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I am a first year Ph.D. student. During my master's (which was in a different university), a professor (call him M) and I worked on a paper on banking regulations. Apart from the single idea, all of the paper and results were done by me. We worked on it for a couple of months and tried to submit our work at many journals. All of them rejected it. Finally, it has been accepted recently at a conference. This conference is not major league but niche.

Prof. M wants me to attend, but I do not have funding. Initially, he expected me to spend from my own pocket for travel and registration (around USD 2,000). Being a graduate student and living in one of the expensive cities, I am living hand-to-mouth. So, I informed him politely that I am not keen to attend due to my inability to fund myself. He asked me to apply to funding agencies, or else he is willing to fund 50% of my expenses.

The fact of the matter is that I cannot afford even 50% of the travel expenses. Out of nowhere, this conference comes up and it further cripples my shoestring budget.

How should I proceed? I am really hesitant to discuss my financial shortcomings with Prof. M, but if I don't, he'll assume that I can afford the travel.

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    Re the title: How is Prof. M "forcing" you to go to the conference? – PersonX Mar 7 at 22:03
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    Can you ask your current supervisor if there is the possibility of getting support for the other half of the expenses? – Elin Mar 8 at 10:02
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    @kasa: Why can't Prof. M go by himself? 1. Prof. M is the senior author in the work; 2. probably earns a lot more than you; and 3. will likely have access to extra grant funds to fund the trip. (Unless this is one of rare instances that a conference requests the first author to present the work). – fridaymeetssunday Mar 8 at 10:46
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    Why is it so expensive anyway? Maybe this is part of the problem the professor is having. Is this the cheapest hotel and flight you could find (forget about the hotel the conference is in)? In my experience student travel grants don't cover nearly that amount either. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 8 at 15:39
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    Some Conference organizers are willing to give quite large discounts, some even waived the full fee in exceptional cases. Ask them. In return you could offer to assist as a conference helper (administrative or physical duties). – Hjan Mar 11 at 17:46

13 Answers 13

158

I am really hesitant to discuss my financial shortcomings with Prof. M, or else he assumes that I can afford the travel.

I think you need to get past this. You do not have financial shortcomings, you just don't have money. Working on a PhD without family financial support, with existing student debt, and with limited school support is not easy. I respect you for doing it. Take pride in making the hard choices that involves.

With that attitude, explain to Prof. M that you cannot afford any travel expense, and will only be able to go to the conference if your expenses are fully covered. Check any funding sources he suggested, and ask advisors at your current university if they know of any sources.

From comments: Also check with the conference organizers. They may have scholarships or be able to discount the conference fee, and find free or inexpensive accommodations. You may need to work several angles to align the total cost with the available funding.

If you can't get the full funding you need, tell Prof. M. that you regret you cannot attend the conference. At the worst, you will have to withdraw the paper. However, there are alternatives the conference may permit.

  • Remote video presentation
  • If anyone from your current university is attending, ask them to present the paper
  • Prof M. may be able to get a current student or a collaborator who is attending the conference to present it.
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    This is good advice, but my gut feeling is that this isn't really about money. The OP seems to have a lot of resentment about their current situation and especially about attending this conference whether or not funding is available. – Elizabeth Henning Mar 8 at 0:37
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    +1 Addresses the issue at hand, constructively and at the core of the issue. Some conferences also offer travel support (see also Buffy's response). – Captain Emacs Mar 8 at 0:58
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    It'd be good if the OP could get their head out of the finances long enough to realize that the opportunity to present a paper in their first PhD year is an opportunity. I really like the suggestion to also discuss funding with the current advisor/department, which may be happy to contribute, or at least have some constructive suggestions about finances in general. – George M Mar 8 at 2:45
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    Obviously you can't get a discount airfare, but the conference may be willing to waive the conference fee or reduce to a truly token amount, and they may be able to help you with a non-standard accommodations like a dorm room. – Andrew Lazarus Mar 8 at 20:00
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    @GeorgeM it is an opportunity, but that's not helpful if they still can't afford to go... – Flyto Mar 9 at 15:10
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I don't see anybody "forcing" you to do anything. Prof M has given you some reasonable suggestions:

  1. apply for funding
  2. an offer to fund 50% of your expenses.

If the latter option doesn't work for you, you are left with either the first option: apply for funding, or other options such as A) Not going, or B) further explaining your financial situation in the hope that the professor might be able to offer more towards expenses. If you are hoping for (B) it would be best for you to at least first attempt to find other funding, as the professor suggested.

