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