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I am a US graduate student, and recently I have had the great honor of being awarded a large fellowship that provides a sizable monthly stipend for tuition, living expenses, and conference travel.

I plan to travel to a couple of conferences in Europe this summer where I have accepted/pending submissions. However, there also happens to be a pair of nearby conferences a few days prior. These conferences are not as essential to my interests as my planned travel, but still extremely relevant, and if given the opportunity I would like to attend them despite the fact that I will not be presenting a paper.

But conferences are expensive. It is a huge stretch to afford all of these conferences, even with my stipend (which will begin in June, so I won't have had the time to save up). I would like to apply for the student volunteer positions at these conferences, which would reduce registration fees partially or completely if I were selected.

However, I feel anxious that I may be taking away the opportunity from a student who really cannot afford to go. Especially since, as I mentioned, I can stretch myself super thin to make it without the volunteer waiver(s).

On the other hand, though, I suppose it could be argued that I "earned" this financial freedom by earning the fellowship.

Is it ethical to volunteer at a conference where the registration fee would be waived, if I have a fellowship and wish to attend the conference despite the lack of any obligation to do so?

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Volunteering is often a lot of work, so it is generally quite reasonable to see the coverage of costs to be not a scholarship, but as compensation for the many hours of labor that you will be putting in as a volunteer. It is for this reason that many conferences waive the registration fee for their organizers as well. As such, I think there is no ethical concern about getting a waived registration in return for volunteering. I would, however, find it ethically problematic to apply for a scholarship (which some conferences offer) when you could be covered by your fellowship.

  • "when you could be covered by your fellowship." Typically the fellowship has a budget for conferences or research which is separate from the stipend. I would not expect a stipend to be used for conference travel. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 1 '16 at 8:41
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Note that the OP explicitly states that the fellowship is intended to support their travel. – jakebeal Mar 1 '16 at 12:30
  • To volunteer during the conference may mean you get to see only a slice of it (e.g. you get to be in charge of one of the rooms, presentations elsewhere are out). – vonbrand Mar 1 '16 at 16:46
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The only problem would be if you were to misrepresent your financial position to secure the registration fee waiver. If the volunteer positions are truly meant to be for students of limited financial means, then it would be tough to justify. However, in many cases, it's based on a competitive application where ability to afford the conference is not taken into account. If that's indeed the case, then you can go ahead and apply with a clear conscience.

(Also keep in mind that all or at least part of the travel costs for many graduate students would be covered by their universities, so they may not be paying as much out-of-pocket as you think!)

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