The high cost of academic reimbursement

Spring, 2004. I was in the second year of my post-doc, with kids ages 4 and 2. Because I was no longer a student, the full brunt of my student loan payments had hit me, which were collectively almost double the cost of my mortgage. To put it generously, money was tight. Truthfully, we were broke as fuck and struggling each month to stay above water.

I’m from a blue-collar background. My dad was a factory worker for 40 years. My mom had a teaching degree, but “paused” her career to have me (followed by my sister and brother), and was then diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after my brother’s birth. Hers was rapidly progressive and she was unable to return to teaching–leaving the family with one income and a lot of unexpected medical bills.

So when it came to navigating academia, it goes without saying that I was out of my element. But I knew I had 2 years of funding for my fellowship, and that time was quickly coming to an end. I needed to figure out a next step.

My PI suggested applying for both additional fellowships as well as professorships–though we figured I wouldn’t land the latter, at least the application process and (maybe) interviews would be good practice. At the time I started looking, there was only one assistant professor position in my niche that was advertising (I had missed much of the big interviewing season–also something I didn’t understand at the time). I applied, and somehow, a few weeks later I was invited to the University of Iowa for an interview.

The departmental secretary emailed me to set up travel. She explained that they had booked a hotel for a 2-night stay, and they’d reimburse me for my airfare–just send her the receipts after the interview.

Um.

We were barely keeping up on bills as it was, with 2 kids in full-time daycare and my student loans. We had no credit card availability. We had no family we could borrow from–they were all as broke as we were or worse. We couldn’t afford date nights out. Hell, we couldn’t afford frozen pizza in. Where was I supposed to find $300+ for a flight in two weeks?

I almost canceled. “Thanks anyway, but I’m too poor to come out.”

Luckily, what I did have was my 1996 Dodge Neon, purchased early in my post-doc for $2000 from an elderly woman who was no longer able to drive. It got about 40 miles per gallon on the highway, Iowa City was only about an 8.5-hour drive away, and gas was still under $2/gallon. I told the secretary I’d just drive it instead of fly in. I’m sure she thought I was phobic of flying or something (why drive otherwise??), but she said that was fine and arranged my meetings. When I left for my interview, I packed a sandwich, snacks, and drinks for the drive because stopping places for food added up.

All of this to say–I completely agree with Holly Bik’s thread on academic reimbursement.

I was able to drive, but what about those who need to travel cross-country or internationally? How to pay for meetings to network and find opportunities when you’re barely scraping by between paychecks? To travel for field work necessary for a degree or project?

As a professor, I’ve tried as much as possible to put student travel on my grants, or help them search for university  or other funding sources to attend conferences. Sometimes it’s only partial coverage, which is better than zero but still is a financial burden on my trainees. We always apply for the travel grants (and have gotten a few). But even when it’s paid, it’s typically not comped up-front–and can take months to come back. As Bik notes, it’s just one more way the system is rigged against those who don’t have access to some kind of familial assistance–and that includes a lot of people we’re trying to recruit into the field, or retain once they’re here.

I don’t know how to fix it. I know some places are better than others. At least at my current institution, reimbursement tends to be relatively quick (~3-4 weeks or so) and will do direct deposit (some places still, inexplicably, insist on paper checks, which drags out the process even further). I know budgets are tight everywhere. I know that not every professor can afford to pay for all their students up-front either. I sent 5 trainees to the American Society for Microbiology meeting in 2016 in addition to myself, and even after 13 years as a professor, I still can’t afford to just pay all of that in advance. Our financial people have often been sympathetic, but tell us their hands are tied due to all sorts of regulations.

As with so many areas of academia, we need to do better. From Bik’s thread, some places seem to be able to front costs–why can’t that be universal? It seems like a small thing when you have money, but for many struggling academics it’s the difference between “making it” and leaving the field. If administrators are truly committed to diversity, they’d find some way to make this work more smoothly.