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Speculative Diction

It’s time to rethink academic conference funding

Grad students and early-career academics often can’t afford to go—but, for the sake of their careers, they also can’t afford not to go.


Way back in 2011, I wrote a post about the costs of academic conferences and how the “academic economy” shapes PhDs’ self-perception. Having had to say “no” to a lot of events in the past year, and facing a similar situation for 2016, I thought I’d revisit the issue and go into a bit more detail about the many ways in which academic conferences suck up resources—even as attendance is required for aspiring academics.

Full disclosure: I have never organized a conference. I’ve attended quite a few conferences, as a presenter, as part of a panel, and/or as an invited speaker; my comments are based on that experience and on conversations with colleagues. I still think conferences are valuable as a means of connecting with others, sharing the work we do and learning about what others have done. The problem (more so for those of us without a salary) is that in order to participate, we have to pay significant amounts of money. I’ve noticed that the assumed vulgarity of discussing money means there isn’t much talk about this issue of costs and privilege. So perhaps this post will be an airing of some dirty academic laundry.

Let’s start with some of the assumptions relating to the available funding. Yes, some people do have access to institutional funding that covers the registration fees and (some of) the other expenses involved. That’s great! However, many others do not. There’s a general assumption that the costs are to be paid out of academic salaries, or from grad student stipends or TA work, research grants, scholarships, and so on. This is a problem for grad students and early-career academics (ECRs) in particular, in at least two ways. Firstly, there is more competition for funding, since there are more students enrolled, and likely more of them applying for the same sources of funding for these professional events.

Secondly, also affected by competition, is the need to attend and present at conferences for the sake of one’s academic CV. Unfortunately, this is a situation where the more you need to build your CV, the less likely you are to have the resources to build it. Beyond the formal credit, being there to present and see others’ work isn’t the only value in going; the in-person, informal socializing and networking that happens at conferences is also crucial for career development. As I mentioned in my older post, these assumptions about funding might have worked out differently in a context where grad students weren’t expected to start building their CVs by going to conferences as early and often as possible. But that’s not the context right now.

If this issue seems trivial or petty, let me reframe it in terms of the conferences that I noted but couldn’t  attend (or register for) in the past year. These were/are conferences addressing critical issues in higher education, and most of them charged a registration fee of $100+ as a student rate, which was in at least one case extended to contract academic faculty as well. Non-student prices were more in the range of $300+.

Some of these events would have required air travel (to locations in Europe or the U.S.). If you’re travelling to another country, you also have to consider the exchange rate and possible visa costs. Then there’s accommodation and food; sometimes meals are included, but this usually raises the registration fee. If you have a disability, allergy or illness that requires special food, you’ll likely be covering that. If you have children or other dependents, you’ll need a way to cover their care as well. I should note that the prices I mention here are for humanities and social sciences conferences; STEM events seem to cost even more. Multiply that by however many conferences you attend in a year.

I can’t help wondering, how much of this can the average grad student or ECR afford on an annual basis? The point is that we also can’t afford not to go at all, because if we stick to more affordable local conferences (if there are any), then our CVs don’t look as competitive; and if we don’t attend at all, we can count ourselves out of the running.

What might be some practical ways of dealing with this? I’ve been in the situation of a student applying, registering and presenting at a conference in the usual way; I’ve also been invited as a speaker to give a presentation or participate in an event in some other capacity. I have a bit of advice on dealing with each of those things, since the problem goes beyond money:

  • Stop assuming that everyone has access to institutional funding. Setting a high price and then saying, “but it’s coming out of supervisors’ grants” is really unhelpful.
  • If you’re hearing criticisms about the costs, start an inclusive discussion about what can be done to deal with the effects of whatever is making conferences so pricey—rather than shutting down the critics or just reiterating that “conferences are expensive.”
  • Refunds are not effective. The cash flow problem has to be taken into account: even when funding is available, not everyone can pay up-front for a conference and a plane flight, then wait months for a reimbursement. Not everyone has access to a credit card (seriously, don’t assume it). This is also a problematic assumption for academic departments and programs: faculty funding for these costs works via reimbursement. Why would it be different for grad students? (Hint: because they don’t tend to have salaries that can cover up-front costs. Not all profs do, either.) Conferences also reward those who can pay more quickly, by offering early-bird fees.
  • Offering discounted rates on hotel rooms is not necessarily helpful; some of the “discount” rates are still over $200 per night. Try looking into, and cutting a deal on, additional local options that might be more affordable.
  • While live-streaming and virtual conferences are two possibilities for enabling participation, we need to be careful to avoid a two-tier system where those who can pay get to attend in person, and those who can’t must make do at a distance.
  • If someone says they can’t afford to go to your event, please don’t tell them you’re sure they’ll “find a way.” Believe what they’re saying, take into account the specific barriers they face, and help them (materially) if you can.
  • Please don’t assume that for organizers there’s no way around this, or that it’s simply not your responsibility. Students and other colleagues without resources already have to do extra work to access academic spaces. Why make it harder for them? Who has the advantage in this situation? Collaborating and getting creative could lead to solutions that benefit everyone.

If you’re inviting someone to speak at your event, you might be assuming there’s protocol relating to these invitations and that everyone “knows” it. That’s not the case, which is why it’s important that you avoid making things awkward for people when you invite them to an event—state up-front that you will be able to cover their costs (and an honorarium). Make it clear that you value their contribution enough to make that happen. Remember there’s a reason you wanted to invite them in the first place.