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    Of course, not attending may have consequences too - you may have to withdraw your paper and look for other ways to get it published. Well, life has trade-offs. – Nate Eldredge Mar 7 at 17:54
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    Agreed. It sounds like the professor is actively encouraging OP to attend a conference to present the work, which is a worthwhile endeavor, and is giving OP some reasonable options. – zahbaz Mar 7 at 22:31
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    Late 50s is really really old for a cat however. I bet it would be quite frail indeed. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 9 at 2:38
  • @NateEldredge: Note that this student cannot afford food if they would go there (as their original question). Staying healthy should always, always be more important than attending conferences. – Hatschu Mar 11 at 16:34
24

Your professor has made a generous offer if these were personal funds, I think. Your situation is difficult, I also think. It would be good if you could find a way to go, both for now and for your future prospects, both with the (prime age) professor and in meeting people.

So, the issue becomes funding. The first thing you might do is look for funding locally. It is entirely possible that your university has some funds that can be used to support students in such things. The place to start is with the department head, I would guess. See if there is some travel monies available as they certainly have for faculty. If not in the department, then possibly at a higher level in the university.

You may also belong to a professional organization as a student member. Many of these have travel grants available. You might look there.

Another possible option is funding from the conference itself. Some conferences have some funds for student attendees. In some cases the students serve as "volunteers" during the conference, running errands, but can also attend as usual. The conference web site may have something about this, and the organizers may be able to offer suggestions if contacted.

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    50% funding is not generous at all. In our department (UK) nobody will expect a PhD student to fund their own trip; they can expect to be 100% reimbursed. In Germany, however, considerable self-funding contribution was expected, but there, in many disciplines, PhD students in half-funded positions are expected to work full-time. – Captain Emacs Mar 7 at 18:56
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    @CaptainEmacs Your comment doesn't make much sense to me. It seems like you are saying "In the UK this would not be considered generous; in Germany it would" at least in your field, and yet you say it is not generous at all? There's also the additional circumstance here that the OP is no longer at the same institution which might put some limits on funding options. – Bryan Krause Mar 7 at 19:16
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    @BryanKrause Ok, you are right, I should explain: I found that, in the UK (or at least in my institution) it is considered unacceptable that an employee or student should not be reimbursed fully for a business trip, be paid less than full salary for a job. Retroactively, learning this, the German system for PhD students appears really exploitative. (Of course, one could say, Germany does not take tuition fees, but that's a separate issue). – Captain Emacs Mar 7 at 19:56
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    @CaptainEmacs The first words of the OP: "I am a first year Ph.D. student. During my masters (which was in a different university)" From several other questions on the topic of conference funding, it seems fairly typical that students often need to find their own funding (incl by applying for funds), especially if they are now at a different institution, though it depends on my field. Certainly in my field I would agree with you, because it is common for students to be funded by professor's grants and for those grants to include travel funds, but this is not the case in all fields. – Bryan Krause Mar 7 at 20:04
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    @CaptainEmacs perhaps there's a difference between fields or institutions, or something changed over time, but I did a PhD in Germany quite recently (finished 2 years ago) and never heard of a student travelling to conferences with anything other than total reimbursement. – Chris H Mar 8 at 7:17
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Going to a conference as a PhD student is like a business trip if you were a regular employee at a company. And those are of course entirely paid by your employer, and asking an employee to pay for a business trip out of their own pocket would be extremely unusual.

I'm not very familiar with fields where it's customary to publish on conferences instead of journals. But it seems to me that this is also similar to asking someone to pay any journal fees from personal funds, which again is extremely unusual and would typically be paid from research grants. Ensuring the logistics of publication, including how to pay for this is part of the job of a principal investigator, that should not fall on the students.

Your personal financial situation doesn't even matter, it is quite unreasonable to ask you to pay for essentially business expenses from your own personal money. So follow the advice of your professor about applying for money to fund your conference trip. But you can decline to fund it yourself without saying anything about your personal finances.

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    I would say that the difference to the business trip is that the student's own reputation, not that of the university, can significantly benefit from the conference presentation. Contrary to an employee on a business trip, the student is working mostly for his own future career, not that of his employer (university) – Marie. P. Mar 8 at 12:27
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    @Marie.P. A student is always representing the academic group as well as themselves on a conference. There are usually multiple names on a poster, among them the supervisor (I'm assuming a field like biology/chemistry here). If the student decides on their own that they want to visit a conference for their own benefit, this is something entirely different than when the supervisor decides that the student should visit a specific conference. – Mad Scientist Mar 8 at 12:32
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    @Marie.P. That's no different from a software developer getting sent to attend a conference by their employer, for which the benefit is largely to the attendee through networking and learning new things, and the employer almost always pays for the entire thing, airfare and hotel and conference. – shoover Mar 8 at 16:59
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    The answer seems to ignore the fact that the business trip is for business with the previous employer. In the corporate world, such a trip would just never happen, so there is no reason to discuss who is paying it. Academia is a bit different as "spill-over obligations" between institution switches are quite accepted. – DCTLib Mar 11 at 11:08
  • @DCTLib I don't think that aspect really changes anything, though it is of course a rather important general difference. Either the previous employer is interested enough in in this to still pay, or they aren't and it doesn't happen. I am comparing this to a business trip for your current employer because it would otherwise not be very comparable, but I don't think this fundamentally affects my argument. – Mad Scientist Mar 13 at 13:14
14

