Reimbursing students is not okay

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I’ve learned a lot from listening to scientists on twitter, including grad students and undergrads. One thing I’ve picked up is that we need to actively fight against the reimbursement culture of academia.

No matter what kind of university you work in, there are students who can’t afford to spend money on travel and then get reimbursed after the fact. Apparently, it’s all too common for universities to expect students to front their own expenses (airfare, hotel, meals) and then submit receipts for reimbursement after the fact. If you look at the finances of students, this is not okay. We have to stop doing this.

Why do we have to stop reimbursing students? Because plenty of students literally cannot afford these expenses. Students need the money up front.

Some students are choosing to bypass seriously important opportunities — presenting at conferences, interview for grad school — because they can’t afford the travel.

There are two ways that faculty members can fix this situation for our students.

The first way is for faculty to just cover the expenses for the students up front, and then making reimbursement our own problem. Several years ago, I decided that whenever I’m traveling with students (to a conference, or for fieldwork), that I’d just pay for the expenses out of my own pocket. I book the airfare, I book pay for the hotel, I cover the costs of meals. I collect the receipts and I deal with it myself. I realize that a lot of professors don’t have this luxury, as many are living paycheck to paycheck. But I’m fortunate enough to have a financial buffer to make this happen.

The second way is to make sure that your students receive travel advances from the university. It should be entirely possible for travelers to receive travel funds in advance, and then reconcile expenses upon return. If it’s not possible, it’s a matter of policy at your institution — and it’s a policy that you can get changed.

If you think this isn’t a major problem at your institution, please keep this in mind: the students who are in the greatest need are also probably the same individuals who will be the most reluctant to speak up about this need. Even if you’re at a wealthy institution, not all of the students are wealthy. We should not have to expect our students in financial need to have to step up and say that they don’t have enough money. It’s not fair to expect our students to have to volunteer the fact that they can’t afford to from the cost of travel — we need to cover their expenses up front. If the university can pay for it afterwards, then the grant can pay for it ahead of time.

29 thoughts on “Reimbursing students is not okay

  1. Apart from the purely practical problem of students who do not have money not being able to lend money to a university (which is what reimbursement requires them to do), it also reinforces the old stereotype that people who have to worry about money are not in the right social class to be at university, and starts them off on a culture of lax financial controls that would never be tolerated among professionals in a business environment.

  2. This is very very true – when I asked about booking travel early on in my PhD, I was told to “just put it on your credit card”. The airfare alone was ~1900USD, which was quite a bit more than my monthly income (and then there are buses, trains, accommodation…). No bank would give me a credit card in the first place, let alone one with such a massive limit!

  3. I have to loudly agree with this Terry!
    I skipped on quite a few opportunities because of money issues throughout my PhD, but I’m instructing my significant other (who’s still in pursuit) not to! We’re also fortunate now to have the buffer of paying for things up front, but travel funds absolutely should be available up front. In my experience about 6 months passes until your money comes back at you as a graduate student. I’ve tried the credit card stint Anonymous mentioned below and it doesn’t work well. Unfortunately, it should be up to the academic institution and not the PIs to front the money – and I just don’t see that happening in the Canadian system.

  4. So true and my supervisor also makes me feel very guilty for claiming back anything even though it is clear the things I am claiming are purely for my PhD. I sometimes feel so embarrassed by the process of taking claim forms to him to be signed and having him scrutinize it for hours, questioning why I need to claim this and why did it cost that much, that I just decide it is not worth it and pay out of my own pocket. He also could not comprehend why I would not have over $2000 in my bank to pay for flights accommodation and conference fees and continually asked me why it was a problem to claim it back later as if I was just being awkward on purpose. I had to borrow money from family in the end and then when I eventually got reimbursed I was able to pay them back.

  5. I once worked with a clinician during my STEM PhD and we had to travel across town in rush hour for a clinical study. I was happy to get public transport but she insisted on taking a cab which came to about $120 and she insisted I had to pay for it because I could be reimbursed later by the university. I had hardly any money in my bank account as it was nearing the end of the month and I remember going home in tears wondering how I would last until payday without that money which was needed for food. She happens to be a very senior consultant at a very prestigious hospital and her salary would be at least 6 figures so I imagine that $120 meant nothing to her but for me it was a huge amount of money.

  6. I received a $1000 grant from my university as a grad student and was expected to purchase everything I wanted with it then submit my receipts. It was 8 months after I submitted my receipts before I was reimbursed. All because one administrator had the document in a pile of others and didn’t see it as a priority.

  7. This is so true and I’m glad other people feel the same way! I have to pay for all my field equipment, gas for the field truck, etc. myself (as a grad student). Many of the receipts are under $100 but they add up quickly over a week or month. It’s embarrassing getting these forms signed all the time, and asking admin if it’s been submitted yet because I really need the money back. I know very few people in other positions who are expected to spend their own money as part of their job. I don’t know what the solution is here, especially for frequent, “smaller” expenses that don’t qualify for a travel advance (even if they add up to thousands over a couple months). While I love field work, I dread the (up front) expense. I shouldn’t be expected to buffer these costs into my monthly budget, and it destroys any opportunity I have to actually SAVE money for something I need (car repairs, or hey, maybe an actual vacation) because I need to have that money available to lend to the university instead of making contributions to a savings account.

    • Please be aware that many graduate students have to pay their own expenses and do not ever get them reimbursed, i.e., they pay for their own research. This is perfectly normal at many institutions.

      • Respectfully, just because it’s worse other places does not mean that taking MONTHS to pay back students hundreds of dollars that they should never have had to shell out is okay. Both are terrible and reprehensible.

  8. It’s great for travel advances to be an option, but be aware that students may have to pay taxes on them. As a graduate student, I preferred to be reimbursed for my travel over getting a travel award in advance for this reason.

    • Students beware of this, especially if you need a large advance for field work or something. A friend got a large advance for 18 months in the field, and the US government tried to tax them on it. It took weeks to get the appropriate forms/letters to explain that it was a research grant and travel advance, NOT pay. It was a huge headache. Do it if you can, but don’t get blindsided by the post-trip tax issues.

  9. This still happens to me, more than a decade post-PhD. I work for state government and we constantly have to front for travel and miscellaneous expenses. My colleagues and I have donated a lot to the organisation because the act of being reimbursed is so onerous.

  10. This is also very true for postdocs, and can be particularly problematic for foreign national trainees! I am originally Canadian, but completed a postdoc in the USA, and while I did have a credit card it was Canadian. (I was not eligible to get a USA card until I had been here for a couple of years.) So while I could use a credit card to book flights, etc. I had to either tie up my savings by using my USA checking card (which requires an additional large deposit for hotels and rental cards) or eat the foreign exchange rate for each trip. This was particularly rough if I had to book tickets/registration for more than one conference at a time, which happened more than once. This was a problem for our foreign graduate students as well, and my adviser eventually worked with me to get a group travel card, which helped a lot,

  11. As a retired research administrator from UC Berkeley, I’m proud to say they have programs to pay conference registrations and airfare directly. For students and postdocs the worst cost is registration, which is paid many months in advance, but if to be reimbursed won’t happen until after the conference. Because I was a student who had to work my way through college, I was a fierce one for attacking any delay in travel reimbursements for students. Our Dept established a policy that student and postdoc travel vouchers were processed and approved before faculty’s.
    It’s good to see this blog. Obviously more academic institutions and faculty need education on the harm they cause.
    PS A true travel advance has no tax impact. But a travel AWARD might.

    • Cal Alum here– my experience trying to pay for travel off a federal grant administered by UC was slightly different (and I realize this may have changed in the constant cycle of reorganization). I was told that I could either book airfare directly through the contracted travel agency, or I could book it myself and then file for reimbursement. The cost through the travel service was about double, but wasn’t able file for reimbursement until the travel was complete– several months later.

  12. Thanks so much for this spot-on post. A very important issue. In my personal experience, the wealthiest institutions are also the stingiest and slowest about reimbursements, reinforcing the stereotype that you need to be personally wealthy to be there. That needs to change!

  13. I went to set up a field site abroad for a project I was working on (as a tech). On each trip for this project, we were given a small stipend and a small “advance”, which never came in on time. Anyway, the end of this three week trip (abroad, I should note) is approaching and I’ve hired some folks to help me out building equipment, had to pay for housing, and the advance hadn’t come. I had already borrowed money from my parents at the start of the trip and I was completely broke – < $50 in my bank account with hundreds of dollars owed for these various expenses. I called the travel office at this major research university and explained my situation. The humorless, useless clerk told me that there was no way she could expedite my form to the top of the list. I again explained what a bind I was in. And again. We went around and around until I hung up on her in frustration.

    Within minutes, the PI – whom I had met just once, and at the time confused me with one of his own grad students, and would surely not recognize me walking down the street then or now – called me up to tell me off for hanging up on the travel clerk (“she doesn’t understand field biology”). After berating me about etiquitte and how I could get the project in trouble pissing the bureaucrats off and whatnot, he told me to ask one of his grad students for money. That student (a friend), lent me his money.

    This was completely unacceptable at the time and still gets my blood boiling.

  14. I’m a postdoc at a major UK university (Oxford).

    I commented to the librarian how ridiculous it was that I had to pay out of pocket for interloans from the British Library.
    She told me that paying out of pocket was the cost of the “privilege of working at one of the world’s top universities”

    To be honest – f**k that. Last time I looked at my bank account, the university was paying me for the privilege of having me working there.

  15. Not sure if its still the case but at University of California it could take two months following the beginning of the school year to start getting paid your stipend.

  16. I would also like to add that as research staff expected to present at 3 conferences every year, and publish, I am also expected to pay on my personal credit card and get reimbursed 3-4 months later, if ever. As staff I get paid less than post-docs and graduate students, yet don’t have the student rates or discounts on any bookings or conference registrations. This past summer at a conference the hotel completely maxed out my credit card instead of charging the University P-card on file, and I had to have a humiliating 3-way phone call with one of my bosses and hotel management, meanwhile I had a maxed out card and colleagues had to cover my meals.