For some of these problems I’ve found workarounds. For example, I limit attendance to conferences where I’m presenting; if I’m invited to local conferences there are no or very low travel costs; if I can cover travel and stay with a friend, then I can sometimes get a media pass; and at various times, generous colleagues have helped me access institutional funding through channels available to them. But my question is not just about myself—it becomes an issue of scale. Can the kindness of near-strangers mitigate the situation for all those affected?

Conference funding is just one example that illustrates how merit isn’t the fundamental criterion for participation in academe—and for creating a successful academic career. When you literally have to be able to pay to get in the door, not just for tuition fees (which is something recognized as essential) but also for so many other professionalization costs, then there’s a problem with access to the academic profession. It’s no use having people telling you what great ideas you have, when you can’t participate in the places that count, simply because you can’t pay your own way.

I want to emphasize that I don’t expect to attend every relevant conference that comes along, every year; and I do understand that conferences cost money to run. But I think at “critical” events in particular, there’s no excuse—none at all—to avoid addressing the issue of, or at least having a discussion about, economic privilege and how it affects access to academic professionalization. Too often an open conversation about money or funding is seen as gauche, and this is a cultural issue we need to address. I want this to be the year I stop instinctively saying “sorry” before the words “I can’t afford this,” as if acknowledging that a limited budget is something to be ashamed of. If you purport to take on the neo-liberal academy while ignoring your own role in reinforcing its effects (even with silence), how is that helpful? Who else will set the example on this, if not the scholars who research these issues?

Trust me, I want to go to your conference. But if and when you invite me and I tell you I don’t have the funds for it, please take that seriously. Think about who gets to have a voice in academic discussions—and who gets to become an academic—when this is the price of admission.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Grad Student / January 8, 2016 at 15:21

    Even if a graduate student has access to a credit card, the time from purchase to refund is long enough (six months, or more) to generate interest, and half the time the amount allocated doesn’t even cover the full cost.

  2. Amanda Michelle Jones / January 8, 2016 at 18:43

    Thank you for this. I have been ranting about it on twitter for quite some time, particularly the past few weeks. I’ve been invited (again) to a conference overseas but can’t attend (again) because they don’t provide financial support, the *student* registration fee is $400, and even if my university offered the funds for me to attend, I can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars upfront and wait for reimbursement.

    I have acquired physical disabilities & another chronic illness since starting grad school, so I am stuck paying more for wheelchair accessible hotels where I can take my service dog, rather than the affordable hostels that are most often not physically accessible for me. Not to mention the food issues that you mentioned.

    To top it all off, my department just cut conference funding to two trips per year. As someone going on the job market next year, I am very worried about how I will get to interviews (which are held largely at conferences). A credit card isn’t an options, since stays maxed out trying to make regular ends meet WITH a stipend, which ends this year.

    Overall, this issue is yet another item in the pile of inequalities in academia – how can we diversity and improve the situation if these are the limitations we have to negotiate?

  3. Jim Rovira / January 9, 2016 at 12:19

    Rebecca Schuman has written about this topic too, and I blogged about the costs of attending the MLA in Vancouver here:

    Schuman’s work on it is linked from the above post.

  4. R. Williams / January 9, 2016 at 22:36

    Preach. It.

    I’m a very recent graduate (MLS in December 2015) at a SLIS school in the American south and have attended two state conferences the past two years gratis professional development stipends that I had to compete for through essay competitions. [Why did I have to do this? Well, because my college employer does not pay for library association membership or conference attendance for any of the academic library staff, including the librarians.] Even with the very helpful stipends, there were still indirect costs such as missed time at work and childcare. Even joining my state library association in order to compete for those stipends was a prohibitive cost given how little I earned as a library paraprofessional, even with the grad student discount. –I earned 28k before taxes.–

    [FTR, attending both conferences was an INVALUABLE experience and I’m so glad I fought the good fight to go.]

    Now, I’m nervously preparing for my very first librarian interview at a nearby university that starts the pay range at 36k. Consider, that I now have 40k in student loan debt to repay within the next 6 months. Even if I get this desperately needed job, I don’t see how I’ll be able to afford to leave my parents home and feed myself and my 3 year old son and all the necessities of life. (Single mom here.) In addition to this, the realization that I will no longer qualify for any student discounts to maintain my state and national memberships or conference attendance is daunting. I have no idea how or if I will manage this.

    I think it really hurts my chances to further my career by not being involved, but in this horrific economy –and despite what talking heads say it is still horrific–, I don’t see how I will be able to maintain my involvement in the professional organizations with so little money!

  5. Poor post-doc / January 13, 2016 at 12:31

    Yes! I have also found that as a post-doc suddenly there seemed to be an assumption that I had more money available than as a grad student (with scholarships, non-taxable income, and no student loan payments I think I actually made more $$ as a grad student). Instead I am now stuck in a gray zone where I no longer get ‘student’ rates at conferences or when joining a society but also don’t quality for conference travel support or grants because I’m not a student. Unlike a prof, I also don’t hold my own research grants that I could pay fees out of so I don’t get to direct my own attendance.

    My last (STEM) conference was ~ $700 just for abstract submission and registration. Never mind the actual travel costs. Who can afford that multiple times a year if it’s not being at least partially covered by a supervisor?!?

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