No access to travel funding: does this make cent$?

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?

59 thoughts on “No access to travel funding: does this make cent$?

  1. I was an unfunded student (for research expenses), in an unfunded lab, so perhaps my experience is not typical. Any conference I attended was fully on my dime (other than minor, rare travel grants on the order of a few hundred $). Some grad students with funding were very generous and shared their room to help unfunded students out (e.g. 5 people, 2 beds, 1 room). As a post doc my life improved dramatically. Travel and hotel covered (provided I was presenting research). Room sharing was generally necessary (depending on gender distribution). Later I found a colleague to share an inexpensive room at conferences to help cut costs. Now I am in industry and have never (so far) shared a room, but we stay at inexpensive hotels and eat modestly. I also only request funding for 1 conference per year. Travel for other business follows the same model. I’m sure some industry people travel more luxuriously, but think that number might be lower than we all imagine.

    Grant budgets usually do include $ for travel, but not endless amounts. And usually only enough to cover 1-2 people each year (depending on the size of the grant and number of people involved).

    • thanks for sharing your experience. I doubt your experience is atypical, but as I said in the piece, since everyone in my lab is on a funded project, we shouldn’t be competing with unfunded students (like your experience) for travel $$$s. I agree it’s not unlimited, but do you think it’s fair that PIs take all of the travel $$ for themselves?

      • Squirrelyred, your PI is a jerk! When I was a graduate student my PI (who’s a pretty cheap person in ‘real life’ and had little funds at that time) ALWAYS paid all my expenses and he would insist I’d go to 2-3 conferences per year (the ‘’it’s good for your CV’’ discourse – but so true) and sometimes in very expensive places like Europe. And I don’t think I was lucky, it was the norm in our (Canadian) university. I’ve never heard of graduate students sharing hotel rooms either.

        • thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that my PI can be a jerk! More importantly, I’m sad that the funding agencies don’t care they are a jerk / don’t give me a way to report this. They have been lead PI on lots of big, publicly funded grants, very very well known in our field. But disclosing would only hurt me.

  2. This was not my experience as a grad student or postdoc. All travel was paid for by my supervisors grants. I help cover for my students and sometimes my collaborators if they do not have access to travel funds and I have funds that can support them.

    Interesting point about asking grad students about their experiences. Sigma Xi did a good study of postdocs. It may also have included grad students. This evidence about what makes an experience successful is tremendously important and should be considered in the research planning funding and assessment process.

  3. In my group we support travel of students to conferences on the grant if they are presenting research of the grant within the grant capacity of course. Having been a student and now a PI it seems to me there are many more “pots” of travel money available to students and early career than there are available to faculty. At my school if as a faculty member you have a grant you are not eligible for the general pot. Also your PI has a responsibility to network and share research too just like students. I’m not sure what’s “fair” in your situation but sharing rooms etc in grad school at conferences was certainly the norm when I went through and the PI may feel he or she is allowed to not have to share a room at this stage of her/his career. Sounds like there are some disparities in practice within your university so possible there is room for the PI to support more travel than he or she does. But past experience and history may make the practice you are experiencing feel normal to your PI.

    • There are more pots of money available to students and early career investigators because we make a lot less money and are a lot less likely to have grant funding than mid-career and senior investigators. If you have a grant, the thought is that you should write travel funding into the grant, which is probably why you’re not eligible for the general pot – you’d be taking away the opportunity for unfunded investigators to receive money they really need to travel.

  4. I cover travel costs for those in my lab including both students and post docs. When we don’t have enough grant money to cover I cover out of my pocket. Personally I feel it is my responsibility as a PI to make sure they have these opportunities.

  5. As somebody who her funds her lab through a variety of funding streams, I can attest that different funding agencies really do have different rules (e.g. no student tuition allowed, travel allowed for collaboration but not conferences, etc.) Travel funds for PIs but not for students is a new rule for me, but you can look up the rules for your specific grant by going to the agency’s website that provides rules for proposal submission. It can also happen that the conference is paying for the PI to be an invited speaker, rather than the grant, which might end up looking like only PIs get funding. And PIs do also pay for their own travel sometimes (and just not talk about it).

