15

I'm a grad student in the final term of my 2nd year. In a weekly meeting with my supervisor yesterday, I brought up an upcoming conference in our discipline. This conference is twice-annual and very general, and it is far enough in the future that I don't know how many speakers from our speciality will be there.

It's a 6 hour drive, so not exactly an exotic location, but far enough away that I might not visit this city in my personal time.

I asked my supervisor if he thought I should attend. I first asked him if he had funding for such a trip, which he does, and then asked if there are any upcoming (in the next year) conferences that are more specific to our research speciality, of which he doesn't know any.

Basically the decision came down to me, so I listed some pros and cons with him. Some cons are that there is a relatively high chance of no researchers in our field going to the conference, and if a more relevant conference is announced soon, there may not be enough funding to go to both.

Some pros are, of course, the chance to network with students and faculty from the host university, and to see a new city.

On the second pro, I said "I would like to see [city]". My supervisor gave an odd chuckle, paused for a second, then said in a very solemn tone "of course, the reason to go to [city] is to engage with the [subject] and research there".

After that, we talked about the host university for the conference and what we both knew about it, but I felt that the energy of the meeting had become more tense.

My question is, was I impolite to say what I said about seeing this new place? I understand that, in this case, my supervisor would be paying for me to go since it's an academic opportunity, and networking and keeping up with current research is the main reason to attend. However, I don't think ignoring the conference as a travel opportunity makes sense either, especially when it's no secret that grad students don't have the time or money to travel for fun very often.

Would you feel offended in my supervisor's case? Is there a need for me to follow up via email about this interaction?

2
  • 8
    Unless your conferences are organized very different from mine (very possible!), the "host university" matters little and you won't have any specific opportunities to connect with people at it more than any other. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 17:27
  • 6
    If you want to enjoy your career in academia, finding excuses for going to conferences in various nice places is a very useful skill. As for your particular situation, I would probably go all in and directly said to your supervisor: "While this is certainly true that I will enjoy the drive and the new city, the primary reason for me to go there is academic – making connections with colleagues and getting a broader perspective on the state of affairs in our field of science. All the nice travel experiences come as a bonus to this." Not leaving things unspoken is /generally/ a better strategy.
    – mavzolej
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 16:34

8 Answers 8

45

I don't think it has to do with politeness/offence. Neither do I think it's a big deal. However, many places have very strict rules about how research money can be used, and it is an issue to make sure for those who control the money that the money is not used for private pleasure. So saying implicitly that private pleasure motivates you to use your supervisor's funding is rather unwise. I don't know (and neither may you) whether he'd even need to justify his spending when funding you to go to a conference, and for sure then he couldn't get away with saying "my PhD student wants to see the city".

Another thing is that it is for sure not unheard of that participants cut conference sessions in order to explore the place, and chances are your supervisor wouldn't be happy about you doing that. (My impression is, the older people get, the more free they feel to do it. But don't forget that it's his money.)

That said, it was an informal conversation and you're (probably) young, so chances are your supervisor won't mind that you carelessly say such a thing at this stage. I don't see how following up could improve anything anyway. So better let it go but learn from it!

1
  • 3
    Basically all conferences I've attended had a social and touristic program attached. Fancy dinner, bus tour to a nearby sight, ... . But while the profs were usually the first at the bar, I agree that mentioning that as an incentive to go with them sounds weird.
    – Karl
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 23:03
32

It's kind of an open secret that people participate in business travel for reasons other than strictly business - certainly it isn't something specific to academia. For a conference organizer, choosing an interesting location is a good way to boost attendance. The big conference in my field alternates between a few different cities; the years in San Diego tend to have bigger turnout (by 10% or so) than years in other places like Chicago, even though it's probably the most expensive city the conference is ever held in.

Within academia or government positions, though, there's an impression that we're often spending "other peoples' money", such as grant money that comes from taxpayers. That comes with a bit of a responsibility to be frugal and spend wisely. A private company can tout frequent conferences in exotic locations as a perk of working there and there's no problem; when done on the taxpayer's dime there's risk that it's seen as wasteful spending. Attending a conference, though, especially overnight, almost always consists of more of a time commitment than your normal working hours: instead of spending your evenings on leisure of your choice, you're stuck in whatever place you're visiting, so it's certainly reasonable to prefer traveling to places where you're okay being stuck a little while.

While "I want to visit a city I haven't been in" is a perfectly reasonable motivation to go to a conference, as long as it's not the only motivation, maybe your advisor views this as something to be left unsaid. I don't think you need to see it as any grand violation, and no need to follow-up, but in the future I suppose a general guideline might be to keep those motivations to yourself when you're asking someone for funding to travel, and certainly keep focused on business justifications when formally applying for travel specific funding.

Without being there to hear your advisor's tone and not knowing their personality I can't say for sure, but the way you describe it with the chuckle and sudden change of tone, I think they were probably making a bit of a joke referencing everything I've included in this answer.

