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I was just accepted to a PhD program and they wanted to fly me out for an open house. They said they would reimburse travel costs up to $500. However the issue is I have less than $500 in my bank account and certainly not enough to buy a plane ticket. I emailed asking if they could buy the ticket directly. Is this common? Can universities do this?

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Some universities encourage the students' and employees' expenses not to be expenditured by them in the first place. Even if this is not the case, your university may have a modality to buy the tickets directly. Ask. – Captain Emacs Feb 6 at 2:52
    
When I was a wee student, it was pretty uncommon for places to buy my plane ticket directly. But it seems to be getting more common now. – Kimball Feb 6 at 14:08
    
Only one of the four universities under whose auspices I've traveled did this. But since that was my graduate institution not having to carry the cost of the ticket until I could be reimbursed was a huge advantage. – dmckee Feb 6 at 19:01
up vote 15 down vote accepted

You should definitely ask if they can buy it directly for you. I know my department has done this in the past with students who don't have the cash on hand to wait for a reimbursement.

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I emailed them asking if they could buy it for me. Thanks for sharing about your department, that makes me feel better! – mmmmmmm Feb 6 at 7:05

I've traveled several dozen times for university-related business, including several grad interviews. In every case, the vastly preferred method was for me to pay and be reimbursed. However, in almost every case, there was some way around this if needed, it was just much more complicated. Examples have included

  • Getting an advance and submitting an expense report later (unlikely for you because you are not yet an employee/student)
  • Getting a university credit card tied to my grant (ask after you are a student - I had this as a grad student and it made life much easier)
  • Using the department travel card (or having the secretary do it for me if I wasn't trusted)
  • Using the university travel agency to book directly

The last two should definitely be options for you.

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"The last two should definitely be options for you." - but only if there is such a thing as a "department travel card" or a "university travel agency", which is not at all a given. In particular, "university travel agency" very commonly means nothing else than an ordinary, 3rd party travel agency that has a contract with the university and receives some administrative benefits in exchange for granting some discounts towards the university. However, this changes nothing about the travel agency being an external party that has to be paid. – O. R. Mapper Feb 6 at 17:02

As graduate program director I insisted that we start buying tickets for all of our interviewees, rather then promising to reimburse them, for exactly this reason. It took a little bit of pushing, but in the end I was able to make it happen. I'm at a big bureaucracy-bound state school, so if we can do it, anyone can.

Your request is entirely reasonable and as a program director I would be very ashamed if my program were unable to meet it.

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I would say for a graduate program to fly you out directly would be very uncommon, unless you were invited to give a specific talk - but given that you've just accepted to be a student there, I imagine this is not the case.

You might be able to ask them, however, to buy yours (up to $500) if you explained your case.

The world is run by people after all...

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It's actually common for more prestigious graduate programs in science and engineering to pay the travel expenses of students making recruiting/interviewing visits to the campus. Students often don't have enough cash on hand to pay for their ticket and be reimbursed later, so the university might be willing to pay directly for the ticket. The OP is being invited for such a visit and is being offered reimbursement. Asking for the school to pay directly for the ticket is a reasonable request. – Brian Borchers Feb 6 at 3:49
    
@BrianBorchers I guess this graduate program is "more prestigious". :) That's a good thing to hear. – mmmmmmm Feb 6 at 7:06
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@mmmmmmm Not to say yours isn't, but I think most PhD programs in math at least which have some sort of open house will pay for students to come out and visit. – Kimball Feb 6 at 14:07
    
It's common at the R1s that I've been to, especially for fellowship candidates and minority students. – RoboKaren Feb 6 at 15:53
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@Kimball This university IS paying for students to come out and visit, just through reimbursements. – mmmmmmm Feb 6 at 17:02

While it is not unreasonable to ask a department to fly you out, it may be worth looking at getting a credit card. While taking on debt is not ideal, having the ability to "float" expenses like this can be very useful.

Additionally, if you are currently a student, many US universities offer short term loans. The terms of these loans is variable. For example, University of Nebraska loans up to $500 for 90 days at 9% APR and University of Washington loans up to $2500 to undergraduates for an academic quarter with no interest but a $30 fee.

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@ChrisWhite every university I have been affiliated with has required me to pay for things up front and get reimbursed. If the choice is between not going to an interview, or in this case a post acceptance event, because you cannot afford it and taking on short term debt, I would go with the short term debt. – StrongBad Feb 6 at 19:25
    
I have a credit card but it is maxed out. – mmmmmmm Feb 6 at 19:27

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