Grad student conference funding: a preliminary lay of the land

UPDATE 09/08/2019 7:04 p.m.: The chart in this post has been updated with additional data since the post was written. Accordingly, two parts of the copy—that Minnesota’s journalism program is the best on the chart, and that Michigan gives its grads a lot of money—are no longer accurate.

Sparked by a discussion of the costs of attending the International Studies Association’s meeting in Honolulu this coming spring, I recently asked grad students on my Twitter feed how much in conference funds their departments guaranteed them each year. The results were fascinating, depressing, and varied.

Here’s an overview of what people reported. All of these are political science Ph.D. programs, except where otherwise noted. Some of these numbers came from recent graduates and so may now be out of date. In cases where students could potentially receive a range of funds, I went with the lower end of that range. I also didn’t include matching funds from respective graduate schools or colleges, and I didn’t include a handful of programs that provide fixed allocations across one’s entire graduate career rather than on a per-year basis. More on both of these issues later.

No, I am not making a ggplot of this.

Obviously this is a sample, biased in the direction of people who somehow don’t find me too annoying to follow on Twitter. Still, I think it shows that available conference funds for graduate students are wildly insufficient. Here are five takeaways.

1. For graduate students without savings, most of these funding allocations don’t come close to actual expenses.

For those who are not familiar, a typical itemization of conference expenses would include registration fees, travel, transit in the destination city, lodging (usually for multiple days), and food. Some people might have additional expenses of printing posters for presentation, buying nice clothes, and visas for international travel.

Of course, expenses vary—it cost me more, as a Madisonian, to travel to Washington, DC for APSA this past August than it likely did for someone coming from Philadelphia or Boston—but this all adds up quickly. My expenses for this year’s APSA were actually among the lowest I had ever experienced for a conference because I had a life in DC prior to graduate school and so stayed with a friend. My lodging expenses amounted to the $7.25 loaf of bread I brought him as a present. (It is very good bread.) Even so, I spent upwards of $700 to fulfill the expectation for senior grad students of presenting my research.

If $700 is the low end—and I think that it often is, especially for multi-day conferences in major cities—and a department only provides $500 per year, maybe a grad student could make that work for one conference. But what if they need or want to go to multiple? What if they’re living paycheck to paycheck, as so many students are, and scraping together $200 represents a real hardship? (Fuck off, Michael Strain.) What if their university won’t reimburse Airbnb, so they’re forced to stay in hotels that usually cost more? (I will scream about UW–Madison’s terrible policy until the cows come home.) What if they’re a foreigner traveling to the U.S. waiting for their visa to come through while booking their travel, but it doesn’t and now they’re out hundreds if not thousands of dollars?


2. Some departments give students conference funds upfront, either instead of or in addition to funds through reimbursement.

This is the case in my home department, UW–Madison: we get $300 per year via reimbursement for conference travel. However, we also get an additional $2,000 grant paid directly into our bank accounts for each of our first three fall semesters, ostensibly for “research expenses”, including presenting that research at conferences.

Briefly setting aside that the first three years are not when one typically needs a lot of money for research, these research funds, when I was still receiving them, went straight to paying off summer debts. At UW, we don’t get paid until October 1, and summer funding is not guaranteed, so many people scramble to piece together something resembling a living wage for three months. This is to say nothing of the costs associated with attending APSA (which, of course, falls at the end of the summer), moving (see aforementioned end of summer), waiting around for months for thousands of dollars in reimbursement checks from summer fieldwork (cough), and the generally abysmal state of grad student wages.

So if “research expenses” include “having a home so I can maybe sleep occasionally and wake up ready to conduct research”, then sure, those funds went to research expenses. The point: if you want us to be able to use these funds for conference travel, our base stipends have to be high enough to cover our day-to-day living expenses first.

3.  “Matching funds” are apparently a thing some schools do.

This was pleasant news to me, as this is not the practice at my institution. I am told, however, that some universities, including the University of Utah and the University of Alabama, will top off departments’ annual conference funds for graduate students with no (or few) questions asked.

This stands in contrast to what seems to be a much more common practice, wherein extra funds are available through various campus institutions but for which one must apply in a competitive process. UCSD also, apparently, does a “random lottery” for $500 allocations. So that’s fun.

