Academic Travel on a Budget

This year has been extremely travel heavy for me, the most since I’ve entered the field. I’m at the point in my post-doc where I have a good sense of the research program I want to build, so now I’ve been taking it on the road to get others excited about it and hopefully create enough interest to open up a faculty position. When this year ends, I won’t have spent a single entire month at home, with some months travelling as much as once a week. Although it’s very exciting (and sometimes exhausting), there’s a particular aspect of it I want to discuss: reimbursement culture when you’re on a budget.

I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to trans people, my modest post doc salary puts me in the higher income brackets for my community. But even so, this year I am struggling under the culture of reimbursement that academic travel entails. My finances have been a mess as I pay out of pocket for trips and wait, sometimes months, for the money I’m owed to come back.

Household Income of Trans and General Population, from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. It's also worth keeping mind that because trans people often make so little, that many live in group homes, which makes these numbers even more appalling.

Household Income of Trans and General Populations, from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. It’s also worth keeping in mind that because trans people often make so little, many live in group homes, which makes these numbers even more appalling.

My adviser expects me to go the reimbursement route, instead of the advance payment route, because it’s what he has always done. And as we try to stretch our grant money as far as possible, it’s been strongly encouraged (to the point of being expected) that I don’t take the full per diem, but limit it to roughly half what it should be. Each little trip shrinks my bank account more and more, and if I put any of it on a credit card I have to cover the cost of months of interest until the money comes back. Each month has come with concerns of whether the money from that trip two months ago will finally come in so that I can cover my rent without going further into debt.

I can’t help but think of how this culture further pushes underprivileged groups further away from academia. I’m lucky in that I’m only supporting myself and my spouse, and that we are both (relatively) healthy. If we were financial caretakers of our parents, or if we had children, or if we run into a medical emergency, I wouldn’t be able to do this part of my job, a part that’s extremely important to get to a tenure track position.

There are other options in place, where a university can cover the costs up-front. My graduate school was much better about this, encouraging that I go that route instead. But with different universities come different expectations, and I see the same pressure towards reimbursement being pushed on the graduate students here. They’re going to internalize this culture as ‘the way things are’ and as they develop further in their careers will be taking this problematic aspect of my PI’s methods with them.

For those of you further along your career than I am, I implore you to please make sure that up-front travel payments are an option and encourage your students and your post docs towards them. For those of you in a similar position to me, how do you deal with reimbursement culture when you’re expected to throw off your finances in order to advance your career?


14 thoughts on “Academic Travel on a Budget

  1. Excellent post! As a graduate student and a post-doc I encountered several situations like the ones that you describe. Now that I have my own lab group I am very conscious of this issue. Prior to them attending a conference, my students and I have a very open and honest conversation about costs. I pay for all travel (e.g. flights, taxis, buses, trains, etc.), all accommodations, and registration costs. With regards to food, the student can either save their receipts and get the exact amount reimbursed or can claim the maximum per diem allowed by our institution. I always offer my trainees the option of expense advances (as I think it is unfair for them to have to carry a balance on a credit card in order to go to a conference), or the reimbursement option. Almost immediately upon their return we fill out the reimbursement paperwork together. Our university repays via direct deposit within two weeks. I treat my trainees how I would like to be treated. If they would like to stay a few days longer in an exotic locale I cover the flight home, but expect them to pay for their own food and lodgings for that portion of the trip.

  2. I would agree that you should have a discussion regarding what level of reimbursement you should expect and to get an advance for fixed costs (travel, conference fees) to minimize the amount you lay out from your own funds. But the more important question is why on earth are you traveling once a week? I would argue that a PI reaches the point of diminishing returns if they travel more than once a month; for a postdoc that happens with less travel (you don’t have a stable of lab members toiling away while you are collecting frequent flyer miles). There is no way you can sustain any level of productivity if you are on the road most of the time. You don’t need to personally inform each member of the field of your contributions and it could even be seen as a red flag – potential employers want someone who will actually be around the department to interact with, not someone who is chronically away promoting themselves.

    • Once a week travel is rare, but it occasionally happens when I get invited to a few close-by conferences, or for faculty interviews that tend to stack fairly closely in time. And it’s not all giving talks — sometimes it’s travel to collaborating labs to work with them while they have a supply of cryogens, or taking part in experiments at the national lab I’m affiliated with. For this year in particular, it’s tended to be mostly a trip/month, occasionally 2, and only one month that’s mostly travel. Either way, the reimbursements build up, especially when they take quite some time to turn around.

      The pressure to travel (and travel more) has been mentioned quite a few times on this blog (, and as I look towards the next year I’m planning on taking a lot of the advice given to heart.

      • It’s important to strike the right balance, as you can reach the point of diminishing returns if the travel starts to cut into your productivity. But when you DO travel, get a travel advance! It will save you sleepless nights when that credit card bill arrives with no reimbursements in sight.

