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.
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?