The professor is expecting you to make a serious good-faith effort to obtain funding. Based on your question, it sounds like you have not made any applications or enquiries about funding for conference attendance, but are assuming that there is no funding available (sadly, this is often true, but you are expected to try before giving up).

So, you should do a bit of research into where you might be able to get funding (as well as sources within your institution, you should check whether any learned societies or trusts have professional development funds for graduate students and/or for your area of research), and submit several applications to places where you may be eligible (in your application, indicate that you already have 50% funded -- this is generally considered a good thing by funders). By all means, ask your professor for pointers or leads as to where you might investigate.

Funding applications are a tedious and demoralising chore, but you need to get used to doing them. It is perfectly reasonable for your professor to expect you to make such applications. It is also perfectly reasonable for you to ask your professor to check your applications before you submit them (he/she may be able to offer valuable advice as to how to "sell" your funding application better).

If, after having made several funding applications, you still do not have enough funding to cover the cost, then your professor should be understanding, and should not expect you to pay for it out of your own pocket.

4

I am making my comment an answer.

I think you should suggest that Prof. M attend the conference and present the paper* for a number of reasons:

  1. Prof. M is the senior author in the work;
  2. probably earns a lot more than you; and
  3. will likely have access to extra grant funds to fund the trip.

You can phrase it along these lines:

Dear Prof. M,

While I would welcome presenting the work at the conference, sadly my financial doesn't allow to spend such an amount to travel. Is it possible for you to attend the conference and present the work?

Adding to that, and because I have been in this situation, I don't it is reasonable to insist that a student attend conference out of his/her pocket. It can certainly be suggested but not insisted upon. The financial situation of most students is precarious at best, and in my experience there is very little benefit going to self-funded conferences during the first PhD year, in particular for a project that, as far as you are concerned is dead. The only person that can gain from obtaining feedback is your former supervisor.

*Unless this is one of rare instances that a conference requests the first author to present the work.

3

This might be happening more frequently than expected!

In my case (incidentally, a Prof. M too! Same person?) told me to pay everything in advance, and we "would see if the department will reimburse my expenses later, or at least part of them". Also in my first PhD year. Talking to the professor, even explaining my financial situation in detail turned out to be futile.

Taking a formal point of view, your prof can't exactly command you to do that. Of course there will be no talking about penalty if you do not comply - but of course there is an elephant in the room.

The only solution I could come up then was to delay flight booking (only a bit), and to report - completely truthfully - I couldn't obtain transportation any more, even if I found some way to pay for it.

In general, in relationships of dependence I have found it's much better to present (or, in a case of self-defence: silently create) practical constraints like that one than to say "I don't want to go there", or even "I don't want to go in debt". Sad, but true.

3

I understand that this is a situation where you are unsure about your options, as this is the first time you encounter this. Rest assured that it is not uncommon (though of course not nice) that especially young researchers need to beg, borrow and steal in order to come up with travel funds. In order to make your personal life work while preserving some sanity, I would recommend that you implement the following basic rule now:

1) Under no circumstances are you to pay travel expenses related to conference travel out of pocket.

Having this as a basic rule is nice, as it establishes a baseline.

Let me assume that you have already asked at your current institution, and they have declined funding you. This would be normal modus operandi. If you have not, go ask them now.

Now you have to get to work, in order to raise the missing funding. First point on the agenda is to set up a tentative budget for your travel. This should consist of: 1) Conference fee. 2) Travel costs. 3) Hotel costs. 4) Per diem (whatever is the usual amount for PhD students in your country).

Make your budget as cheap as possible, without being unreasonable. Find a 2-star hotel, find a cheap travel option (cheap airline, train or bus depending on location) etc. Once that is done, you write the professor, asking him if he will agree to pay half of your budgeted costs, instead of half of whatever the final bill will be. You should first realize that he is already doing you a favor paying half, as he is not currently employing you - normally it would be your current institution paying. So if he says no, it is not unreasonable.

Then you start cutting in your budget. Write the conference to ask if they are willing to waive the conference fee for a struggling student. This is more common than you might expect. I have definitely waived conference fees for students just for writing me. You can also ask if they have student support options. Then you start looking around for small grants for conference participation. Ask your institution. If you then end up with only a small amount of money missing, you ask your institution again, if they would be willing to pay this small amount - or your current supervisor directly.

