This month I’ve presented at two conferences. This would not be noteworthy, were it not for the fact that I have a one month old. The first conference allowed me to participate remotely, and the second conference was within driving distance, so I attended in person (along with baby and husband). Insane? Possibly. Tiring? Definitely. So I’ve been reflecting on whether or not it was worth it, especially as a cash strapped graduate student, and the accommodations that made going possible.
There is a huge range of accommodations (or lack thereof) for mothers and parents at academic conferences. From a quick survey of 3 random academic conferences happening in 2014, I found the following*:
AGU has childcare onsite at their annual meeting (for a fee) and a nursing mothers’ room.
AHA has competitive/limited childcare grants for attendees of their annual meeting but no childcare available and no mention of a nursing room.
AAA has childcare onsite at their annual meeting (for a fee) but no mention of a nursing room.
Let’s break those down.
On-site childcare: The childcare at AGU and AAA sounds reasonably priced for a babysitter ($10-12/hour). However, that cost would add up if you wanted to participate in multiple hours or days of talks. And if one of the goals of attending a conference is networking with peers or potential employers, you’d potentially want to be baby-free at a happy hour or luncheon for a few hours on top of whichever panel you’re presenting in.
Neither conference that I participated in this fall had on-site childcare. With a nursing 1-month old, I wouldn’t have used it anyway but would be open to it when the kid is older. Some conference childcare will not accept kids under 6 months (AAA included), so those parents would have to find alternatives even if it was available. If you’ve used conference childcare in the past and have thoughts on how it affected your conference participation, I’d love to hear.
Childcare grants: Both Conference A and Conference B, which I attended, had competitive/limited childcare grants for attendees. I did not apply for one, since I had a travel grant from my university, but would consider it in the future. What seems most critical for these to be useful is for the definition of childcare to be broad**, to award as many as possible, and to make the funding decisions before or during registration. I was disappointed to see that neither Conference A nor B made it clear before participants had to register that they offered childcare grants. It wouldn’t have changed my decision to attend this time, but potentially could in the future. Having childcare grants available for graduate students, adjunct and contingent faculty, and other low-income scholars is one critical component to ensuring broad participation in society meetings.
Nursing/ “mothers” rooms: This is something I did take advantage of at Conference B, and I heard it was available at Conference A (although again, they didn’t advertise this until registration ended). When navigating a conference with baby, it was incredibly helpful to have a convenient place to duck into where no one cares if they’re crying, need a diaper change, etc., especially if you’re not staying in the conference hotel. It was also nice to have a place to nurse without bothering to care if others cared – or if any of those folks were potential future employers. It’s important to be sensitive to this concern: a mom I met with her 3 month old explained that she was on the job market and worried about doing anything that might offend those on the hiring committees.
Remote participation: I took advantage of this for Conference A, but it was not presented in the registration materials as an accommodation. While it allowed me to present remotely, I was not able to really interact with other participants or see other panels at the conference. So I’m not convinced I would do it again in the future. If others have gone this route and considered it worthwhile, do share.
What else might parents with kids in tow need though? As a graduate student on a tight budget, I kept coming back to money. Increasing the pot of money available to help cover travel costs would allow new parents (and folks of all stripes) to choose which accommodations best work for themselves and plan accordingly. In my case, my husband coming was incredibly helpful, so travel funds to help cover his cost as a childcare provider would be great. For others, using the funds to cover childcare at home might be the best solution.
Of course, resources are limited for most people going to conferences. But graduate students (and contingent scholars) are least likely to be reimbursed for their expenses by their university. Even though I have funding for my research through a federal grant, faculty advisors vary widely in whether or not they let students on their grants use this money for travel (mine doesn’t – a story for another time). And with conferences costing an arm and a leg between registration, lodging, and food, travel grants can really help. Yet I keep seeing travel grants for graduate students stipulate that grant recipients share a room with at least one other graduate student. This is poor form on multiple levels. First, treat graduate students like the adults that they are, whether or not they have kids. We don’t expect faculty to share rooms. Sharing a room at a conference should be the choice of attendees to save money. Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons a graduate student might want private space. Frankly I can’t imagine anyone would want to room with me and my crying infant; not sleeping would be a terrible prize for them. But more importantly, friends who don’t identify along the gender binary expressed extreme reservations about this room sharing model. Wouldn’t it be much more reasonable and compassionate to host conferences in more modest settings, splurge to cover the entire cost of a room for travel grant winners, or simply let them decide how best to spend their grant?
You might be saying Squirrely, if going to a conference with a kid is so fraught and resources are so scarce, why bother going at all? And that’s a fair question. But there are so many reasons to go to a conference as a graduate student. Here are some of mine:
– Present your work
– Public speaking experience
– Meet colleagues from other schools who work on similar topics
– Network with potential postdoc supervisors/future employers
– Socialize with peers/colleagues from other institutions
– Line on CV (let’s be real)
Those don’t change just because I had a kid! But realistically, instead of trying to get to do all of those at a conference, I had to pick just one or two off that list. For Conference A, I focused on presenting. For Conference B, I focused on presenting and socializing with peers from across the country, some of which were friends who wanted to meet the baby. All in all, I went into them naïve about how constrained my participation would be while traveling with an infant. But I’m glad I did it and feel much better equipped to conference with a baby in the future.
*I’ve never attended any of these conferences nor do I belong to these professional societies. If you’ve attended and/or know that they have additional or better resources that I missed, please add it in the comments! Part of the problem with accommodations for parents is the lack of transparency on what is or might be available.
** Some organizations allow these grants to be used for childcare in a very broad sense, including funding care for kids who stayed at home/with a caregiver while their parent is at the conference. That’s fantastic and more realistic for many families.
***For those of you embarking on similar travels in the future, I dug around the internet for tips and found this one to be very helpful, although I didn’t agree with all of her advice.