11

I am a full professor at a university in the US, working in computer science. Many of my PhD students these days apply to do an internship during their PhD, which I always let them do. However, I have an issue with the way the companies typically deal with publications that arise.

Specifically, the following has happened several times now. My PhD student will do a 4-6 month internship, after which they will return to their PhD. They will then continue working in their spare time on the internship project, perhaps for another 3-6 months part-time, in order to get the research to the stage where they can write up a paper. Then, they will submit the paper to a conference. Note that I am not involved in this internship research at all; I have not helped with any supervision and my name is not on the paper.

If the paper is accepted at the conference, the company then tells my student that they cannot fund their trip to the conference, because they are no longer employed by the company. The student then asks me if I can fund their trip, because otherwise, they would not be able to present the paper, or in the worst case, they would have to withdraw the paper.

But I only have limited budget to fund student travel, and usually I would have to reserve it for funding trips based on the student's PhD research. I find it very disrespectful of these big, wealthy companies to expect a non-profit university to fund a trip in order to promote the company's research. But if I tell the student that I cannot fund their trip, I feel like I am not supporting their career and development.

So my minor point of complaint is that the students will often carry on working on the internship project once they return to their PhD. And my major point of complaint is that the company expects the university to fund any conference trips to present any publications from the internship.

My questions are: Is this a common issue? And if so, how do other academics deal with this?

1
  • 6
    Get a small contract in place with the company that is enough to cover travel costs up front.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 24, 2023 at 1:41

3 Answers 3

16

I am an employee of one of those big, wealthy companies (henceforth BWC), and believe me, I feel your pain. I already find it great that BWC would let your students publish their research, I can tell you from hard-won experience that this can be quite a struggle once the legal function gets wind of it! (So here is your answer to "is this common?": at my employer, I would not even try to apply for funding for an ex-intern, because I know it would be absolutely hopeless.)

Now, of course we can't tell you who should fund your students' conference travel, there is no objective answer to that. What we can do is discuss the matter itself, and suggest possible ways forward.

First off, funding someone who is not employed any more at BWC is indeed a major pain, for internal and external reasons. This is just something that runs counter to all financial processes in industry. You will pay employees, sure. But if someone is not even working for you any more, then what you would need to do is to have a highly non-standard contract with them specifying payment to third parties (i.e., the travel cost), but no payment to the ex-employee themselves. The rationale would be that this is a benefit to BWC, sure. But then all kinds of regulatory issues crop up: if there is a benefit, isn't the employee again working for the company? If so, are you running afoul of minimum wage laws, because you are not paying them anything? What about benefits? What if something happens on that trip and insurance is claimed? And all this becomes even more nightmarish if the travel happens in a different year than the original contract...

Bottom line: while this issue is indeed infuriating, it is not simply because of obstinacy, laziness or greed on the side of BWC. Paying for your student raises real issues at BWC, which would necessitate a major effort to address, and conversely probably do not happen often enough to set up a dedicated process.

OK, so what can you do about this?

  • I would say that understanding the issues up front is key. Discuss this issue with any student before they apply to internships. Better to have this out in the open before they invest a lot of time, which may indeed go to waste in terms of a publication.

  • If you have an onboarding information pack for new Ph.D. students, you may want to put this info in there. If you discuss it in a meeting, send them an email afterwards so you have something on file in case anyone misremembers this. Recall the conversation (e.g., sending out that email) when they do start on their internship.

  • The most realistic solution would probably be for the student to pay for the conference themselves. Yes, this sounds harsh. But they will presumably be paid at BWC, and they can then decide themselves if they want to pull down, say, 2000 USD per month for three months, or essentially get 1000 USD per month plus 3000 USD altogether for conference costs. Sure, this is a more painful way of thinking than having a contract that up front says "1000 USD per month plus a budget of 3000 USD for a conference" - a question of framing. The key thing, again, is having this conversation with them before they invest their time.

    Of course, BWC may actually not be paying that much. Maybe your student is working at a PNP (poor non-profit) at a nominal wage. In which case, there will be even less money from PNP to fund a conference, and tapping other sources of funds (see bottom point) becomes even more important. In this case, "I worked at PNP, and there are no funds there" is a good argument in applying for a grant.

  • However, note that "self-paying" out of their intern salary at least keeps the door open to apply for other funding. They can with a clear conscience tick the box "I do not have other sources of funding". There may be additional funds at your university for conference trips, or the conference may have travel grants, etc. These are still an option for your student. (And of course, people will still grumble about having to subsidize the student, rather than BWC paying - but per above, BWC has already paid the student an amount that could probably be considered as covering a conference.)

  • Finally, a word to you as the professor: while it is natural and commendable that you feel responsible for your students, your research and travel funds are limited, and you need to draw a line somewhere. You would presumably not fund some other Ph.D. student in your school whose research does not overlap with yours, either. So do not feel bad about declining a request for funding. Just make this clear from the get-go, and help your student with applying for grants.

Bottom line: discuss this issue with your students before they embark on the internship, and have a plan ready so they know what they are getting into, and ideally already know where to apply for funding.

3

From a company's point of view, they got what they want once the student left the company. Publishing results does not help them. It is less about paying a trip for a former intern, this might be the excuse that is served you, as it is easier to swallow. They are not interested in all the work after the intern left!

I think an internship is a great learning experience for the students. It should be part of their education and is helpful. Please keep on sending students to internships!

What might help:

  1. Publish in journals instead of conferences. This keeps the costs down. This might work or not work, depending on your field.
  2. It might be possible to get funding for traveling to conferences. Help the student to find such sources (funding agencies, field-specific organizations, the conference itself, your university) and help them writing the grand proposal. What a lovely learning opportunity!
  3. Do not limit the scope of the paper to the internship. It might be possible to add further aspects, align the research with the topic of the student's PhD topic, you might add insights (and become co-author), and the paper would feel less about lost workforce.
  4. Tell the students before they apply that you are not or only partially able to cover their future travel costs. They could save some money from the internship to pay for their travel afterwards.
2

Normally it's not expected to fund the trip using your research grant money if the work/paper has nothing to do with it. (As you said, they did not work on the project as their RA commitment.) For most of the cases I've seen, either the students apply for school-level grants, e.g., for career development; or they invest into their own future.

You must log in to answer this question.

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