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I am invited to present in a session at a conference, and the conference requires presenters to pay the registration fee themselves. I usually will have some research grant/ travel fund to cover the registration fee; however, this year, I don't have any financial support from my institution. The conference is extensive and usually has lots of great talks in previous years, so I think it's a good idea to attend. And it's a big event so that I can promote my work and it's suitable for my key performance indicator (KPI) too. However, the fee is not small, and I don't know if it is normal for early career researchers to pay for these events themselves. If I pay, does it make me look bad because I feel like it shows that I failed to get research support?

Edit: thank you everyone for the answers! I should clarify that I only consider paying myself because it’s a virtual conference and so I don’t have worry about travel cost. While I know that virtual conferences don’t bring as much benefit as in-person events, it’s still not as easy as before the pandemic to travel, and I consider this as a way to get some interactions with people in the field. But I do agree that I should only do this at most a few times.

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    I'm surprised your institution won't fund this. Are you faculty?
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 10:23
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    @Buffy During hard times, my university's travel budget has fallen to zero. Now it is back to meager. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 14:49
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    While this may be late, you may ask the organizers if they can provide you financial support. I had two cases of this happening to me as a PhD student, not sure if you have similar chances as a (I suppose) postdoc. Never hurts to ask though. Also, if you're in EU, you may be able to apply to COST for funding your participation.
    – Neinstein
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 13:21

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@Roland made an important point in a comment that was later removed.

In most cases you pay by yourself by some means, and then get reimbursed ("repaid"). As the reimbursement is between you and your university, no-one at the conference knows that you will not be reimbursed.

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    For the record, this is how its been in 3/4 universities of the UK I worked at. You pay from your pocket, then you ask the uni for a refund. Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 12:58
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It is not that normal--but also not completely rare. I know of several who did this (including myself). But you can pay for yourself without anyone knowing this! Indeed, conferences do not gather information on the funding sources of participants.

Hence, your problem is solved.

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    Also I imagine this is deductable from your taxes in most jurisdictions so the cost will be somewhat lower than the sticker price.
    – Voo
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 11:55
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This happens all the time. Many academics travel a bit more than their research budgets allow. Most registration fees are paid by the participant directly and then the participant applies for reimbursement. A cumbersome system that can cause problems, but it does mean nobody knows how much you end up paying yourself.

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  • Paying yourself and asking for reimbursements later (no matter if reg fee or air tickets) is dangerous. If you get sick and do not travel, the costs may become ineligible. I try to avoid that as much as possible. Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 6:33
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    @VladimirFГероямслава Dangerous maybe, but in some places not easily avoidable. (And one of the reasons I always book hotels with the option to cancel last-minute. Flights are an issue though, as are conference fees.)
    – user53923
    Commented Sep 21, 2022 at 11:35
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No one will know that you paid yourself, since most people pay in advance out of their own pocket and then get reimbursement from the institution or funding source.

However, even if it's not unheard of, I think that paying for a conference yourself without reimbursement is highly, highly problematic. I would never do it myself, and I actually refused to pay out of my pocket much smaller work-related expenses.

For many, me included, research is a lifelong passion, but one must also remember that it's a job. And all work-related expenses must be paid by the employer.

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    Depends on who you are. For example, students and adjunct instructors often do not get conference expenses covered by their home institution. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:33
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    "And all work-related expenses must be paid by the employer." --- well, if the employer refuses to pay for your conference it is almost literally not part of "your job". Indeed, if the employer deems your research career unimportant, it's better to pay yourself than succumb to your employer's selfish plan for your life.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 22:16
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    Note that my chair and my dean have little idea of which conferences are important to me. They just set a travel budget. If I want to go past that, to promote my career or see a new city, that is on me. Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 0:43
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    And all work-related expenses must be paid by the employer. - In the US at least, it is common that employees (esp. school teachers due to underfunding) pay for things out of their own pocket. It is so common that deductions for such expenses are written into the US tax code (though not as broadly as they once were).
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 4:50
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    @ElizabethHenning: then my very personal opinion is that they shouldn't go to the conference, unless some other source of funding/travel grant is available. I would never ask a student of mine to pay out of his/her own pocket, and I wouldn't even imply that this is a possibility.
    – zakk
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 14:37
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As other answers have made clear, nobody else attending the conference will have any idea whether you were reimbursed by a grant or your institution for your travel expenses or if you're attending on your own dime.

