Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Robert Neubecker

Reimbursement policies make academia less inclusive

It has been an exciting and productive conference. As a fifth-year Ph.D. student, I am less nervous when I present my work than I used to be, and I finally feel I fit in as a scholar. But when my abstract was accepted in the fall, I had to consider something completely unrelated to my science: whether I could afford to go. Carefully, I did the math. Registration, fees, air travel, lodging, and food would exceed $1000. My fellowship comes with $1200 that I can use for conference travel, among other project-related expenses. On top of that, the conference granted my presentation a $500 travel award. I should be able to cover the costs—eventually.

I can’t access these funds until after the conference, long after paying for registration and flights. So, for the past 3 months, I have been out a significant chunk of cash. This is money that I can’t really spare, as most of my modest graduate stipend goes to day-to-day necessities—including food, housing, and utilities. I’ll submit my reimbursement forms as soon as possible once I get home. But I know from experience that sometimes payments are extremely delayed, even after the forms are filed. All I can do is hope the process will go smoothly this time—and know that I’ll have to advocate for myself and micromanage every step if it doesn’t.

Still, I count myself luckier than some. I can draw on savings I was able to build up while I was in college. I attended a budget-conscious institution in my home state, cobbled together scholarship funds to cover my tuition and fees without help from my parents, lived in cheap apartments, and worked multiple jobs so that I could save. That means that these days, though sometimes I have to get creative, I can generally make conference expenses work. But I incur these expenses in a sometimes-scary bet against the bank account I use to pay my rent and keep my apartment warm.

Requiring students to ante up conference funds up front without the hope of being reimbursed for months makes academia less welcoming for scientists who are financially disadvantaged. Yet universities and funding agencies seem unwilling or unable to do much to change the system. Perhaps changing the status quo requires too much work. Maybe it’s not a priority because many students come from privileged backgrounds that insulate them from the issue. Students for whom this is a real problem may feel ashamed to ask for help and be treated as an exception.

I incur these expenses in a sometimes-scary bet against [my] bank account.

I’ve tried to work with administrators to find reasonable solutions, but the results have been mixed at best. Last summer, for example, I had the opportunity to attend a prestigious weeklong conference, supported by a competitive grant. But, as always, all funds were due up front at registration. Assuming the financial and psychological burden of these expenses—thousands of dollars—felt like more than I could take on, especially after already putting in substantial time and intellectual effort to secure the grant.

After negotiating with administrators, I thought I came up with a solution. The granting institution set up an account with the hospital that housed my lab so that I could pay my expenses directly with the funds I had been awarded. But when I tried to register for the conference, I hit an unexpected snag: All payments needed to be made by credit card. I nearly cried. Embarrassingly, the balance due exceeded my card’s limit. After some desperate emails, an administrator agreed to extend the credit line on an existing department card so that I could use it. But she made sure I understood that this was not something they normally did and that I shouldn’t make a habit of these types of requests.

As for my most recent conference expenses, I was relieved to find out a few weeks ago that I’d receive a check for my $500 travel grant on site at the conference. I probably won’t receive my reimbursement for the rest of the conference expenses until April (assuming all goes well). Until then, I’m gearing up to devote a significant amount of mental energy to keeping a careful eye on my bank account and credit cards.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers