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Many conferences offer some form of financial assistance, covering travel, registration, accommodation, or combinations thereof.

My university will only pay for one conference travel expenses over the course of my PhD.

While I live in a first-world country, I am not financially well-off. I can't easily afford to fly to conferences in my own country, let alone some of the more exciting international conferences.

A lot of conferences I am really interested in are of side-note to my research -- things like SciPy. Or conferences from related fields.

Is it worth me applying for financial assistance in these cases? Or is financial assistance restricted to people from developing nations, or to people researching the primary area of the conference, or to people who are submitting papers to the conference?

Is the paperwork involved generally long and complex? it is not worth the time to spend a week filling out forms, for a 1% chance of getting to go the a conference -- I could be spending that time on actual research.

Are these awards highly competitive?

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    While your university might only pay for one conference, often times travel is budgeted for by principal investigators when writing grants to support their research. So you should check with your advisor to see if she has funds available to help support your travel to conferences beyond what your university is willing to fund.
    – aeismail
    Jan 19 '15 at 16:45
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Is it worth me applying for financial assistance in these cases? Or is financial assistance restricted to people from developing nations, or to people researching the primary area of the conference, or to people who are submitting papers to the conference?

Every conference has its own specifications for what kind of applicants (if anyone) is given preference for travel grants. Sometimes paper authors are given preferences, sometimes they are de-prioritized. Sometimes participants from underrepresented groups (whether in an academic, racial, geographic, etc. sense) are prioritized and sometimes only US citizens are eligible. Refer to the conference website for details.

Is the paperwork involved generally long and complex? it is not worth the time to spend a week filling out forms, for a 1% chance of getting to go the a conference -- I could be spending that time on actual research.

No, it's not usually long and complex. Generally it involves some or all of the following: a statement from you on why they should give you a grant, a letter from your advisor indicating that your attendance will be to your benefit and the conferences' benefit, and an estimate of your expenses.

Are places highly competitive?

Depends on the conference. Conferences that many people want to go to tend to be more competitive.

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Another option is to get external funding for conferences. There are some programs for funding student travel to conferences, particularly (or mostly) for underrepresented minorities (including women). For instance, in Computer Science, the ACM-W offers conference scholarships to female students, for any conference. If you are a woman or minority, try searching a bit to see if you can turn up a scholarship in your field whose criteria you fit, and/or ask your advisor and other students in the department if they know of any. Even if you're not a minority, you can search a bit to see if you can find anything. These are often somewhat competitive, but the chances are usually much greater than 1%, and there isn't that much effort involved.

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