5
  • Non-American here, are you saying San Diego is a more interesting city than Chicago? Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 11:49
  • 3
    Non-American here, San Diego is a lot nicer.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 13:00
  • we're often spending "other peoples' money" - And now the money is (effectively) the advisor's, which is limited in supply. He might be upset if it sounded like you were using the conference as an excuse to visit the city, and wanting to use his grant for this.
    – Kimball
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 13:10
  • 10
    @FerventHippo San Diego and Chicago are both top-tier cities, but the weather is much better in San Diego and has real beaches, which is what Bryan is alluding to. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 17:26
  • TLDR; "boondoggles" are unethical and may be illegal. It's generally unwise to advertise a trip as one.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 18:44
16

Don't overthink this.

Would you feel offended in my supervisor's case?

No. Your supervisor is probably right to avoid formally taking such factors into account, especially when spending money that ultimately comes from the taxpayers. But commenting on the location is not a faux pas.

Is there a need for me to follow up via email about this interaction?

Absolutely not.

9

Maybe it is just me, but conference visits to other places are not suited at all to really "see" the city. Basically, often the conference programme absorbs most of the time and energy, and on a "free" evening I either meet with people from the conference, maybe in some random pub, or if I am too tired I simply go to the hotel. The conference location is therefore almost irrelevant. If you told me that you would like to visit a conference to see the city, I would not consider it impolite, I might chuckle a bit, and take it as a sign of little conference experience.

9
  • 9
    A lot of folks add a vacation right after conferences at nice places. Travel rules often explicitly allow a limited time (5 work days in my neck of the woods) of personal stay which still makes the return trip refundable as part of the business trip. While the conference itself isn't suitable to explore much, it allows to very cheaply visit places. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 8:18
  • 2
    @MisterMiyagi This is true, although some countries (e.g. Germany) explicitly forbid it. However, if you don't take extra time then the chances are that your experience of the city consists of an airport, a train station, the inside of a windowless convention centre and, maybe, a couple of restaurants. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 16:49
  • 6
    @JackAidley Not sure if it is what MisterMiyagi refers to, but in Germany, I was allowed to append holidays before and after the conference (there is however a limit on the number of days to avoid too much variations in transportation price).
    – YYY
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 18:54
  • 1
    @JackAidley My German institution explicitly allows combining vacation days with work travel, with some restrictions, and in practice it is something people I work with do very commonly when visiting conferences.
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 4:37
  • In that case, I have confused the policy of the institution I was at with a general policy across Germany. My bad. Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 8:14
3

It's normal to want to see a bit of the host city.

There's often a little dead time that can be spent seeing a few things in the city, perhaps in company of colleagues. This is particularly suitable if not all evening meals are catered - you can walk into/around the city centre to see it and find dinner. Or the conference ends at lunchtime to allow people to catch flights, but you don't have to travel until the evening - time for a short tour of the city (a few of us did that in Glasgow during my PhD).

You may, for example, take some time off while you're there anyway - perhaps stay for the weekend following the conference. This is very common and done well can save a PI's budget some money by allowing cheaper off-peak travel.

Some conferences even organise an excursion. At the international conference I attended in Glasgow there were options: a busload of us visited a whisky distillery, a lot of the Japanese visitors played a round of golf as part of the conference schedule; the conference dinner was at the national football stadium. At the short conference we host, the dinner is at the castle, though we don't get to see very much of it.

All of these examples demonstrate that it's normal to combine a bit of sightseeing.

On the other hand some supervisors, and their relationships with their students, are less inclined to discuss such things as their students having a life outside work. In the vast majority of cases it would be wise to mention it only as a bonus effect of attending a suitable conference.

3

No, it was not impolite, but IMO it showed a certain lack of experience.

It is indeed an open secret that people add extra days to their conference visits to do a bit of sightseeing and it varies widely how much is covered by the institution. I once was able to add half a day of sightseeing and get a full refund because the return flight in the evening was cheaper than the one just after lunch, another time, I agreed to pay for the hotel myself for two nights while the flight was still covered by the university.

However, when discussing where we'd go on a conference, the location was never part of it, unless it was "don't go there, it's too expensive". Officially, you have to pick the conference based on the topic, and be happy if it turns out to be in a nice place that you want to see.

Of course, if submission is a prerequisite for being allowed to attend, and if conferences are announced well ahead of time, you might be able to "hold back" or "speed up" some of your results to just make or miss the deadline of one conference, allowing you to pick the more interesting one. But that really is the odd case where you have two similar conferences taking place within a short period of time such that there is no "scientific" argument for choosing one or the other.

0
  1. Were you lying when you said you'd like to see a new city?
  2. Would your desire to see a new city hurt someone in any way, or even make them feel bad or embarrassed?

If the answers are no, then it wasn't impolite. It may or may not have been a wise or naive thing to do.

-1

As I left "arrivals" at the Berlin airport, I could see copies of a thick set of medical conference papers in the bin. Attendees had waited until arrival to ditch the conference papers-- perhaps after checking for anything interesting during the inward flight.

Your supervisor is laughing at your naivety in not knowing that people go to conferences to visit cities. You lightened his day: you don't have to apologize for that.

He's also reminded you that you still have your career to consider: he did that because it would have been rude to just laugh at you.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .