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.