How much should student registration cost at conferences?


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.

5 thoughts on “How much should student registration cost at conferences?

  1. Great prompt about a clear and present problem.

    Most of the conferences I’ve been to recently don’t even offer that low wage of labor, and I hate it. Some of those conferences may offer a student rate (if you even get the early rate) but most haven’t been offering the remuneration for volunteer labor (or whatever you want to call it).

    That policy of giving nothing for labor–to have the privilege of helping at a conference for nothing, has soured me on those conferences. I’m fine working for a reasonable price of attendance, but that had better be reasonable. I don’t think $14/hr is a reasonable enough rate, but nothing is far worse.

    I also had the ‘privilege’ of presenting as a recently minted student at a conference without any significant discount to my registration. It was a conference with a low ratio of presenters to conference-goers, but I still feel like presenting (and thus providing the content of a conference) without some remuneration is also unethical.

  2. The sad truth is there’s even lots of competition for the volunteering spots. In my “favorite” society (which gets ~1,000 attendees/meeting), all the slots fill up within 15 minutes of the email calling for volunteers. So there’s not even enough of those to make a real difference in accessibility.

  3. Hmmm mixed feelings about this. I volunteered as a student at TWS several years ago in exchange for registration once and another time for registration and (shared) hotel. I am pretty shy, but working the registration desk got me chatting and networking more than at any other conference. It figuratively and literally gave me something to do with my hands. I think I volunteered 8 hrs total and they specifically asked which sections I wanted to see and either didn’t schedule me then or put me in charge of lights in that room. So that experience was really positive. The second time was a disorganized mess and really unpleasant. Students that network efficiently at conferences are probably petty rare and loaded with social capital that other students lack anyhow. Maybe the volunteers could get a special networking brunch or other specialized opportunities to help them gain some of that capital, in addition to free reg. Or perhaps they could be partnered with a different professional (getting those profs volunteering too) for each shift?

    • I am responding to my own comment here because I just got an “invitation” to volunteer at the TWS meeting this fall and they are now offering $30 “stipend” for a four hour shift ($7.50/hr, the minimum wage in Nevada is $8.25/hour, where I live in CA it is $12). So that would be outrageous if they weren’t throwing in a free t-shirt.

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