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I have a paper accepted to a conference and my adviser is willing to fully fund the trip.

However, I am also eligible to apply for a "Student Travel Grant" (being a student author).

Pros of getting the travel grant:

  • saves adviser grant money

  • goes on my resume

Cons:

  • i would have to volunteer and possibly spend half of each day with tasks at hand

I am not sure whether it's worth applying for the travel grant and helping at the conference, as opposed to just going there.

For those of you who have been in this or similar situations before, what would you advise?

UPDATE: I learned that the grant covers almost half of my total trip cost, and that the volunteering time is around 1/4 of the total conference duration, which is good; Hence, I have applied for it. Thanks everyone for your help.

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Just came back from a conference. Three friends of mine applied as student volunteers. They did it because their budget could not cover all the expenses for the registration. There was no other option for them, but they all would have preferred to pay the registration and attend the conference regularly. They had to skip several events because of their duties. YMMV, of course. On the other hand, they were satisfied with the feeling of being useful for the success of the conference. If you are covered, you should attend the conference as a regular participant and take the advantages of this. –  dgraziotin May 30 at 8:41
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@lyes are the tasks and workload specified? That should tell you if it is going to be more like dgraziotin's friends negative experiences, or like ff524's positive ones. If they don't, slavery flag! –  Davidmh May 30 at 9:22
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It will be good to ask your advisor. Could be the case that he has lots of money, and the saving would be small; or that he is struggling, and this saving can be very beneficial. He may also have specific experience with the conference at hand. –  Davidmh May 30 at 9:58
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Another pro: get to know other graduate students in your field. –  Mangara May 30 at 13:57
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@lyes On the other hand, I regularly volunteered to make registration free at one of our major conferences, and was glad I did it. –  Fomite May 30 at 17:57
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2 Answers 2

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Based on my own experience, I would definitely recommend applying for the travel grant!

The pros you have mentioned are fairly substantial. Regarding the con: I have never found any conference volunteer job to be at all onerous*, and usually they have been fun and/or valuable.

For example, here are some volunteer jobs I have had:

Volunteering at the registration desk

If I have this job, I get to meet all the attendees as they come in. Usually, when I first sit down at the registration table, I flip through the badges to see who is registered, and make a plan for who I want to meet. Then, if those people come in while I am "on duty" and they are not in a rush, I can strike up a conversation.

By doing this, I've been able to have some really "spontaneous" talks with important people in my field who I wouldn't have had much of an opening to meet otherwise.

I've never been asked to do this job for more than a couple of hours at any given conference, so I didn't feel like I was missing out. If this is my volunteer job, I can usually arrange with the other volunteers so I am "on duty" during a time when there are no sessions I'm interested in anyways.

Taking minutes in meetings

Another time, I was a student volunteer at a conference that also hosts its sponsoring SIG's annual business meeting, and my job was to take minutes in this meeting. I got to listen in while all the big shots in the SIG talked about what they really think of the state of the subfield, the quality of the conference, the direction they'd like to see things go in, etc.

Also, the meeting was in the evening and there were no conference sessions going on, so I didn't miss anything while doing this (except maybe a nap).

Mic shuttler, running the 1-minute madness session

Some volunteer jobs take place inside the conference sessions themselves, so you don't miss out on anything while doing these jobs.

For example, I've been assigned to be the person that carries the mic around to people who have questions during the Q&A after each talk.

I've also been part of keeping the 1-minute madness session (where poster/demo presenters get up one after another and speak for one minute about their poster) on time. The student volunteer coordinator described this job as follows:

1 person in charge of lining up presenters in the correct order, 1 person in charge of advancing the presentations, and about 5 are responsible for throwing the presenter with crumpled paper balls at the 56th second to get her/him off the stage.

(I didn't have to throw any paper balls.)

* YMMV. At a large, well-organized conference there will be lots of volunteers, you can choose which task you prefer, and no one student has to do too much work. At a smaller conference, things may be different.

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Thanks for the thorough answer! It is actually a large SIG conference, so your answer might well apply. I'll wait on a few more opinions before I accept this answer. –  lyes May 30 at 8:59
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Don't forget that getting a travel grant this time (along with a promise from your advisor) might get you free travel (paid for by your advisor) to a future conference that doesn't offer such funding. –  Thomas May 30 at 12:28
    
Good thinking @Thomas; I hope to learn the exact amount the travel grant provides today, so that I can weigh such factors in. –  lyes May 30 at 12:55
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Somewhat echoing ff524's response, I have volunteered several times as a student in order to make conference registrations cheaper, and have had a decent experience doing it.

Pro: Having worked at both a conference registration desk and as essentially an assigned "person" who knows who to go to if the podium computer locks up, something is wrong in the room, etc. I've had a chance to strike up conversations and introduce myself to important folks in my field in a way that wasn't just "Hi, I'm Fomite, your work is awesome..." There's often time to chat, especially during lulls in registration, the 15 minutes before presentations start when you're the only one there besides the speakers, etc.

For smaller organizations and conferences, there's also probably a fairly large overlap between staff (in my case, nearly complete overlap). This means you've had some time to chat with society staff members, and it never hurts to be on a first name basis with them and having been remembered as being helpful.

For limited attendance events, like "Meet the Faculty", etc. you might get first dibs on tickets.

Con: You do have a schedule, and that means you might miss something you are interested in. However, keep in mind the society isn't looking for cheap conference labor alone - they want students to come to the conference and benefit. I've never had my duties be so onerous that I missed out on a huge part of the conference. The only time there was a serious risk of there being something that I really wanted to go to that I would miss, I managed to swap with another student so I was then the room monitor for the session I wanted to attend - and could then go meet the people I was so interested in hearing speak.

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