I tweeted the following  on Saturday:
“Because I have a conference before the next paycheck, this week is: let’s eat everything instead of doing groceries. ”
That tweet clearly touched a nerve and inspired a pretty heated discussion , talking about the economics of conference and other PD participation. When money is expect upfront and reimbursement only comes after the event is over, how does a graduate students/contingent faculty member/junior faculty member manage to afford those upfront costs?
As one participant put it, she will never get the money back for the interest that has accrued because of delays in getting money reimbursed. Another pointed to how the high upfront costs are barriers for many graduate students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. And yet another highlighted that one of the reasons why graduate students accrue so much credit card debt because of the expectation of conference participation, whether it is reimbursed or not.
As a dual academic couple, my husband and I often have to play credit card roulette to see which one we can put a cross-country plane ticket on, or which one we should bring on a trip to pay for food (and if you bring the wrong one, you will find yourself embarrassingly begging for money to pay for breakfast, like I did just this fall). Our conferences all happen at about the same time, and while each of us gets reimbursed (him through his program, me through my various extra-curricular activities), we don’t have the flexibility to pay for everything all at once. I am already dreading paying for next year’s MLA conference in Boston (which I was accepted on TWO panel, including one I put together and proposed!), seeing as it comes immediately after Christmas, the worst time of the year for credit cards and other expenses.
Because we are both academics from lower socio-economic backgrounds, my husband and I accumulated the requisite student loans and credit card balances during graduate school (compounded, for us, by the fact that our debt spans two countries). I was lucky insofar as my father used to work for an airline, meaning my flights were MUCH cheaper than any of my peers paid, but I still had to pay for food, lodging, ground transportation, conference registration fees, etc. We applied for as many grants as possible, but the amounts often only covered one element of the trip. Now that the student loans have come due and the conference expenses seem to only be increasing (due largely to my husband’s tenure requirement, but also inflation, etc), I wonder sometimes how we will ever get our from under our mountain of debt.
Before anyone starts in on how no one forced either of us to go to these conferences, know that when you aspire to be an academic, certain things are made very clr from the get-go: if you want to be successful, you need to go to conferences in order to network and get your name and research out there. It’s much easier now with Twitter and other social media resources to participate virtually in a conference (I’ve been following Computers and Writing all weekend using #CWcon  and I’ve written previously about my virtual participation at the MLA ), but it doesn’t replace  the real thing . While I live in a place where the cost of living is lower, it is also a place with no major airport close by, making flying even more expensive (not to mention having to pay for extra nights at the conference hotel; because of stops and layovers, it never takes less than a day to travel anywhere).
So while I am grateful for the professional opportunities my husband and I have been afforded through our work, I loath the stress that comes with them before and after they take place, from wondering how to pay for plane tickets to worrying about when the money will finally show up so we can pay down our credit cards before the next trip. With three back-to-back-to-back trips coming up for me (all fully reimbursed, but from three different funding sources), I wonder how we will manage while we wait for the money to show up.
We will manage. Even if it means mac and cheese and whatever else is buried in the pantry and freezer.