As a later-stage graduate student, I’ve been trying to make sure that I attend a few conferences per year. There are lots of reasons to go to conferences, some of which we’ve discussed here before, including meeting people who do similar work, becoming inspired by others’ work, learning about new ideas in your field, networking for future job opportunities/grant collaborators, and more.
But after coming back from a conference earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about the costs. Not the direct costs per se, although there are great reads written by others on the high price of attending conferences these days. That’s not even considering the carbon footprint of academics jetsetting all over the planet. No, rather I’ve been thinking about how much graduate students in my lab group pay to attend conferences, while the PI pays nothing.
Here’s what I mean: despite being on a big multi-PI grant (of the NSF/USDA/NASA/USGS/Gates etc variety – multiyear and in the million realm) that explicitly includes funding for “travel,” the graduate students on my project are not allowed to use that funding. No joke. I desperately look and apply to multiple funding sources – my department, other sources throughout the university, the conference itself – while my PI puts their entire flight/hotel/per diem on the grant.
When our lab all goes to a conference together, which happens maybe once every other year, our PI is “kind” enough to pay for our hotel room. Yes, singular. They make us all share one room, despite the number of grads usually hovering between 3 and 5 people. They, of course, have their own room. As I’ve discussed previously, I think making graduate students share rooms without their consent is problematic. The grads are always on their own for food, etc. That isn’t a big deal, but flights and hotels are expensive!
And this problem is in many ways unique to the academy. If I worked in industry, all of my work travel costs would be covered. End of story. Even if I was a junior employee versus a senior employee. Such is the nature of business expenses. Is the problem a devaluing of student labor? Is it that we are seen as “students” and not “workers?”
I’ve asked the postdocs in our group about this and seems like they are in a strange position also. Some of them don’t ask and bill everything to their grants, with success. The ones who inquire about what they can bill / how much they can spend per year on attending conferences get told another story (again, keep in mind that everyone in the lab is attached to a funded project, so in theory there is travel money).
This means that for students in my group, attending one conference, let alone several, is a major decision that often depends on our ability to get external funding. I understand that this is a reality for students who are not unaffiliated with funded projects – which is a big part of the reason this issue in my group bothers me so much: I don’t want to compete with and potentially take away travel monies from students who arguably need it much more than my well funded lab does. It isn’t fair. But in practice, the grad students are only well-funded in theory, as we’re not given access to the travel funds on our grants.
Is this common? I’d like to hear from PIs and other grads in the comments on how this plays out in their groups and departments. Polling other grads in my department with other advisors revealed that, at least at my university, their advisors fully fund their conference travel if they are on a funded project. That doesn’t mean they get to attend unlimited conferences, but if the money is there, they get to use it.
Mostly, I just wish there was a way to report this to the funding agency at the end of the grant cycle. In general, I wish that funding agencies asked graduate students about their lived experience with the PIs and the project, for a whole suite of reasons. With this issue in particular, I think it’s highly relevant to let agencies know how their money was spent – and wasn’t. When the PIs report my conference presentations in the annual reports to that granting agency as a form of productivity, there is no way to make clear that this grant didn’t really enable that conference attendance or access to professional development activities. The cynical side of me thinks that the reason funding agencies don’t ask graduate students about their experience on grants is twofold: a) they don’t care and b) they don’t really want to know, because then they’d hear stories like this and be compelled to do something about it.
What do you think?