    My goal is that I find funds to pay for each student who is senior enough to have results to attend one conference each year to present that work. If they can drum up more funds on their own, there can even be a second conference. To cut costs and make this all possible, 2 people/room is my goal, and I typically share a room with a colleague as well (not a group member!). I also help my group find suitable roommates (avoiding problems with gender/sexuality/religion/etc issues) from colleagues’ research groups as needed. The bonus there is building your network. When I’ve been short on student travel funds, I have helped the student pick that-year’s conference based on the likely availability of the conference’s own travel funds. Once, that meant a student got to go to a much cooler international conference, instead of a run-of-the-mill domestic one!

    • thanks for sharing these great ideas and your experience running your lab. In this case, I do know that the grant could cover student conference travel. In our broader dept, sounds like most PIs find a way to cover 1 conference/year for graduate students presenting their research. That sounds very reasonable, and I wish was the standard in our group. Transparency or explicit policy in our lab would be helpful — as you point out, if the issue is that the grant doesn’t allow it, just saying so would prevent confusion on the part of our group. Maybe I should have also spelled out that our PI *expects* all of us to go to at least 2 conferences per year to present our work, so the lack of access to funds means we pay out of pocket or get ‘in trouble’ for not going.

      And thanks for talking about the roommate sharing. I have no issue sharing a room. I have issue with the expectation that 4 of us share a room just because we are in same lab and it saves the PI $$, whether or not it’s appropriate — case in point, one grad has a newborn and the PI said that we will all share the room this at a conference later this year, even with the baby coming. Obviously the grads in our group are trying to get the parent their own room, for everyone’s sanity.

      • I think my head just exploded. How is this remotely acceptable, not just for the other grads, but for the parent?! I know others have advised doing nothing, but please don’t take this lying down. Band together, find someone, anyone, who is willing to help you stand up for yourselves.

        • i think the replies here show that how grad school goes wildly varies depending on advisor. there are currently no standards and near zero repercussions for them

  6. This sounds like a terrible situation! I have never worked in the US (and nothing so far has convinced me that it would be a good idea) but have been a grad student in Australia and Europe. This is honestly the first time I’ve heard of anyone paying for their own conference attendance. The only awkwardness regarding money and going to conferences is that sometimes you have to pay for things and then claim them back when you return (depending on the department), which can be tricky if you’re on a tight budget. And not all departments/institutes have a per diem, I have friends who have to collect all of their food receipts and claim back exactly what they spent, whereas I can just relax and trust the per diem will cover me when I’m back.

    Right now I’m in the last 6 months of my PhD (which will end up having been 4.5 years long, 6 months less than my deadline from my institute and 6 months longer than most European and many Australian PhDs) and I’ve gone to at least two conferences/workshops/summer schools per year, mostly within Europe but one was in the US and one was in Australia. A couple of times I had to/was able to apply for external funding for travel which allowed me to go to extra conferences when my supervisor ran out of grant money (and before the next grant came through). I never thought to feel guilty about that though because all grad students in this country are on a salary, like I am, and almost are attached to some grant which gives them some travel funding. I think there was only one conference I had to miss that I particularly wanted to go to because of lack of funding.

    Paying for your own conference travel as a grad student is definitely NOT common. I’m sorry you’re in this terrible situation😦

  7. My PIs (PhD and 2 different postdocs) have all paid all of my conference expenses, although we were always expected to apply for travel funds from other sources. This is true for almost everyone I have met if funding is available. It is NOT okay for the PI not to use an NSF grant to assist with student conference expenses. If the PI isn’t funded they will usually try to help, but sometimes students / postdocs have to pay for meals. This is all in the US. If your PI is this unsupportive for conferences I wonder how they will be for the rest of your career. Consider your options for other PIs. I don’t think that NSF doesn’t care – they just expect the PI to be honest about what the funding accomplished.

    • thanks for sharing your experience. multiple students in my group were funded via RAs on NSF grants and not given access to the travel funds on those grants (while the PI used them). there is currently no way for students to share that info with NSF, at least in a safe and productive manner. given that NIH is now requiring post-doc mentorship plans for big grants and PIs, I hope all the other public agencies do the same for grads and postdocs, to provide some accountability

      • ahaha definitely. see my other posts about my lab group! and part of the reason that I don’t post with my real name and lab group. the PI’s colleagues, I hope, would be appalled to find out their identity. I go to a very well ranked school and the PI is considered top of their field.

