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The High Cost of Opportunity: Paying for Academic Conferences

Graduate students and untenured faculty have long mourned the prohibitive costs associated with academic conferences. On top of registration fees, attendees must factor in transportation, lodging and food. While some secure institutional support, others are left to fend for themselves.

While academic conferences provide a dynamic space where scholars across careers and disciplines can share research and test ideas, they also present economic barriers for early-career academics scrambling to fund their professional development. 

Dr. Ramon GoingsDr. Ramon Goings

“You want to make sure you’re surrounded by professionals whose work you hope to continue,” said Danielle Dirocco, executive director of Graduate Assistants United, the chapter of the American Association of University Professors at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s a huge professional step, and I would argue it’s one of the most important parts of graduate school.”

A former graduate student, Dirocco said that although conference registration costs can be reasonable, the price of travel and lodging can be out of reach for those living off meager stipends. Unless a student has savings, she added, the options are either charging a credit card or taking another job. The latter is unavailable for international students, according to the terms of their visas.

At the University of Rhode Island, institutional support varies. The university provides support, but some departments are more fortunate than others. Graduate Assistants United grants additional aid that comes from a portion of its members’ dues.

Nyla Hussain, a third-year doctoral student in oceanography, said she would be unable to attend her first conference next month without the alumni scholarship she received from the University of Rhode Island. The $1,000 will cover travel and lodging to the Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, Ore. Her adviser’s faculty research funding will cover meals.

Hussain said she is one of the fortunate ones. Last month, she was a member of the Graduate Assistants United committee that reviewed requests for conference travel reimbursements.

“I went through a bunch of applications. From that, I realized how lucky I was” she said, emphasizing the scarcity of funds available to support conference travel. “It’s something all students should be exposed to.”

“We try to do everything we can to make sure that we’re breaking barriers down and making it easier to attend conferences,” Dirocco said. “We as an organization are not wealthy, but we’re prioritizing that in our budget because we know how important that is.”

When these students become adjuncts or junior faculty, they lose the graduate registration rates offered by most conferences – but they still live off relatively low salaries.

Some junior faculty see conference costs as an investment.

“As a graduate student, I went to conferences to learn about new research and connect with other graduate students across the nation who were doing similar work,” said Dr. Ramon Goings, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. “As a junior faculty member, I use conferences now as an accountability mechanism for me to send off papers for publication.”

Goings, who attends two or three conferences a year, said he is fortunate that Loyola provides sufficient funding for his travels and is located near several airports, which helps cut costs. Although he has never had to pay out-of-pocket as a professor, he did so as a graduate student.

Fully tenured faculty earn higher salaries, but they are still aware of the high cost of attending and presenting at conferences.

“I resent being a presenter who has to pay for registration,” said Dr. Donna Ford, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University. “If there’s a presenter, you should get some kind of discount. You’re making money for the organization.”

Ford said she has attended three-day conferences that have cost more than $2,000, including car rental, lodging and meals. She receives institutional support, she said, but such high costs would be prohibitive for many rising scholars.

“I think for the most part, I don’t find many conferences I attend to be very diverse,” she said. “I think that’s an issue of income, but that’s hard to disentangle from race.”

For the Modern Language Association’s 2018 annual meeting earlier this month in New York City, the registration for regular nonmembers cost $320. Graduate student nonmembers paid a smaller price of $95. The cost for members was $255 and $65, respectively. For the American Historical Association’s annual meeting this month in Washington, D.C., regular nonmembers paid $277 and student nonmembers paid $136 while their member counterparts paid $201 and $94, respectively. These fees were in addition to any travel and lodging costs.

Neither organization responded to requests for comment.

As the co-founder of R.A.C.E. Mentoring, a group that supports faculty and graduate students of color, Ford leads planning for the annual conferences. She said many graduate students were unable to afford the $100 registration fee and that the organization provided scholarships to cover registration and hotels.

“Being an academician is a vocation of a sacrifice,” she said. “Your university may not give you enough funds to attend all the conferences you want to. You gotta sacrifice. You gotta find a way somehow, because I really think it’s going to be beneficial.”

Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania and the Judy & Howard Berkowitz professor of Education, has tried to help her students and fellow faculty members navigate the costs of attending a conference.

“I teach my students how to maximize their resources by applying for university-level resources and for conference support grants, if available, from the organization,” she said. “I teach my junior colleagues how to deduct expenses from their taxes.”

Technology can be leveraged to embrace alternatives to the traditional conference model, said Gasman. “The large issue is, what happens at these conferences that cannot happen in online forums? Sometimes great ideas come out of conferences, but usually it’s from one-on-one discussions or at a lunch or dinner.”

Those who fund their own travel do so as an investment in their careers, said Dr. Daryl Scott, a professor of history at Howard University. The unforgiving job market, he said, requires graduate students and non-tenured faculty to attend conferences despite the financial toll.

“I think there’s a conference bubble created by the competition between junior professors who are fighting for an increasingly scarce number of tenured positions,” he said, adding that those who can’t afford it are unable to compete.

Joseph Hong can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @jjshong5.


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