Academic conferences offer opportunities to test-run ideas before like-minded colleagues, to network, and to key into conversations within one’s discipline or specialization. For many academics, it’s an integral part of the job. In my University’s promotion system, considerable weight is given to presenting papers at academic conferences. Whether local, national or international, conferences provide venues for institutional promotion-- a chance to showcase research outputs from our little corner of the world.
Despite its assumed importance, little support is available for conference participation in my perennially cash-strapped University. Priority is given to paper presentation (rather than mere attendance); financial assistance is capped ($500 dollars maximum for international conferences; roughly $220 for local/national conferences) and access is limited (once every two years for international and once a year for local/national). Within my Division, where there are some funds available, guidelines were further drawn to only award it to Instructors and Assistant Professors on a first-come-first-served basis. Regardless, there is a strong ethos to “democratize” access. Conferences within Asia tend to be less cost-prohibitive with the wide availability of cheap airfare and accommodations. Most Asian countries also do not require visa for Philippine nationals.
But for many of us, the chance to present a paper to a US or European conference is almost out of reach-- unless you do a version of academic busking, which I will elucidate:
1. Apply for other travel grants for paper presentation in international conferences.
There are small pools of money available from government agencies, private institutions and foundations. The key is knowing where they are and applying ahead of time. In my years of busking, I know of at least three in the Philippines: Commission on Higher Education (every 3 years), Philippine Social Science Council (every 3 years) and Asia-Phil (every year). Like my home institution, the funds are limited but they allow, sometimes require, counterparts-- that is parallel applications for funds elsewhere.
I am a “regular” grantee of these institutions. In fact, I reserve funding applications to these three bodies only to my “must-attend” conferences: American Political Science Association (APSA), Inter University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society (IUSAFS), and Asian Political and International Studies Association (APISA). I reserve the funding from my home institution for the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA).
2. Use your Third World origin to get a conference fee waiver or subsidized accommodation.
Travel grants by conference organizers are becoming rarer and rarer. Of those that still offer them, your Third World credentials would be a plus factor in getting the grant. I received APSA and APISA travel grants in ALL my sorties. They probably have me in a permanent roster somewhere as a perennial applicant-in-need.
If there is no explicit mention of a grant, try conveying your need to your contact person; ask for a waiver of conference fee or a free or reduced rate for accommodation. In my experience, they are very receptive. Often, they have extra hotel rooms or University facilities with subsidized rates.
3. Piggy-back your conference paper presentation to a research fund application
Dissemination through presentation in an academic conference is an acceptable research budget item. Unless the donor specifically prohibits this, include it along with a justification that research results are best utilized when made public and widely circulated, either through paper presentation or through publication. Donors like an image boost; having their name included in your paper is attractive.
A variation of this is a round-table or a panel presentation proposal. If your research budget allows it, presenting as a group always carries more impact (hence a bigger sell to donors) than an individual presentation.
4. Plan ahead to decide which conference(s) to go to and tie it up with other personal/business activities.
Planning is key to make sure you have financial backing lined up for conference paper presentation. Calls for paper abstracts come 6-12 months ahead. Outside travel grant applications carry their own deadlines. Airfare is cheaper when purchased several months ahead, as do bookings for cheap hotels.
If you’re smart, you’ll be able to “stitch” together a seamless travel itinerary that also will allow you a day or two of sightseeing, maybe do library research, visit family, or hold a business meeting. My travel abroad for conferences is usually like this. Because I have to fly to Manila to catch an international flight, I bookend travels with official meetings for which I am able to get a free domestic air ticket.
Living in scarce times should not be a deterrent to professional growth. There are ways to defray travel costs to attend a conference. But there’s no such thing as a 100% free lunch-- you must always be prepared to shoulder some of the cost, which is a worthy investment for networking and getting peer-feedback on the quality of your work.