  8. As a student in Europe I had the conference expenses paid for, and actually was the only one traveling as the PI did not want to (I know this is pretty unusual). Now, as a PI in the US, I am aware of how expensive traveling for a conference is. For now in my group, I am the only one traveling as I am setting up the lab and trying to get funding. My plan is for students to start attending conferences next year, when they have produced enough work and are solidly into their PhD. If money is short, I will choose conferences close to our location to drive all together, as plane cost is higher in our area. I would ask my students to share a room if possible, and they are two men with same religion. I have paid my own room before as a PI to avoid draining funds, so I would do that and pay for the students room instead. As the post says today, for me it is a business matter, so not paying for a student’s travel costs is unthinkable.

  9. I’ve been to a few conferences (twice as an undergrad!) and each time I paid for the expenses and then was reimbursed. Fortunately, the conferences I’ve gone too have been fairly cheap so I haven’t had to worry about money. One of the first pieces of advice I got as a grad student was to get a credit card because I would need it if I didn’t have the money up front. There are multiple places in the dept and the college where travel grants are offered.

  10. Your PIs get to write conference travel off on their grants? Must be nice to have that much funding available. Research grant money is more often used up doing research and *maybe* paying a postdoc’s salary if one is lucky enough to score a hard-to-get big federal grant.
    How do they *make* you share a room? If your major conference doesn’t have an online student forum, then look into setting one up. Our Facebook group works well and fosters a lot of needed discussions and resource sharing (e.g., room share requests).
    3-5 people in a room doesn’t seem bad at all so long as no one’s unpleasant to room with. We typically have 4-6 per room and have had as many as 8 on a couple occasions in the pricier locales, though it gets uncomfortably-cramped above 6.
    I’m probably coming across as poo-poohing your concerns, but that’s not my intent. PIs getting to write off travel on grants when their student don’t is absolutely unfair if the students are researching something related to that grant. How common is it for students to research something directly related to PI’s grants in your field? It’s fairly common for that to not be the case in mine, so our departments tend to have pools specifically intended to fund student conference travel that’s split among us. It covers most, but not all, of the costs.

    • The students in question are all ON the grants I am talking about; they don’t just do research related to the grant, they are doing the research OF the grant. They are making the grant happen. This is why I don’t think it’s good that my labmates and I apply for limited department funds — folks who are not on funded projects should be given priority.

      If you didn’t read the other comments, I clarified that room sharing is not the issue. And the PI can “make” us share the room because we have no access to the $$$ – so they can reserve 1 room and insist that we all share if we want to go. You’re right that we could spend even more of our own out of pocket $$ if we wanted to find other rooms.

  11. I’m a PI and I pay for all conference expenses for my students. I do expect them to share rooms where genders etc permit, and I ask students to tell me if there are issues with that or with finances. My university will give students a travel advance and I encourage them to use that. I do ask them to apply for travel funds where available because that extends our travel dollars, and because it looks good on your CV if you get them. When I write letters of recommendation for those awards I state clearly whether the student could attend the conference or not without the funding, essentially leaving it up to the funding organization to determine whether or not they want to use their funds for my students or others. I don’t generally pay for my students to go to conferences until they have work to present, but encourage them to apply for other funding to do so earlier, and then I pay if there’s any extra funding needed (within reason). Have you had a frank conversation with your PI (or another PI at your institute) about this? There may be good reasons you don’t know about, or your PI may need to be taken to task by someone else. But it is important to note that there are not so many funds for PIs to apply to, unless you’re an invited speaker, and often the PI travelling publicizes the work of multiple students, which is part of the reason they tend to travel more, and use more funds. As to room sharing, I see not having to as a perk of being the PI. If a student had a real reason not to I would be receptive, but since one typically only showers and sleeps in the room I don’t see it as a big deal. That said I do not expect more than 2 to a room and only if said room has two beds!!

    • thanks for sharing your experience as a PI. I agree that PIs would of course be traveling or presenting more – I never said they don’t deserve to use travel funds! Or to use them to have their own room. I just question why this PI is using them all and not letting students on those grants who are presenting research from those grants use part of them.

      I have asked other PIs on my committee that I trust about this; they say essentially that they are not going to tell anyone else how to run their lab. Another said he thinks that the PI in question got this approach because of how their own advisor approached funding/conferences.

      Re: room sharing, this PI expects students to share beds b/c he is putting so many in a room.

