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

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

  1. Advisors that have grant funding or start up dollars should pay for every grad student and postdoc to go to one meeting a year before they pay themselves summer salary. It is true meetings are important and funding is difficult, but it would be less so if those with funding used it for this. It may also seem obvious, but I am surprised at the number of professors that do not see it this way.

  2. Completely agree with both Catherine and Joan! (Except, Joan, that the “summer salary” oddity is pretty much restricted to the US). I do not expect my students to pay for conference travel; that’s a high priority for my grants. FWIW, my university does preapprove travel grants (albeit small ones).

  3. It works like this even for some funding agencies. For example, the RFBR funding agency in Russia tends to inform whether it will give a travel award only shortly before a conference actually starts and it makes some compensation only after the conference.

  4. Joan, I quite agree about advisors covering the cost of a conference, and was fortunate to have like-minded advisors in PhD & postdoc. But that doesn’t solve a central part of the problem that Catherine outlines: Reimbursement after the fact.

    I never could have considered going to a conference as an undergrad had the department not covered registration & hotel upfront. In grad school, my lab had a procurement card to which those costs could be charged, & we could request a cash advance for a portion of the per diem. I’ve heard rumors that P-cards have since been eliminated (at least for travel), leaving students to front the bill. As a postdoc, I never had that option (& I asked). Finagling conference registration, travel, & lodging was always a huge stressor. I was eventually reimbursed for costs, but I could barely afford it (if you count squeezing it onto a credit card “affording” it). Sometimes institutional policies get in the way, even when advisors are willing to pay.

  5. Not only is this bad for students and our budgets, here at Rutgers, it is part of a huge farce in fiscal oversight. Typically, all the work done in my lab is funded by a grant, whose budgeting we oversee. This includes conference travel (sometimes through dept. awards), and travel and expenses for field work, and even dumb stuff like printer paper.

    Our pipeline for reporting these expenses is incredibly long, with several administrative offices overseeing and approving these tiny budget amounts, often totalling far less than a full time salary. Then, most faculty say that nobody- peers, senior faculty, deans, has EVER sat in on a single class they’ve ever taught here. There are almost never midterm course evaluations, and the end of term ones are optional for students. There is no accountability for faculty to teach (i.e. little oversight over their salary), while a football team’s worth of administrators rubber stamps reimbursement for every $200 of mileage field techs put in.

    This absurdity is then, of course, substantially overshadowed by other spending on administrators and the actual football team, where the lack of oversight is even more glaring.

    Not only is this a micro-issue of policies that put an unnecessary financial burden on students, it is part of a system that pretends to ensure money is neither wasted nor stolen by targeting tiny $ amounts and students, while leaving faculty, administrators, facilities, and athletics, where the vast majority of funding is both spent and wasted, unaudited and often unaccountable.

  6. This pay (out of pocket) first and potentially get paid back after, has been standard at every university where I have been. I completely agree that it is stupid and counterproductive for research. I can’t count how many times people have Not gone to a conference because of money issues. This has been at all levels from students to faculty.

    Where I am currently all travel grants are small and specifically meant Not to cover the fully cost of any conference. This is thought to stimulate the attendee to work hard to get additional funds from some other sources. What those are is unknown to me.

    I have seen the proper system when I was in grad school. All travel expense forms had to be filled out and submitted, but you could request and get 100% of what you asked for. This included per diem. The catch was that if you did not turn in all receipts for your travel within 2 weeks of your return, then the money you were advanced was taken out of your pay check. This seemed very efficient and everyone seemed to like it better than the pay first system. However, I don’t know if this is still going, but it doesn’t seem to have spread in popularity. Anyway, it can be done right.

  7. A response from the perspective of a (former) supervisor of graduate students. I agree that this is a bad model. Having said that, I would never have required a student to attend a conference without providing the necessary support for doing so. Obviously it is preferable to get specific support to cover the cost, but this should not be the primary responsibility of the student, IMHO. Thus the onus has to be on the supervisor to ensure that a student do not end up in a position where they have to foot the bill for a conference unless they do so at their own initiative and without the supervisor’s involvement. It is certainly highly beneficial to have students attend conferences, but it should not be a requirement for degree completion, particularly if funding is not available. At small primarily undergraduate institutions, this is often the case. If a supervisor requires the student to attend one or several conferences, then he/she should also be prepared to cover the cost.

  8. Often the same applies to field work. When I disappeared for 4 months onto a remote island in Alaska, I had to purchase all the good & kit myself. Thankfully I yelled loud enough that I got an advance before I went, otherwise it would have been completely impossible.

  9. Alex, I was able to get a travel advance for the 6 months of field work I’m currently doing, but was surprised to find that the finance office explicitly discourages people from doing so. Up front, the information page urges us to consider the extra administrative burden of handling the same paperwork twice, and consider using our own credit cards and then being reimbursed. (They claim that reimbursement can usually be obtained before the credit card bill is due but I have never gotten a reimbursement from our department in less than a month).

  10. Agree with the problems of post travel awards, but insofar as what can be paid ahead of time versus after the meeting I contribute this from an administrator perspective: The fact is that the IRS heavily audits and regulates university travel due to certain tax exemptions for the individual and institution. Different places handle it in different ways, but ultimately such compliance solutions end up as “policy”. Limitations in amounts, time limits to submit and reimburse, documentation needs – much of it due to federal tax regulation and GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) rules and standards.

    At my institution they have a travel office which can get both conference fees and airfare paid direct in many cases, but individuals must front hotel and other expenses and be reimbursed. There are documentation requirements which do limit the use of travel consolidator web sites as well, so frugal travelling isn’t always rewarded. I can’t speak for work flow issues, but there are lots of rules imposed from outside the academy for these sorts of things.

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