  17. I think it’s easy for PI’s to forget exactly how hard it is to be a broke student. I’m a very recently hired AP, so maybe i remember more clearly. I had a few masters students presenting posters at a local conference. I told them to use my grant to pay for the printing. Apparently the printers told them they couldn’t do that and that they would have to charge it to their account and get reimbursed. It was only about $50 and one of my students called me in tears because she couldn’t cover it and was afraid it meant she couldn’t go to the conference. Of course I hurried over there and use my own card to cover all their posters because I can afford to wait until I’m reimbursed, but its ridiculous to assume students can do that. I know how much my masters students make, and I know how appreciative my students are when I bring in “leftovers” (usually crockpot meals) around the 12th-15 and 28-30th of the month when they are scraping the bottom of their accounts to buy some Ramen to hold out until payday. If food security is a worry, they shouldn’t even have to consider giving the university a loan.

  18. A fellow grad student during my MSc put ~$15,000 worth of research expenses (i.e., gas) on her credit card because our supervisors “didn’t have the $$$$” to pay for it themselves. She maxed out multiple credit cards, was not reimbursed until 6-8 months later when our supervisors finally received a grant, and was not compensated for all the interest. It was ridiculous.

  19. YES, thank you. This was especially exacerbated during my two years on the job market – sometimes as many as 6 trips in 4 weeks, most of which needed to be reimbursed. I would also add an additional issue with lengthy delays on reimbursement – the interest on the credit card piles up, but does not get reimbursed, so often times the student/professor is still out additional money, even with a grant or “full” reimbursement.

  20. What’s more is that university policy can get in the way of doing right by students. Travel advances are excruciatingly hard to get. Where I work state law says that university credit cards can not be used to pay for lodging or meals during travel and all personnel must pay for their own lodging and meals. My preference is that students do not have to pay up front. Ever. But we can’t charge lodging directly and if I pay for a student’s hotel and/or meals, I can’t get reimbursed for any of it. I’m happy to personally cover some of that without reimbursement. But it’s just wrong for the university to put faculty and staff in the position of picking one of the following: 1) financially harm students, 2) cover thousands of dollars of work-related costs out of pocket every year, 3) float personal loans to students to cover up-front costs (often awkward for everyone involved).

  21. This is a problem with students doing a summer internship / REU program, as well. When I used to run an REU program, based on my own experiences as an REU student and as a broke grad student, I made sure to design the program not to assume that students had a credit card or their own funds. I used a corporate card to buy plane tickets for all students who wanted us to book tickets for them, I either had someone pick students up at the airport or pre-paid a super shuttle on a corporate card, and I organized a welcome bbq for all students on the afternoon of arrival day (so as not to assume they had access to food or $$ for food). We also handed out bicycles to students at the bbq to use to commute from the dorms to the research site.

    The next morning, during orientation, I fed the students breakfast, gave them their first paycheck (paying them in advance of each 2-week period rather than afterwards), and also gave them each $50 in cash (deducted from their first check) to use to cover food for the first few days until they could get their paychecks deposited and turned into accessible funds. We paid for their dorms directly, and covered all expenses including food on field trips. After hearing horror stories from other students who hadn’t gotten paid until a month or more into a summer internship program, I wanted to make sure they had funds up front. And I did this for ALL students, not just on request, to make sure that no one had to ask. When our students traveled to present their work at conferences, I used my corporate card to book their plane tickets and pay their registration fees, and faxed an authorization to the hotel to charge my corporate card (did run into an issue once where there was some damage to a hotel room, but the students were MORTIFIED and mailed me a check to reimburse me). Food at conferences was harder, but I did get my institution to issue travel advances to the students for per diem in some cases, and I tried to put students in hotels with free breakfast and paid for as many student meals myself as I could. All these things did take extra work on my part and on the part of my institution, but after 5-6 years of nagging they finally got with the picture that all the student expenses were to be processed with high priority – and I think this made my program accessible to everyone.

  22. I have been astonished by my university’s finance practices. HR lost a tech’s hiring paperwork, which delayed their first paycheck by 2 months on a 3 month project in an expensive foreign city (our department’s fantastic admin scraped up an advance and lit some fires under people). My stipend came out of a fellowship, so it apparently wasn’t categorized as payroll and got processed whenever someone got around to it, and I once went 7 weeks between paychecks. At the end of one school year, another admin apparently forgot to initiate new assistantships, leading to a mass pay delay among the department’s graduate students. And reimbursements regularly took upwards of 2 months to process. All this at a public R1 university with 16k students that you would hope could handle its own business procedures.

  23. A third option is to work with your institution’s travel or finance people to purchase plane tickets and conference registrations directly with an institutional credit card.

  24. This same basic problem is what we face in small conservation non-profits. Many donors and agencies will fund projects where you do the work and then get reimbursed. Without reserves to draw upon, the small non-profit has to borrow from one donor to do the work and hope to get reimbursed in time to continue the other work. Or, they simply cannot apply for the funding.

    This is one way that large non-profits have advantages over smaller organizations even though the smaller organizations might be more efficient and productive.

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