  12. Jeez – stories like this make me appreciate my field + advisors. I have never had to pay a dime for a conference, registration, hotel, travel, or food. I do try and keep costs down if it’s expensive conference, by sharing rooms or staying at an AirB&B or whatever if the conference hotel is overpriced and vacation rentals are available. I apply for travel money (particularly for expensive conferences) if I can just to extend grant dollars and for the prestige of the money pots.

  13. Your PI is indeed a jerk. When I (a PI) have funding, I share it. When funding is tight, I have shared a room, this year at a meeting a student went funded on small grants she wrote, a postdoc is fully funded on the grant (she is talking about data from that project) and I am paying entirely out of my own pocket.

    As a grad student at Cornell, the only money I had for conferences was from my pocket and from small grants/awards I personally got. Occasionally if the meeting was close the department would send a van that grad students all drove in.

  14. I’m in the humanities, not a grant-driven situation, but as a graduate student I was eligible to *apply* to the university for $300 to defray the cost of travel to a conference at which I was presenting work. That hardly ever even covered a plane ticket! At my last tenure-track job (a public R1 university; I have since had the fortune to switch institutions) my entire annual research budget was eaten up by a single conference. I know there is much more money in the sciences, but I think few will disagree that sharing work and results is equally important in the humanities for the careers of young scholars, whether graduate students or junior faculty. This isn’t at all to say, “stop complaining about your PI”—I think you’re right to bring this to attention, and since there were funds to be used, it would be reasonable to share in them. I mention my situation just to diversify the view of situations facing young academics.

    • thanks for sharing your experience. And I agree – especially because my humanities friend say/think ‘oh you science peeps are rolling in it!’ But if my PI doesn’t let the grad students use the funds, then in practice we’re in the same boat – I apply to the university in hopes of getting like 1 of 10 all-university travel awards. And that’s my point – the fact that the PI chooses not to let me or the other grads access the funds means even less $$$ for the people who really aren’t funded! I think indirectly the PI’s choice hurts unfunded labs/other fields even more.

      • I don’t know what the solution is for non-grant funded grads (and those who don’t share in the grant spoils like yourself!), but the university is remarkably stingy about funding at all stages. I mean, really, giving a tenure-track faculty member $1k per year to fund conference travel? One thinks these things get better when you get a coveted TT job, but they don’t always. Part of the reason I moved on (and again, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to). The problem is in the humanities there often isn’t recourse to grant funding like there is in the sciences, so we’re dependent on research budgets (or competitions for meager graduate travel stipends) to just do our jobs.

        • very true. and my partner is in the humanities, so I see firsthand all the time. their solution is to only apply to workshops with funding (obv only works if you want to / get into those)

  15. At my very highly ranked grad program students generally funded their own conference travel. There were small grants to apply to internally as well as from conferences. Folks who were exclusively funded on a project often had funding for 1 conference. My advisor had a personal policy of spin everything he could to contribute 50%. At the grad program where I am a professor (R1) the policy is similar.

    I do pay for my students if they are working on a funded project. If not, I ask them to apply for all potential sources of funding and if they come up short, I try to cover the difference (or a portion of it). Like my advisor, I expect my students to have some “skin in the game”.

    This sounds like it is a significant source of frustration to you so I would encourage you to talk to your supervisor or other mentor. Your PI may be unaware of the strain that attending 2 conferences/ year is putting on you. Going to them with a budget for travel and asking for a specific amount would be a place to start. Have you tried this or mentioned the strain it is putting on you?

    You could also survey your fellow grad students in your dept to get a better understanding of how travel is funded.

    You may also not understand how travel is budgeted for in the grant you are on. Your PI may have only included enough travel $ for hirself over the funding period. Since most grants are use it or lose it, and it is difficult to change $ across categories, it seems unlikely to me that there are large pots of travel dollars going unspent. Travel in grants isn’t just for conferences but also can include fieldwork, visiting or hosting collaborators, etc. It’s worth a frank conversation with your PI about this and if there aren’t any funds for student travel you could ask that they consider writing them in for the future.

    Good luck!

  16. Everyone in my PhD lab had to piece together their own funding for research (sometimes paid out of pocket) and conference travel. (Due to the recession, the department eliminated travel grants for ABD students.)

    This experience has left me motivated to help pay for students’ conference travel. At the same time, having made those financial sacrifices, I also feel as though I’ve earned the right to cover my own travel expenses with my grant money. Particularly when junior professors are required to travel so much as part of their work towards tenure.