Anyway, guaranteed matching funds are cool. More of this, please.

4. Other departments, however, suck.

There’s really no nice way to say this, and these paltry sums don’t deserve politeness anyway. The University of Chicago provides its graduate students with $400 once during their entire academic career. Once. Is the assumption that everyone goes to the Midwest Political Science Association conference, which is always in Chicago? Living in the city where a conference is located doesn’t exempt one from registration fees. I digress. It’s ridiculous.

Berkeley is slightly less awful—but only slightly—and provided $250 per conference for two conferences throughout one’s graduate career as of 2017. LSU provides conference money three times per student. Penn State’s program in rural sociology does $1,000 across one’s entire degree.

This system forces graduate students to make a choice: do I save my funding for my final year if I choose to go on the academic job market? Do I self-fund? (I’d wager this is what usually happens.)

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to provide a ton of conference funding for first-year students—I did just point out, after all, that it’s strange to give $2,000 to less senior grads rather than to older ones. That’s fair. But even $1,000 across one’s last three years, supposing these might be the most useful years for conference attendance, returns us to takeaway 1: wild inadequacy of funding.

5. When departments want to, they can increase conference funding for grad students.

The highest number on this chart comes from the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism, where an alumnus of my department, Ben Toff, now teaches. HSJ provides each of its students with $1,500 per year for conference travel. The only other school in my sample that comes close to this is Michigan—where, I’m told, grad students received $400/year for a domestic conference and $700/year for an international conference (so hypothetically, $1,100 total) in the early 2000s. If a current Wolverine wants to verify that, tweet at me.

Given HSJ’s apparent outlier status, I had several questions for Ben about how such a (seemingly high, but eminently reasonable) conference budget per student was possible. Does HSJ admit fewer students? By my count, the department currently has 33, which is smaller than many poli sci departments at R1s. But even if the department for some reason doubled in size and didn’t increase its grad student conference funds budget, it could still give each student $750…which is still higher than many other departments.

In any case, Ben said that allocating more funds for conferences had no relationship to the size of the graduate cohort: they weren’t admitting any fewer students than they would otherwise to make this possible. Were their students’ stipends lower as a result of their conference budget? Also no, Ben reported. This checks out: stipends for Ph.D. students at HSJ are $25,000, which is higher than many poli sci Ph.D. programs (and is certainly higher than UW–Madison’s own mass communications Ph.D. program, where the guaranteed stipend is…nothing).

Again, cohort size might factor in here, but the fact remains that HSJ has made higher conference funding work. How? Like so many things, through prioritization: school director Professor Elisia Cohen has made conference funding a priority and raised the funds accordingly. That’s it.

I don’t mean to suggest that raising money is easy, and some departments may be cash-strapped and struggling with state budget cuts, which are very real issues. Resources are always limited, and decisions have to be made. Still, most of the schools in this sample, at least, are large, highly ranked R1s. They have alumni; they have massive fundraising efforts; they can make conference funding for graduate students a priority if they choose to.

So the question remains: why don’t they?

Coda: How much would be enough?

The wonderful Claire Adida posed this question in response to my thread: what is the minimum amount of conference travel funding that would make the difference between attending or not attending a conference? Again, expenses vary, and it’s hard to make a judgment that would decrease inequities for even most graduate students most of the time. But it’s also clear that the current system is not working. What to do?

Ben thinks the answer is the HSJ model—$1,500 per year, at minimum—and I think he’s right. I also think most departments would declare that impossible. Let’s set aside whether that declaration is factually accurate across the universe of cases (spoiler: it’s not): start with $1,000. Departments, provide $1,000 in guaranteed conference travel funding per year, per student. Anything unused at the end of the year gets distributed back to students who didn’t have their expenses covered with the initial $1,000; anything left after that gets rolled over into the next year.

This, I think, is the starting point we need. And it is only a starting point: international students likely need more. Domestic students traveling to international conferences likely need more. Contingent faculty need, well, anything. But let’s at least get it started.*

*I vastly overestimate the power of my yelling on the internet. I have also been described as a “force” and “incredibly annoying”. So.

Share this: