One of the most difficult requests I get is for conference travel funding.
Many researchers think rustling up these funds will be easy because it is only “a few thousand dollars”. Unfortunately, a small amount of money can be almost as hard to secure as a large amount of money. In addition, people are usually hunting this money fewer than six months before the conference actually happens, and most funding works on a 12-month cycle.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that conferences are fantastic! They give you an opportunity to look up from your day-to-day work and get a glimpse of what everybody else is doing. They help to recharge your intellectual batteries and find your feet within your research network. Tseen and I like conferences so much that we have written about them several times before: why you should run a conference; how to be a great participant; and how to cope with question time.
But there’s a catch. Most of the time, the interesting conferences always seem to happen ‘over there’ – somewhere else in the world, somewhere that it costs money to get to.
This post provides five ideas for funding your conference travel. Not all of them will suit your circumstances and most of them involve a long lead time, so they may not be the solution that you are looking for.
With a bit of luck, though, them might give you some ideas for how to get where you want to go.
Before anything else, it is important to understand that most research funding is for projects and project work rarely gets done at a conference. Networking – absolutely. Learning – certainly. Dissemination of results – if you are presenting. But project work – rarely, if ever.
So you need to package the conference attendance as part of a larger project. I’m not talking about telling lies or fraud. I’m just saying that you should flip your thinking around. Aim to work with a colleague overseas, and integrate your conference travel as part of that larger research program. After all, if you are travelling half way around the world, you should make the most of the opportunity while you are there. Stay a bit longer, get some work done, and attend the conference as a bonus.
1. Take a sabbatical
First of all, will your university provide support? Many universities have sabbaticals or study leave (at my university it is called “Research Leave”) built into their staff development budget. Know how this works and how you can access it. If it is competitive, fight for it. It is your right and you should take advantage of it where you can.
It will generally provide you with three to six months leave, a little bit of travel funding and perhaps some money towards project costs. It almost certainly won’t cover the full costs of an extended overseas trip. However, it will allow you to approach your overseas colleague and see if they can find some matching funding from their organisation.
2. Do some work, give a lecture or two
Do you work with someone in the same city / region / continent as the conference? If so, extend your stay and doing some research with them while you are there. Then you are applying for project funding to work with your colleague. Attending the conference is a side trip. This is a much more attractive proposition to a granting body than “I want to go to a conference”. However, because grant programs generally work on six- or twelve-month cycles, this requires considerable forward-planning.
A concentrated period of work, perhaps combined with a workshop and one or two guest lectures, can be very attractive to a colleague. They may be able to access partial funding from their university or an industry partner to help cover the costs of your visit. For example, they may be able to reimburse the cost of your airfare or cover your accommodation while you are there.
3. The grand tour
There are specific sorts of funds, such as the Churchill Fellowship for Australians, that are designed to give you exposure to other research activities around the world. Generally, these funds provide potential leaders in their field a chance to gain overseas experience and build up an international network.
These funds will sometimes provide funding to visit key people in a specific country or region, or cover the cost of a study tour to multiple sites. A conference can be included in your itinerary, or added on to the end, before you return home.
4. Put it in the budget
When you are applying for funding, think about dissemination as part of the project costs. Funding bodies, whether they be government, industry or philanthropic, want research with impact. That means that you can’t just do the work, you need to get out there and tell the world what you have done.
Conferences should be an important part of that dissemination strategy. Think about and plan for it as an integral part of your research project, rather than looking around at the end of it all. Major conferences often map out their dates and location two or three years in advance so that people know when and where they will be. You can put that detail into your budget justification, or simply indicate the names of conferences where you will submit papers.
5. Fund it yourself
Last, but certainly not least, you can always pay your own way and claim it back on your tax. I say “certainly not least” because so much research work actually happens this way. Lots of people are either self-funding the whole of their conference travel, or are using this method to account for a shortfall in other funding. There is a dearth of funding in this area, so not everybody can be funded to travel.
I’m not an accountant (and even if I was, I wouldn’t be giving you individual advice), so talk to your accountant early about what is deductible and what isn’t. It would be a shame to come back from a wonderful conference and find that you hadn’t kept some vital bit of paper that the Tax Office requires.
This method provides you with the most flexibility before you travel. Just keep in mind that taxation, like most grant rounds, works on an annual basis, so there will be a long lag until you get your refund.
For most people I talk to, all of these suggests are somewhat unpalatable, for various reasons. So I need your help. What other methods are there to get to that conference that you really need to go to? What have I missed?