    It’s also hard to judge the situation not knowing what the budget for conference travel is. Nor is it clear how you know that your PI is funding all of their conference travel from this grant, as opposed to other sources (as others mentioned). Often, just 2-3 years of salaries & benefits for a few people, direct research expenses and overhead can bring a budget to a more than a million dollars. Sometimes the project doesn’t get funded at the level requested, eliminating discretionary conference travel. In other words, there might not be as much money for conference travel as it may seem.

    If you really felt strongly about communicating with the granting agency, it would be more constructive to discuss the general problem than to “report” your advisor. Suggest that the GRFP adds a yearly travel stipend to its award. Suggest that the agency automatically adds a yearly travel stipend for mentees funded by a grant to any awards they grant, making it independent from whatever other funds are requested. Or suggest something else. Because as much as you may feel this is about your PI being a jerk, the reality is that for many PIs, grant money is spread thin, even on big awards, and regardless of the PIs intentions, their mentees feel the effects.

    • thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience, much appreciated. I know for a fact how much the grant is and how much the travel budget was at the start, although I don’t know how the PI/s decided on that # – as the frugal ecologist pointed out, maybe they budgeted travel just for themself as a PI.

      I mentioned in the post and on another comment that I feel strongly that granting agencies should more towards the model that NIH is now doing with postdocs, where PIs need to show how they will mentor postdocs on the grant (I think this should include grads), not just exploit them for cheap labor. This could include setting aside grant $ for student or postdoc travel, as it’s definitely a professional development opportunity. And that’s my broader point – I don’t think these public agencies realize that the PIs are not mentoring/supporting their students in certain ways, because the conference presentations I give (even when I pay my own way) are reported as part of grant productivity.

      • Apologies if I am reading this wrong, but It seems you are implying that you think it is unethical that your PI is counting student presentations towards productivity when the students are self funding conference travel.

        The research you are presenting is accounted for in grant reporting (justifiably I think) because the grant funded the actual research. I think in this context the funding of travel to the conference is irrelevant. In the same vein, the pubs count even if the page charges are paid out of start-up or other internal funds.

        • I don’t think it’s unethical – I just think it’s not transparent to the funders. I am glad for all the PI perspectives on this and happy to see this conversation, even if we don’t agree.

      • BTW, NSF has been requiring postdoctoral mentoring plans for about five years now (at least for my directorate). I also think that it’s easy as a grad student to lose sight of the fact that when someone publishes a paper or presents at a conference, it’s the end product of a large process. To suggest that if a department travel grant or a mentee pays their own travel expenses, the presentation shouldn’t count towards grant productivity, is to forget the fact that the presentation or manuscript does not stand alone. When a grant pays for 99%, or even 5%, of the salaries and research expenses that made a talk or paper possible (including, often, the mentee’s salary for the time spent preparing it, attending the meeting, etc.–which in many cases is equal to or more than the cost of travel), it’s justified that such talks are included in grant productivity. I don’t think granting agencies are unaware that student conference travel may be paid for by outside sources. (They *do* approve the travel budget, which includes justifications for its use.) Rather, they’re looking at the grant’s contribution to the bigger picture. I.e., if an author is acknowledging the funding source in their presentation or paper, it’s part of the grant’s productivity.

        It sounds like the underlying issue is less about travel funding, and more about expectations for mentoring/support and how (and by whom) advisors should be held accountable when those standards are not met. Maybe topic for a future post…perhaps from both sides of the issue!

  17. I never had to pay for my conference travel as a grad student. You could apply for a $500 grant from the grad school (generally you got it at least once), plus $300 from my department per year. My PI would cover whatever was left, if applicable (and he didn’t explicitly tell us to share rooms, although we generally did anyway). I was expected to go to one major conference per year. I once finagled a second conference (in Hawaii!) by putting together my own funding and convincing him to pay for the major conference (but hey, I won a poster award in Hawaii so it was worth it!) I’ve never heard of any other labs making their students pay for anything (except food, maybe, if you didn’t keep the receipts).

  18. Almost-done US grad student here: My PI covers all conference expenses for 1 conf per year per student (on average), assuming the student is presenting research. This would be a domestic conf, however, not one on a different continent. He is NIH funded — I am in bioengineering. I typically share a room with one other student but once had to share with 3 others, 2 per queen bed. From the other comments, it seems to be emerging that most grad students on grants have most of their conf expenses covered, though there are certainly exceptions. So I think that answers your question about how common what your advisor is doing is.

