Note: I'm primarily interested in answers relevant to Computer Science (Theory), but answers in different areas in CS / totally other disciplines are equally welcome.

In most (if not all) PhD programs, incoming grad students are supposed to take relevant courses and fulfill their TA-ship duties (I'm assuming not everyone gets a RA from the 1st semester itself). During that time, they are also expected (and highly encouraged) to keep reading on their chosen research field, to have a concrete idea of where all the focus in that field is at that moment.

In my opinion, I would consider that attending important conferences and interacting with leading researchers in their field would play a very important role in the development of a young researcher, as he/she would have the chance to get motivated by the best brains in the business! But, it is unlikely that he/she would have publishable results at such venues within such a short time, and if he/she doesn't have a fellowship/travel scholarship, it is unlikely that he'd be able to afford the registration/travel/accommodation expenses from his own stipend.

So, what are the options in front of such a student to make attending such events possible:

  1. Do advisers cover the expenses for their incoming grad students, for attending such talks/conferences, or is there a provision for such funds from the department ?
  2. How much does the answer to the above question vary between different colleges - I've heard (unconfirmed) reports that higher-ranked institutions have more funds to burn, and as such students in such departments can afford to attend talks without publishing in them (at least for the first 2 semesters) ?

  3. Are there specific scholarships/fellowships that exist to primarily cater to conference related expenses for students? If so, it would be great to get some leads on where to look, and what are the primary qualifications (>90% of fellowships in US require the applicant to be an US citizen, making it extremely difficult for international students to get one!) ?

3 Answers 3


As Willie Wong says, it depends on your school and your advisor. As an obvious general rule, departments and advisors with more research funding are more willing to spend it. (As a reference point, my department does not offer such funding, because individual faculty generally have enough money to support their students' travel.)

A significant number of CS theory conferences have external support for student travel; see, for example, SODA 2012 and STOC 2012. These grants usually require a letter of support from your advisor, so you at least need an advisor. (In many PhD programs, including mine, PhD students do not necessarily have formal advisors for the first year; students are admitted to the PhD program, not to any particular research group.)

  • So, students who have yet to decide on an adviser would not be able to avail of external support (from the conference), and by the time they do, they may not need to (as their adviser would be able to support them), isn't it?
    – TCSGrad
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:05
  • Even without an official advisor (for departmental purposes), first-year students can usually convince faculty to act as an advisor for purposes of applying for funding. Advisor(x,y) is not a boolean function.
    – JeffE
    Feb 17, 2012 at 12:27
  • 1
    @shan23: and in the slightly better endowed departments/universities, graduate students are often offered some fixed annual amount of travel funding. When I started as a graduate student we were told that the department would sponsor around USD 700 per annum for research and conference travels. Of course, YMMV. Feb 20, 2012 at 9:37

For questions 1 and 2: it depends: you have to find out from your individual advisor/department/university. Furthermore, you characterisation

In most (if not all) PhD programs, incoming grad students are supposed to take relevant courses...

is certainly not true internationally. Many PhD positions in Europe, for example, expect the student to already have had a Masters degree and to start doing research the minute they arrive. For those positions attending conferences starting in the first year is almost a must.

For Question 3:

The best place to look is the conference organisation itself. Often funding is given to students to encourage participation. A lot of professional organisations also offer funding for full time graduate students to travel. (But note that preferences for grants maybe given to those individuals presenting [either orally or at a poster session] at the conference.) Some examples:

  • The American Mathematical Society offers travel grants for any full time graduate student in mathematics to go to one of their sectional meetings, and for any last year graduate student in mathematics to go to the Joint Mathematics Meetings.
  • The American Geophysical Union has a host of various travel grants available. And I want to especially outline their Lloyd V. Berkner Travel Fellowship which is designed to be given only to 'AGU members under the age of 35 who are residents of countries designated by the World Bank as “low” or “lower-middle" income per capita.' In particular, the opposite of the US citizen requirement you quoted.
  • Conferences like the Association for Computing Machinery's CCS also offer student travel grants. The website states: "Any graduate student in good standing, regardless of nationality, or any other criteria, except as noted, may apply."

In fact, aside from actual full graduate student fellowships, and some scholarships directly sponsored by the US government, many travel funding opportunities do not have the US residency requirement. (What they may have, however, is a pesky requirement for you to travel on US flag airlines.)


As others have said, it depends on your school, department and advisor.

There are a couple ways a first-year student might be able to secure funding:

  • If you're already tied to a project with an advisor, they may have travel funds as part of their grant support for some of their graduate students.
  • Some conferences have small amounts of awards for graduate students to help pay for the conference - you can apply to these, in hopes of getting them. Some of these do require you be presenting a presentation there.
  • Some universities have one-time or (in rare cases) multiple-time travel scholarships for graduate students. In my experience, these tend to be enough to soften the blow of paying for a conference out of pocket, but not enough to pay for it entirely.

The good news is I think the pressure you might be feeling to go to a conference your first year is a little off. I got very little out of conferences (including the all-important networking) until much later in my program, when I both understood what was going on better, and had more interesting things to say.

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