work of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group? I applaud their dedication and excellence in chronicling the diversity and natural history of this unappreciated yet widespread taxon. This is where the line between science and art is invisible.

Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.” I’d like to call this one early: We’ll be looking back at Dr. Emily Temple-Wood as the person who rewrote the history of scientific discovery.

Racism in the research lab. This post, from two scientists from prestigious institutions, is important. Continue reading

We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences


At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.

This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening. Continue reading

Serious academics take the media seriously


The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.

So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?

Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?

Here are some half-guesses:

  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because it is unimportant.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is just too important for laypeople to think about.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is too complex for the average person to comprehend.”
  • “I’m jealous of my colleagues because they have substantial things to say to the public, and I all that I’ve ever shared with the public is an anonymous spoilsport gripefest.”
  • “I think my colleagues are sharing insubstantial things to the public because they’re not as Important and Deep and Serious as I am, and I resent that their public engagement is positively affecting their career outlook.”
  • “I’m such a pedant that I feel the need to point out that ‘I am a serious academic’ is a clause, and not a phrase.”

Continue reading

Advice for department chairs


I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading


Recommended reads #83


New Zealand is developing detailed plans to eradicate every exotic predator, including feral cats, rats, and weasels.

How women are harassed out of science. Let’s be clear about this: It’s not just that scientific institutions and individual scientists are implicitly biased against women. That is true, but on top of all that, direct harassment itself drives women out of science. Not convinced this is true? Then please please please read this story. Continue reading

How can track record matter in double-blind grant reviews?


We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.

trouble coverSome readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.

We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community. Continue reading


Saying “see you later, sometime” to the rainforest


I just got back home from a few weeks of fieldwork in the rainforest. Most of the science I’ve done over the years has been based out of a smallish patch of land in Costa Rica: La Selva Biological Station. It’s a special place.

There’s a lot to be said for becoming intimate with just one place, to develop ideas and make discoveries that wouldn’t be made by those just passing through. Continue reading