    Now, what should/can you do about it? My answer is … probably nothing. I think it’s very telling that your committee members refuse to get involved. They likely know this person better/longer than you do. Clearly approaching it from the “what you’re doing is unethical” or “jerky” won’t work. The most you can do is go to them before the next conf, hat in hand, show them the outside funding you have been able to raise, and ask if there is any way that they can cover the difference. But I find it hard to believe that your PI is simply ignorant of the financial strain they are putting on their students. So, in the end, this may be one of those battles not worth fighting.

    As for those mentoring plans required by NIH for postdocs, I hear that they are largely BS. You need them in there to get the funding, but no one pays attention to them later, i.e., no one is held accountable.

    • thanks for your thoughts. I agree that I won’t do anything about it — too far and too close to finishing. but am glad to hear that so many PIs cover 1 conference per year for students presenting.

      • and yes, overall I think the question of how to make PIs more accountable with that $$$ and to promoting their student/postdoc labor, rather than just exploiting it, needs to be discussed in a big way. With all the PIs responding on this thread (thanks for sharing your thoughts!), I hear lots of ‘this is how it is’ and less of ‘this is how I wish it would be.’ Why not hope that PIs write their grants differently to help make sure that travel funds are available for prof. dev. opps?

  19. I have never paid out of pocket to attend a conference (at any stage, undergrad, Masters or PhD student). Every once in awhile, my PI and I talk about conferences and we decide on which ones would be best for me. On average, I am funded to attend 3 conferences per year, two domestic and one international. We are well funded though: my PI has a grant for my project and I am also externally funded. However, my PI will fund other students to the same level even without these grants through my PI’s startup money.

    When possible, I always try to find another grad student to share a room with (but never sharing beds and only if I can find someone I feel comfortable sharing with). My PI always says that I never have to share if I don’t want to, but when I can find someone I’d want to share a room with, I do so to save grant money for other purposes.

    All travel/conference related expenses are covered (flight, taxis, shuttles, meals, poster printing etc.). I get the federal per diem rate for meals and incidentals, unless that number is very large for some foreign places. However, while I don’t have to turn in receipts, I always keep track and only claim expenses equal to what I actually spent (I rarely reach the full per diem rate). I know some other PIs in our department have a more strict rate though.

    In general, where I feel comfortable, I try to save my PI money where possible. Although we have not actually discussed a dollar amount limit on travel per year, I know that the more I spend on one trip, the less my PI will have for other expenses for me. So, while I will not make irresponsible decisions like having a steak dinner every night and charging that to the grant, I do spend reasonable amounts of money in order to be comfortable and healthy (e.g. I don’t go to the other end and eat McDonalds every day–I’ll pay a fair amount for real food when traveling). After all, although conferences are certainly fun and good for me, I am actually on “business” and working for my PI, lab and university when I attend a conference.

    • glad to hear your experience! it is business travel and glad to hear that your lab treats it that way (and that you work hard to keep costs down, which lets everybody go to more conferences)

  20. I think the policy of the PI is flawed, if you are doing work on the grant and presenting research on the grant I see no reason you can’t have your travel funded on the grant (within the limits of the funding amount available of course). I think, though, in the OP the comments about the PI funding their own travel or not sharing a room conflates the issue here. They are entitled to do that. They should just develop a better policy to support their graduate students’ travel on the grant. I didn’t realize when you originally posted grad students are *expected* to present, and yet not funded to do so. That seems wrong to me.

  21. Just to add, I am a PI and I always write in funding for travel in general into my proposals, and if there is a student funded and doing the work of grant, which is usual, I generally send them to the conference to present (paid for by the grant). We try to stretch dollars but it’s not a question if the money is there. I’m not sure this is a general “field” problem (i.e. accountability for travel opportunities for students as you’ve mentioned above), rather it sounds like a specific problem of your PI specifically, he/she is just not aware of the more general norms? But perhaps I have just had a more positive experience of most PIs I know sending their students paid on grants to conferences. Not unlimited but at least one a year.

