The cost of academic travel is often covered with upfront payments by researchers that are subsequently reimbursed by their institutions. In this post Sarah Thomson argues, that in order to develop a culture of widening participation in higher education, it is time to rethink this practice and the tacit assumption, especially with regard to PhD researchers, that they have access to the funds necessary to support this practice.
Last week, shortly after booking my first overseas PhD research trip, I found out that I’d had a paper proposal accepted by a major conference. Though both of these events were exciting, I swiftly realised that my combined travel and accommodation costs for these trips will be somewhere in the region of £1,500. Luckily, I can cover these costs through a combination of internal funding from my department (a £500 research grant and £250 conference grant) and an external award. However, none of this money will become available to me until I provide receipts for my expenses, in other words, after I’ve already paid the costs upfront and can ‘reimburse myself.’ Though I knew that academia relies on a culture of reimbursement, it wasn’t until this moment that I realised just how inaccessible certain avenues of research are to people who can’t afford to cover these sorts of costs upfront. A few months ago I wrote about widening participation and the PhD application process. This post is something of a follow up, reflecting on the barriers that ‘reimbursement culture’ creates for students from widening participation backgrounds pursuing advanced degrees.
As a PhD student researching contemporary political history, I was drawn to my thesis topic by the prospect of pursuing a project using material that’s only recently become available for research. Being one of the first people to read and interpret a source since it was boxed up and shipped out of the White House 30+ years ago is hugely exciting (to me, anyway!) but it comes with the caveat that very few of my sources have been digitised. This means that my PhD relies on a significant amount of overseas archival research. In theory, this is incredibly exciting and a great privilege. However, this sort of research comes at a cost. Even though my PhD is funded, conducting research trips means booking transatlantic flights and accommodation, then reimbursing myself months later once the trip is complete. For people who don’t have access to potentially thousands of pounds to conduct extensive archival research or fieldwork, a project like mine simply wouldn’t be feasible.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have accrued some savings through a combination of working various part-time and full-time jobs during my degrees while living at home and commuting for three years of my undergraduate degree, and so can pay these costs upfront. However, had I not received a significant amount of funding for my Masters, I wouldn’t be in this position. Though I have some savings I can draw upon, I’ve continued to work part-time alongside my PhD to continue saving up when I can. I know others who have had to turn to family members to lend them the money to cover costs associated with research, having to reassure them that they’ll be repaid (albeit potentially months down the line). It seems that conducting ambitious projects requiring fieldwork or extensive access to archives outside of your home city relies on either on some sort of familial assistance or a nest egg of savings you can draw upon as needed until funding materialises. Filling out numerous grant applications and forms to receive these reimbursements is also time consuming and stressful, particularly when funding deadlines run worryingly close to conference registration deadlines.
There are PhD students for whom reimbursing themselves after receiving funding is simply not an option. For these people, not only is the type of project they pursue limited by finances, but these people miss out on professional opportunities which are vital in the ever-more-competitive job market we all face. First generation students, those from low income backgrounds and people with financial and familial commitments are all more likely to have to think twice before accepting invitations to conferences and events that may otherwise aid their research.
Conferences are another potentially prohibitively expensive part of PhD life. Again, my department offers funding for conference expenses, but only after your abstract has been accepted by the conference, and you can only use the fund once per academic year. It feels as though there’s an assumption that we have the means to attend these events and that the funding is an ‘added extra’ rather than a deal breaker on whether we can attend at all. Once the funding has been secured, we are not reimbursed for the expenses until we can provide the receipts that show we spent the money as we said we were going to. While I completely appreciate that universities have to ensure that money is being spent wisely, surely paying the student upfront and asking them to return any overpay is preferable to having them be out of pocket for long periods of time? Conferences are a venue for networking as well as exchanging ideas, so universities and funding bodies should be doing all they can to level the playing field by removing the obstacle of reimbursement.
How can we begin to resolve these issues? I can’t profess to have all the answers to an issue that’s been much debated and discussed by scholars and #twitterstorians more senior and knowledgeable than me, but anecdotal evidence from fellow PhDs (including the rest of the Pubs and Pubs team) has suggested a few avenues. For starters, there are vast disparities between how different conference and travel funds allocate and dispense funding. Offering funding upfront and having rolling deadlines goes a long way to alleviating some of the stresses associated with financing conference and research expenses. At the very least, allowing students to request reimbursement upon booking travel and accommodation, rather than after the event, would help to reduce the risk of interest accruing on students’ credit cards while they await their funding. Unfortunately, until there is an overhaul of academia’s culture of reimbursement, certain avenues of research are going to remain inaccessible to students who lack the financial means to cope with these challenges.
This blog post originally appeared on Pubs and Publications and is reposted with the author’s permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Sarah Thomson is an AHRC-funded PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh, researching the crafting of Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In addition to being a Contributions Editor for Pubs and Publications, she is also the current Postgraduate Secretary for the Scottish Association for the Study of America.