So, now what?
Most of these travel grants require you to pay up front for your trip, including airfare, mileage, hotel or room, library fees, visas, and food. You are only reimbursed after the trip. For poorly paid graduate students, the economic burden of this type of grant is heavy, making it potentially risky; however, it is often the only way for us to get any work done.
A lot of my research and travel over the last few years has been made possible by some sort of grant, but I have also made several costly mistakes along the way—lost receipts and frantic last-minute form submissions. These mistakes could have been avoided if I had approached my grant like an archivist.
When processing a new archival collection, archivists have to use their experience and knowledge to predict the future. They anticipate the preservation needs of the materials as well as the needs of researchers, with the goal of keeping the collection safe and accessible. In addition, archivists habitually document their work as they go, both for themselves and for the future. Not only does it make processing easier, it also generates a ton of metadata, which researchers and other archivists might find useful.
By keeping an archivist’s future-oriented perspective in mind, you can make the most of conference and travel grants while also decreasing your financial risks. In preparing for your trip, make sure that you have a very clear sense of what documents your grant requires for reimbursement, anticipate any issues that could prevent reimbursement, and document everything.
Below are a few ways you can achieve this. Although this advice is specific to travel grants, they are applicable to any situations that require out-of-pocket payment and reimbursement.
1) Contact the grant’s administrator. Most acceptance letters include a contact person you can send questions to. Do so immediately, frequently, and kindly. There are many things that are going to come up over the course of planning your trip that you are going to need to know. I have had grants, for example, that allowed the purchase of alcohol and others that forbidden it; I have known people who have struggled to get payments for shared rooms and meals. It is best to know these policies and procedures in advance. In addition, you want to make sure that your contact person knows your name. Being engaged in the process and professional leaves a lasting impression, one that might be helpful if any problems come up.
2) Get to know your department’s FAO (Financial Affairs Officer). Most grants are facilitated through your home department’s FAO in some way, even if the money doesn’t go through them. In my experience, most graduate students don’t even know who their FAO is, let alone how much they do to ensure students get their money. And this is a shame. I recommend getting to know them long before you receive a travel grant. Introduce yourself, say “Hi” at the department Christmas party, turn in your paperwork on time with a personalized email—anything to show you are engaged, professional, and personable.
3) Mark important dates in your calendar. This is a point I cannot stress hard enough. Although you are thankful for the funding awarded by grant-giving institutions, remember that it is not their job to advocate for you or your money. As a graduate student with $200, $500, or $5,000 on the line, you cannot give them a reason not to reimburse you. So, make sure you follow the rules and write down all of your deadlines somewhere you will see them. I write everything in my Google Calendar, but also in my daily agenda with notes one, two, and three weeks in advance. Also, note when you expect to be repaid, so you can send a follow-up email if the funds are not forthcoming.
4) Make reservations, documenting every step. Now that you know how much money you have to spend, it is time to start planning your trip. As you acquire tickets, reservations, rentals, and other travel-related expenses, make sure that you are saving everything. You can do this in several ways, but I recommend going “old school” by printing everything out and putting it into a folder. You are going to have to do this anyway when it is time to submit your reimbursement forms, so you might as well print everything in advance.
5) Purchase a coupon folder and keep it with you. Yes, an envelope will serve the same function, but a segmented, accordion-style coupon folder is my grant-related travel MVP. I keep this tucked into my backpack, and I immediately put all receipts into it. This means that everything is in one place and there is no chance a random coffee receipt will go missing along the way. The sections of a coupon folder allow me to organize as I go, too, since I can file receipts by date or type—whichever the grant requires.
6) Keep a running total. Open up a spreadsheet and make a list of your expenses with a running total of how much money you have spent versus how much you have left to spend. Not only will this keep you honest with yourself (things always add up faster than we think they will), but it will give you a way to double-check your math and to make sure that everything is accounted for.
7) Pack white paper and tape. Most travel grants require original copies of all receipts; however, they will not accept a higgledy-piggledy stack of paper scraps. You are going to have to tape these receipts to plain white paper anyway, so you might as well do it as you go. Honestly, I don’t worry about doing this for short conference travel, but it is indispensable when I go on longer research trips. After a six-week trip, for example, I had accumulated more than 20 pages of receipts. I got in the habit of recording receipts every night before bed and taping them up.
8) Photocopy or scan everything. Once you have completed your final reimbursement paperwork, including all of the forms and receipts, make sure that you photocopy or scan your entire packet before submitting it. Documenting like this is a good habit to get into, not least because it provides a back-up in the event that anything happens to the original.
Have you picked up any grant-related tips on your travels? Or do you have a financial cautionary tale from the road? Please, share them in the comments, because we would love to hear from you!
[Image by Flickr user jjmusgrove and used under the Creative Commons license.]