Best of luck!

3

At the European universities that I have worked, PhD students are seen as employees and thus receive a salary and their conference visits are paid for by the university. Often research projects have special budget for this. Master students with good and useful results will sometimes also be allowed to visit a conference at the expense of the department. Requiring you to (partially) pay to represent the university at a conference is cheapskating from your professor and degrading for you. Don't do it.

Edit: As rumtscho pointed out I overlooked the university change. Nevertheless, it is much more important for you to publish on your current PhD research, preferably in a journal. You must also ask yourself why Prof. M. wants you to go to the conference. Is he in need to add something to his publication list?

P.S: Did you send in the same paper over and over again, or did you use the reviewers comments to improve the paper before re-submitting it somewhere else?

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    I suspect OP is in the US and the norms are a bit different there. – Alexey B. Mar 8 at 16:36
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    You seem to have overlooked the "different university" part. The OP is currently not enrolled or employed by the university of the professor. The old university can decide to not pay the expenses of somebody who is not their student. The new university will usually only pay if the current supervisor signs off on the necessity and pays it out of his group's budget - but if the current supervisor is not on the authorship list, and if the conference is outside of his niche community (which is common, most people don't do PhD in the same niche as their Msc), he has little incentive to do so. – rumtscho Mar 8 at 17:25
  • @rumtscho: you are right, I read to hastily. The actual situation maybe even makes it simpler. Since he started with his PhD I assume he finished his Masters degree. So he does not really have an obligation to his old Prof any more. Being able to write in your CV that your Masters research lead to a Journal or conference paper is a "nice to have", but it is much more important to publish on the results your PhD research. – Pete Mar 11 at 14:32
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Mid-to-long term suggestion: You all need to unionize.

As several other answers suggest, you are a junior employee of the university - doing research, which is what a university is about, even if under the tutelage of a supervisor. In many countries, and even in some universities in the US, you would be considered a university employee (at the previous university and at the current university), and as another answer suggests - the trip would be a business trip. However, that requires your employer to reach into their pockets and shell out the money, which they would rather not.

The key point here is that this is not an individual, but a collective problem: All hD candidates at your university either do not receive expense reimbursement for travel to conferences in which they're presenting, or have to be on their supervisor's good side, to get funding from him/her as a favor. And it's not even the problem with a single institution, because the business trip happens now, and is relevant to your continuing career, but the research happened earlier, at the previous university.

The solution is also collective: Forming a graduate researchers' union (or an untenured/temp staff union involving also teachers). At the single-university level, that is the way you can secure stable funding for everyone to be able to attend a conference several times during your Ph.D., both based on research done at the current university and independent/previous research of yours.

Of course starting a union is not an undertaking for just a single person. But you are now being "burned" by the lack of a collective organizational structure to pursue the interests of the group you're in. Remember this lesson, and try to spend some of your time raising awareness and support for this among your peers. You could also consider reaching out to other unions representing Ph.D. candidates in the US. A particularly inspiring struggle in recent years has been waged by:

https://columbiagradunion.org/

who won the landmark case of The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Graduate Workers of Columbia–GWC, UAW. (364 NLRB 90)

  • Did you note that they are talking about a conference of their previous employer? – Hatschu Mar 11 at 22:24
0

"During my masters (which was in a different university), a professor (call him M.) and I worked on a paper"

So a professor from a different university from where you are now asked you to go? I'd suggest to tell him no, it's not part of your current PhD studies at your new college.

-1
  1. Is he your employer? Then he will pay the expenses for something which is mandatory for this employment.
  2. Is he not your employer? Then he can't "force" you.

I don't see the problem.

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    Wouldn't it be great if reality was as fair and simple as this? – gerrit Mar 8 at 9:58
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    @gerrit : Why wouldn't it be? His MSc supervisor is not his PhD advisor. His duties have now shifted to his new situation. – mathreadler Mar 8 at 10:04
  • If someone wants to change that they should go directly to him and not be so dumb as to try to throw money all around him instead. They sure aren't gonna get their money's worth if they keep that up and he understands it most of that time. – mathreadler Mar 8 at 16:20
  • This answer is an example for a really bad communication style. Regardless of it is true or false, its tone basically reads like "You are dumb." – Hatschu Mar 11 at 12:11
  • @Hatschu Some students need to toughen up a bit. For their own good... Or they will be steamrolled not only by their current supervisors but also by previous ones and future colleagues. They might well be completely clueless to "softer" communication. Many students are, especially in technical subjects. – mathreadler Mar 11 at 14:59
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Do a "go fund me". Many less appealing (or deserving?) stories than "starving PHD student" have brought in thousands.

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