Note that some conferences have some funds available to support early career researchers (although this funding is often limited to students):

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This is not particularly common, but certainly not unheard of. Universities will fund conference travel for their faculty up to an extent, and subject to approval in specific cases, but sometimes these applications for funding are not successful and the academic decides to go anyway, on their own dime. Some important points to note about this situation:

  • If your institution assigns Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for your work then they have an obligation to give you what you need to acheive those KPIs. It's not clear from your question exactly what the relevant KPI here is, but if it requires you to attend a conference, and they are not willing to fund that, they cannot reasonably assess you adversely on that KPI later. If your university will not fund your conference travel, but expects you to deliver a conference talk as a KPI, they are effectively setting you a work task that is impossible to achieve without your own personal funding. In employment law, impossible work tasks leading into adverse performance reviews are often interpreted as a form of bullying and unreasonable management (again, depending on relevant laws in your jurisdiction). If you are in this type of situation, have a calm and reasonable conversation with your boss on the problem to see what can be done. (At minimum, they might reduce your KPIs to conform more appropriately to your funding situation.)

  • Some conferences may allow a discounted fee in some cases when they are dealing with academics who lack funding, particularly if they are early-career researchers. This is certainly not guaranteed, but it is something that you could write to the conference organisers to inquire about. Many big conferences take a long-term view where they hope to attract younger poorly-funded academics who will later be older better-funded academics. If you think this is a possibility, write to the conference organisers, tell them your circumstances, and see if they can offer you a lower fee for attendance.

  • If you are self-funding for an academic conference that relates to your work then it is probably the case that the expenses you incur are tax deductible as a work-related expense (depending on specific tax laws in your jurisdiction). This means that the costs will usually come out of your pre-tax income instead of post-tax income (so it will end up a little cheaper than it might otherwise be). Make sure you keep all relevant receipts for your costs and consult advice at tax time about claiming these costs as work expenses.

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In mathematics, in the U.S., in the past, the idea was that one had grant funding to pay for travel and lodging at conferences (from NSF, for example), or, if one was in "invited speaker", the conference would pay for one's expenses. (Still, in most cases, one had to pay, and then get reimbursed...)

This has created an unfortunate model, in which one's home university most often does not consistently pay for conference expenses. You're supposed to get grants to pay for it yourself. In some cases, I've seen (limited) funding of grad students to go to conferences.

On another hand, as in other answers and comments, no one will know the ultimate source of your funding for the conference.

So, operationally/practically, yes, probably a person needs to go to conferences... and cannot expect to have these expenses paid... though no one will know if you pay from your own funds.

(Mild irony that more severe pandemic times made the economics of conference attendance more egalitarian... For that matter, even ignoring money, I'm ever less enthusiastic about going to airports, sitting in airplanes, figuring out taxis, etc., just to give or hear talks that would scarcely have been different by Zoom...)

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    Personally, I don't go to conferences just to give or hear talks. The real value comes in the interactions with other people at the conference in the back of the room or hallways between sessions, in the bar after the sessions, and so on. Being away from one's own environment in a situation where one is instead dedicating time to interacting with other researchers without having to have a specific agenda lets me learn about things and make contacts with people leading to further collaboration that would never happen if I attended the conference "remotely."
    – cjs
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 1:28
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    @cjs, oh, yes, I would strongly agree with you, especially for younger people. And/but, at a certain point, one has enough contacts, enough information channels, that extravagant-and-not-so-comfortable travel offers insufficient gains. Maybe to show people I'm not quite dead yet... :) Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 1:36
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Don't forget there are other fees for attending a conference, beyond the registration fee. Things like air fare, hotels, food etc. If you don't have funding for the conference fee I expect you don't have funding for the other stuff. Depending where the conference is, the other costs can add up to be alot more than the conference fee itself. So that is something to keep in mind if you are self funding a trip to a conference.

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