Stop making graduate students pay up front for conferences

John Malloy shares his experiences of risking debt to travel — and discusses what to do about it.
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As I write this, I have two academic trips coming up in the next month. Together, they will cost just over US$1,300.

This not-so-hidden expense of academia is generally accepted in every field that I’m aware of. To be considered successful, scientists have to give conference presentations, network and collaborate with similar researchers around the world. Many institutions will pay up front for travel to these events, but for other expenses, students are expected to pay and wait for reimbursement — and this can quickly add up. A single week’s stay in San Francisco, California, the site of my next conference, can range from $750 — for a one-bedroom Airbnb property shared with a colleague — to $1,500 or even more for a suite in the conference hotel. Even the lowest of these takes up my entire biweekly pay cheque from my role as a teaching assistant, yet I and other graduate students are required to pay for lodging, registration and food out of our own pockets and hold this charge until we are paid back — which can often take months. This forces students to go into debt by using credit cards, or find a way to pay the cost up front.

Students and professors alike are often required to pay out of pocket for these necessary items. But the practice disproportionately hurts graduate students. The average graduate student in the United States makes roughly $30,000 a year. At Arizona State University in Tempe, where I am studying for a PhD in geological sciences, my teaching-assistant salary of $21,000 is significantly lower. Include taxes and cost of living, and the money available for a hotel, registration and meals at a conference starts dwindling. Aside from meetings, emergency costs — calling out a plumber, say, or a trip to the hospital — take away more, as pointed out last year by Jennifer Tsang, a science writer who earned her PhD in microbiology from the University of Georgia in Athens.

Financial burden

When students are pushed to travel for their careers, the choice is often between gaining scientific recognition and accepting costs that lead to debt. Many graduate students already have poor mental health, and the financial burdens, in my experience, only exacerbate this stress.

And yet I am one of the lucky ones. I have no student debt from my undergraduate degree, and no expensive health concerns. My parents are willing to help financially if I ask. If I’m struggling with this burden, what about those people who have more significant monetary constraints or are less privileged in other ways? How is academic success feasible if the system locks out students who cannot afford to continue — or even begin — this process?

According to Tsang, some universities allow full reimbursement before an event, or let graduate students purchase conference travel using university-controlled credit cards. Although these are important steps, wholesale change is needed to keep graduate-level studies open for all.

Direct payment

A model to solve this problem already exists. In the United States, institutions often pay tuition fees for graduate students, because classes are considered essential. The student never pays the cost of tuition — it is covered entirely behind the scenes. This opens the door for students to advance their knowledge without going into debt. A student’s home department should put travel at the same level of importance as classes, and create a system to allow conference and workshop costs to be paid directly, with no involvement from the student. This would recognize that such funding is essential for students’ success and well-being.

The financial struggles of graduate studies are an unfortunate reality, but students’ overall health and success should be prioritized. All institutions can and should enable students to succeed by creating ways to avoid them going into debt of $1,300 or more to attend conferences. We should not have to incur financial stress to advance our careers.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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