by Jedidah Isler, Ph.D.
So if you’ve frequented these #VanguardSTEM streets this month, then you know we’re focused on the theme, “It’s About WHO You Know: Conferences 101.” As a followup to the very informative and insightful show we had with Dr. Antonia Franco (Executive Director of SACNAS) and Talitha Hampton (President of NOBCChE), we’ve been posting resource guides this week to help you build your knowledge base around the value of conference going. The first #VS Resource Guide was a listing of some of the identity-focused #STEM conferences we found (or you recommended, thank you!) and now we want to dig a bit deeper into financials and how you can fund your conference attendance. So here are a few ideas for how to find the money to attend one or more of the conferences we’ve already discussed (and really any STEM conference).
Apply to present your work.
The best and most ideal way to attend a conference is as a (registered member and) presenter. If you’re a student or postdoc, most of those accepted abstracts — which are often your currency to apply for the travel scholarships — also come with some amount of funding to attend the conference. The details and amount of funding depend on the details of the submission, but be sure to find out about contributed talks/posters, invited talks/posters, prize talks/posters and any other opportunity for you to use your scientific contribution as your currency. Afterall, you’re developing your skills as a professional scientist, so you should capitalize on that value. Many of these scholarships and travel funds often have very early deadlines, so start monitoring the conference website at least 6 months ahead of the next conference for details. Also note some conferences, like NSBP, don’t charge student registration at all and provide free travel, hotel and meals to the first 100 student registrants!
Pro tip: You can also look at the webpages for previous conferences to find out the timelines. Most conferences only update the dates and not the timeframe of deadlines from year to year
Inquire about conference attendance funds from your research group.
Once you have committed to a research group, many of your expenses to attend (at least one) conference are often covered at the research group level. Talk to you advisor early in your career about how often their students attend conferences, if there is a maximum number per year, and any stipulations to receive such funding (some require you to present, for example). Use that information to plan out which conferences are going to be most beneficial to you at different points in your academic career.
Pro tip: Plan out your conferences early so that you can encourage your advisor to apply for ancillary funding. Many (federal) grants that support your work also allow for funding for students and their conference attendance to be covered. If you know at the time of grant application that you want to go to a particular set of conferences, you could ask to have that included in the grant itself.
Inquire about conference attendance funds at your institution (or funding agency).
Institutions often have centralized funding opportunities at the (under)graduate level. These opportunities are often linked to the offices of student life, diversity and inclusion, international students, student government etc. That means you may need to venture outside of your department to find the funding. It’s a good idea to make friends with people in your (under)graduate office anyway, because they can often be the conduit of information that doesn’t always organically trickle down into the department. The same can be said for postdocs, although many institutions are significantly less well-resourced as it relates to postdocs (sadly).
Similarly, look to the appropriate federal funding agency for conference-going funds. One example is the NIH, which has set specific guidelines for what kinds of scientific conferences they will support. The short answer is that they will support conference attendance. Be proactive in finding out whether or not the conferences you want to attend qualify for such funding.
Pro tip: This philosophy of more generalized funding opportunities can be extended to professional societies and other “general-body” organizations. When in doubt, ask.
Volunteer to recruit for your institution/department.
Often when an institution or department has a booth in the exhibit hall or recruitment fair, those booths come with one or two additional registrations. You’ll have to check and make sure those registrations allow you access to the full conference, but some do and it is worth a shot. This also gives you a chance to “come up for air” and engage directly with new-comers who are interested in your department or institution. Recruiting is hard work and requires quite a bit of your attention, so this may be something you try when you’re up for high-engagement conference-going. The best times to try this route are when you are very new or more senior in your discipline.
Pro tip: Don’t be discouraged if you have restricted registration. A lot of connecting, recruiting and mentoring goes on in the exhibit hall, so even if that’s the only place you can be, it’s a very good place to build and nurture connections. Also, don’t forget meal times, which are often included in exhibitor packages and are another great place to build relationship.
Volunteer to be a session helper.
Not every conference has this option, but it’s always wise to check into it. Some larger conferences have sizeable volunteer corps made up of members who agree to be the session helper. Often you’re able to choose the sessions you want to assist and then your registration fees (and sometimes other associated fees) are then covered. Volunteering for a few sessions is a small price to pay AND allows you to connect with a new set of colleagues that you might not have met otherwise.
Pro tip: Don’t register for your absolute *must see* sessions. If something goes wrong, you’ll miss out on the content because you have to deal with the technical/logistical. Choose one that you’d like to hear, but isn’t a make or break if you miss it.
Ask people who have already done it.
We’ve included a SACNAS-produced google hangout that is all about funding your way to SACNAS, and many of the tips they suggest can also be used for other conferences. The major takeaway here is that people have been going to conferences since the beginning of time (or maybe slightly shorter…) and there are all kinds of ways to get there. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, suggestions, advice and funding!
Pro tip: Start early. That’s probably a pro tip for all of the tips, but often when asking for help, you have to account for people’s schedule, which may not allow for immediate responses.
Think not only about ways to attend the conferences, but also how long you need to be there. Maybe you can cut expenses by shortening your time at the formal setting. Think through what you need from a particular conference. Maybe you don’t need to go to the whole conference and can instead purchase a day-pass, which will be significantly cheaper than the multi-day affair. You could consider snagging a room with a conference-going friend or nearby connections.
Pro tip: Optimize your selected day to include the most scientific content that is relevant to you and be sure to setup meetings ahead of time with people you know are going. Often the session rooms are restricted, but not the main convening areas.
Raise the money yourself.
This is often the last resort, if you want to attend a conference that you haven’t been able to find funding to support. There are still effective ways to do this, including cutting back on expenses or fundraising as described below.
Some have also crowdfunded their way to conferences. I like this idea in principle, but it’s not necessarily sustainable or scalable, so I’d encourage you to also lean on other mechanisms here and across the web.
Consider institutional fundraising. This is another great resource we got from SACNAS! One of their chapters has made a point of building relationships on campus to help fundraise for groups of students to attend the conference.
Pro tip: Wherever possible, try to combine funding opportunities to encourage participation from other locations. For example, can you get some of your funding through institutional support? See if you can get another organization to match that support in exchange for a written report, copy of your poster or opportunity to present your research.
Sometimes finding funding to attend conferences is easier than others. I can’t guarantee that if you look you’ll find it, but I can say that many people have found success using some or all of the tips above. The biggest takeaway is that you often have to seek out funding; it’s not necessarily guaranteed. That’s ok, though, because often the work you put into this enterprise is rewarded in connections, financial savvy, new relationships and a trip to a conference!
If you have other ideas, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below, or as always, hit us up on social media. We can’t wait to hear how it goes for you!
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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