    • thanks for sharing your experience and policies as a PI. Seems like most PIs in my dept provide their grads with funding for one conference per year to present, so clearly my advisor is in my minority at least in the dept. That said, it’s *possible* he doesn’t know because talking about $$ is often taboo. And there’s the problem of the grads in my lab being afraid to bring up $$$ – I hope PIs understand that since students didn’t write the grants, they are often made to feel like they should feel lucky to be on a funded project (and we are, given the low funding rates these days) at all, let alone asking for $$$ to go to conferences. But again, this is in many ways an academia and accountability problem – so many things in the academy in terms of how PIs treat students/grad assistants would not fly in industry/etc.

    • I love this double standard! Not to pick on you, Anon, but how many times in science blogs do PIs chime in to tell grad students/postdocs, “Don’t you think we know how you feel? We’ve been there, walked a mile in your shoes … you’ve never been in our position!” And yet, at certain times, the answer seems to be, “Maybe the poor PI acts that way because he doesn’t know any better. Maybe he doesn’t realize that he’s doing anything wrong!” Well, you can’t have it both ways. And frankly, I am *sick* of hearing folks make excuses for PIs — especially experienced, well established PIs — that they misbehave because they are simply not aware of the norms.

      So one PI stares at the chest of a female trainee repeatedly, and people jump in to say, “Maybe he doesn’t realize that’s wrong. Maybe he can’t control it. Perhaps he just needs a good talking to.” And of course, it’s always the poor grad student or postdoc, at great risk to themselves, that has to educate them. Enough is enough! This PI likely knows that most of his colleagues pay for their students to go to conferences and that making students pay for themselves is a lot to ask of them. But he just doesn’t give a damn — he has decided that’s the way he’s going to do things, full stop. So let’s stop bending over backwards to make excuses for the guy.

      • The most baffling response to me is “maybe the PI doesn’t realize that this is a struggle for you.” PIs know exactly what the salaries are of their grant-funded doctoral students because they literally had to write the salary into the grant. Having been graduate students, they also know what a struggle setting aside $1500+ a year for 2+ conferences is on a $30K salary. I don’t buy the argument that PIs are simply oblivious to this.

  22. As a grad student I will freely admit I was incredibly lucky to have a well funded PI who supported A LOT of travel for me (both for collaborations and conferences). I am a new PI working only off of startup and I would never ever ever put my students through what you describe (easy for me to say right? but I already sent one student to a conference where they were not presenting because I thought it would be good for their professional development). Our university allows travel advances but I always offer to put their travel on my own credit card if waiting for reimbursement would cause them financial hardship. I encourage them to apply for travel grants and if a situation arose in which there was not enough support from grants/startup/travel grants I will pay out of pocket if need be. Although it can be good for networking/bonding, I do not ask my research group to share rooms with anyone, though if they want to that is certainly allowed. If there is a sympathetic faculty member in your department that you could talk to about what has been going on I would suggest approaching them.

    One other thing, if you haven’t already, I would look into if/how much of these expenses can be written off on your taxes if you continue having to pay for them

  23. Honestly, I blame the other PIs in your department for not wanting to have a tough conversation with their colleagues. I haven’t had to do this personally, but I like to think that I’d suck it up and talk with my colleague on behalf of students. I wouldn’t do it over something I thought was minor, but not funding any conference travel (presuming said monies exist) for your students and expecting them to share beds is not appropriate!

    • thanks for your thoughts. I think (some, clearly not all) PIs have the attitude (at least in my depts at this school) that other PIs matter more than their students, because the students come and go, but the other PIs are often their research collaborators, esp as all of the big granting agencies reward (or only allow) multi PI projects. My PI refused to confront another prof in our dept over a conflict two of their students were having (so my labmate, not me) in a field station setting. It seemed largely because the students were more transient, the PIs would have to keep working together.

  24. Pingback: Funding graduate student travel to conferences | DoctorAl

    • thanks for your post! I enjoyed the read. sorry to share a horror story, but I think this dialogue is important. I should have discussed this aspect more in the post, but several prominent female academics and writers have been pointing out recently that incurring large personal costs to get a degree, advance, etc in one’s career effectively make it impossible for the middle class or poor to join. If we care about diversity in the academy, we need to consider the literal costs we are asking students to shoulder, like spending $$$ out of pocket that should be considered a business expense, and who therefore is kept out and who is promoted.

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  27. Pingback: How Grad Students Can Travel Smarter (and Cheaper) Than Ever – Tailwind by Hipmunk

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