Let’s say you’re a grad student heading off to the annual 5-day conference in your field. You’re giving a poster, you are scheduled to have coffee with a person whose work you admire, you’ll be seeing a some old friends, and you’re there to learn about the newest work in your field.
Then, you get contacted by the people who run the conference. They’re wondering if you want to work — during the conference — at a rate of $14 per hour. You have to work 14 hours, no more and no less. If you work all of these hours, then they’ll send you a check after the conference is over. Do you want to spend one and a half of these conference days working, instead of being a regular conference-goer? It turns out, this is a popular option among students.
This is pretty much what one of my academic societies does. Except they call it volunteering, and the check they send is a refund of the student registration fee.
This is normal. I mean, it’s normal in the sense that we are used to this, and that plenty of conferences ask students to volunteer their in exchange for being able to attend a meeting that is beyond their budget. It makes sense, in that putting on conferences costs money and requires labor, and by having participants in the meeting provide the labor, we can make the conference cheaper. (If you’re curious, I don’t have experience volunteering in this way, aside from being a meeting organizer or a judge, both of which were uncompensated. Throughout grad school, my registration was paid out of my own pocket, sometimes supported by a travel award from my university that covered a fraction of meeting attendance cost.)
But then, I saw this, and it got me thinking about whether volunteering for free registration should be normal:
I think labeling a registration option as “low income” and then asking these people to work the conference is a bad idea, and not just for the optics. But then again, how is student volunteering for free registration any different, except with respect to the label?
If you’re curious about what others think, feel free to click through to the twitter thread you can get a feel for that conversation. My thoughts resonated with some, and others reported positive experiences with volunteering, and that this is better than competing for a very limited number of selective travel awards. It seems the 14 hours of labor for the conference I’m familiar with is on the very high end, compared to other conferences. Other people mentioned that it interfered with their participation in the meeting. I think everybody agrees that this policy is well intentioned manner of keeping the cost of a meeting down, with the goal to increase the number and inclusivity of students attending the meeting.
I’m just wondering, is everybody okay with the reality that students from well funded labs can spend all of their time at the meeting networking in the way they choose, but students who aren’t funded to attend the meeting are providing labor to run the conference? Do we, as a scientific community, want to economically stratify our conferences in this way?
Some folks have read this concern of mine and somehow thought that I’m arguing that we remove discounted or free registration for students. I don’t intend this in the slightest! On the other hand, I do think there is a wide range of creative options that we can consider to make meetings cheaper or free for students without requiring additional labor from the students who don’t have the funding. I get that running conference budgets is tricky, and it’s hard to keep costs down and deliver a meeting that people want to attend, and all that. I’m just saying: please keep in mind that asking the people who can least afford the meeting to provide labor for the people who can afford the meeting is problematic. And being aware of this problem is a first step in finding a solution.
I personally like the idea of asking all conference regulars to volunteer once in a while, if it helps provide cheap or free attendance for students. I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of full professors like myself being stationed at the registration desk or working AV. A little too egalitarian for you? I’m sure there creative ways to arrange the meeting to provide free or very cheap registration to students without making them work a job at $14/hour. I’m not sure what all of those options are, but it would be nice if we talked about the permutations.