  3. This has been a constant issue for me, especially since I travel all summer and only get reimbursed in September. What I was able to do – although I recognize everyone can’t do this- is the following. When I got my first t-t position, I was earning four times what I had earned the previous year. And, I had only a small student loan to re-pay. And, I was living in a low-cost area. So, I basically kept a grad student lifestyle with a t-t pay so that I could save some money.

    Beginning with my first paycheck, I put away $500 into a fund that I called “travel funds.” I did that until I saved about $6000. Now, I use that fund to pay out-of-pocket for all travel-related expenses and put reimbursements back into that fund. It is not an ideal situation. However, the upside of it is that I get tons of frequent flyer miles on my credit card because of all of the travel-related purchases I make myself instead of asking my university to front the money.

    • This is essential what I’ve done, although I use my savings account instead of a special travel funds. Definitely an idea to keep in mind once I have a bit more income.

  4. At my U, up front reimbursement is not possible due to barriers put up by the university. It isn’t a policy that I as a PI can do anything about. For graduate students, this is incredibly frustrating – particularly for travel that we’d like to book months in advance to avoid high costs. I try to make the offer to any students that they can book the flights on my personal credit card and then I get reimbursed for that portion of their travel later, but it’s a generally crappy system.

  5. I had real problems with this as a graduate student in a high cost of living/low wage locale at a U. with a notoriously slow reimbursement system. No one seemed to think much of it but it put me perilously close to the edge (e.g., not having a place to live or food to eat) more than once. I was pretty good at saving and budgeting but when you already qualify (but don’t use) foodstamps, there isn’t much room for error — all it takes is a broken car, a broken lease, or a slow reimbursement to jeopardize your security. I don’t have much advice for you but perhaps talking with your supervisor about the problem would be a good start? First, while I understand wanting to stretch grant dollars, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to subsidize them. Sometimes per diem rates greatly outpace your real costs but that’s pretty rare. Could you discuss that you will travel/stay/eat by the most economical means possible and agree to claim only what it really costs (rather than an arbitrary 1/2)? Also, perhaps your supervisor has forgotten (as mine had) how precarious your finances are at this point in your career. I finally talked to my advisor my final year as a student and it had never occurred to him that slow reimbursements would be a problem. He did everything he could to speed them up. I’ve taken a more proactive approach with my students, doing as much pre-purchasing through the U as possible, paying directly for all ‘shared’ expenses like cab fares to/from the airport, and personally fronting them money for other costs and letting them reimburse me when they get reimbursed.

  6. I suspect that you’re right; this is one of the subtle ways disadvantaged groups get pushed out of academia. I’ve been fortunate in my traveling that I could wait for reimbursement (and that I haven’t got any disadvantages) but I remember times in grad school particularly that it was a pretty close-run thing.

  7. As a disabled doctoral student, I feel this intensely. I’m unable to go to a conference (ironically, a conference that is supposed to be social justice oriented) because of finances and the lack of funds that are flowing at my university for travel. We’ve had a reimbursement system on top of it here, which is really difficult as most of my assistantship stipend is tied up with health care costs.

  8. Yes, I faced similar issues as a grad student. Not sure I can offer any solutions except to talk with your PI — some people never experience this and so therefore are clueless.

    Are those differences in household incomes in the graph you showed statistically significant (based on sample size)? Cuz I had no idea about that. Why do trans people make less?

    • The data are from a sample size of 6,450 trans people across all 50 US states, and as far as I know it’s the only comprehensive study of its kind. In the full report ( ) they go into detail under the employment section on why trans people have much higher rates of unemployment and underemployment then cisgender people do. The oversimplified answer is the manifestation of societal discrimination against trans people in the workplace.

  9. Ugh, reimbursement culture is the worst and certainly sets another hurdle for the “non-traditional” (i.e. less than super privileged) graduate student. I myself am waiting on a $500 reimbursement that was approved six months ago (the approval part took three months itself). By the time I get reimbursed, it will be time to book travel for the same annual conference. I did what everyone does–put the $ on my credit card–but I’m also lucky that I’m a two-income household, so the long wait has not affected me materially. But it’s still an outrage. What I decided to do was bring this issue to the attention of the student newspaper, which will hopefully help spread the word. I have also been in contact with the disbursement group. If I had more energy, I would write a letter to the diversity dean…and maybe I still will. I think the only way to change this culture is to make a huge stink about it. Although, of course, the students who are affected most are also those who are in less of a position to make a stink, since their place in the university is precarious (or at least feels that way). But those of us who can, for whatever reason, speak out must do so. Grad students are obsessive, whiny and annoying anyway, right? So let’s make good use of that.

  10. I love this post, but I hate these circumstances so much. Just totally nodding in agreement. Before I came back to academia, I was in industry. We had a lot of trainings that the company wanted us to do, but we had to pay out of pocket. They were expensive trainings. And some of us employees had the same issue where we had to pay the interest over a few months. And sometimes the company took forever to reimburse people, too.

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