There’s this conference I want to go to…

Clouds, seen from an aeroplane window

I love cloud land by Jonathan O'Donnell on Flickr

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.

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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?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

19 Responses to There’s this conference I want to go to…

  1. Kickstarter for scholars? (I am half serious!)

  2. I know that some organisations (i.e. Heart Foundation) give grants specifically for conference travel. That obviously won’t work for all areas but might be useful for some.

    Otherwise never discount the conference awards! I know several people who have won the student travel awards for different conferences. These have funded the cost of their travel and/or waived conference fees. Plus – looks good on an ECR resume :)

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Good points, Emily. Organisations with specific research goals are often keen to groom the next generation of researchers.

      And I should have thought to include conference awards. Not all conferences have them, and they don’t always cover all your costs, but they are a great way to get a head start.

  3. Sue says:

    I have also funded/part funded conference travel through
    – taking on consulting work which goes into a university fund that I can use for work related expenses.
    – funded national projects that include face to face meetings that we can place next to a conference to cover travelncosts
    – prize/award money

    Anyone else savoring the irony that to be promoted you have to do this stuff but your workplace expects you to pay from your own pocket/efforts?

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Sue. There is a whole post contained in the topic “Work that I do that stores up money for later”. Interested?

  4. theresa says:

    Another option, albeit one that takes some commitment, is to join the Exec Committee / Board of the conference organisation. Then they pay for your travel to the board meetings which often coincide with the annual conference. This is also a great CV builder, and a good way to network more meaningfully.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Theresa. This would be particularly effective where the conference is right in the middle of your research area. It puts you at the center of developments in your field.

  5. PhD students and early career researchers can apply for travel grants by joining international learned societies which offer funding to travel to meetings (as well as getting reduced registration rates). It makes them more independent and the learned societies provide many other useful membership benefits too such as awards, competitions, networking, mentoring and outreach opportunities. Here’s a list of bioscience societies but there are many others covering other subject disciplines http://www.biosciencecareers.org/p/learned-societies.html

  6. Leo says:

    Jonathan, I am from theicecream.org blog, may I cross-post this one in our blog? Cheers, Leo

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hello Leo – Thanks for your note! Jonathan is away on holidays so I hope you don’t mind me answering on the blog’s behalf.

      The Research Whisperer operates under the Creative Commons license, and this is on our “ABOUT” page: “Want to use our material? You are free to reproduce any posts from the Research Whisperer through the Creative Commons “Attribution-non commercial-sharealike” license. We would like to know how you are using our material, just out of interest, so feel free to drop us a line or include the link in the comments section attached to the feedback page.”

      So, please feel free to cross-post with acknowledgement! Thanks for your support. ^Tseen Khoo (@tseenkhoo)

  7. zainab says:

    hi! i am a young research scholar from a developing country. recently my paper has been selected in italy and they called me to present my paper. everything is done and now i am very confused because i dont have money for travel. it is my first time and i feel awkward to ask but if you can tell me how can i get a travel fund either a full or partial.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi zainab

      There are two places to start: your university and the conference. In both cases, people will want to know how much you need. So check what the airfare, accommodation and living costs will be.

      At your university, talk to different people about what is possible and who else you can talk to. You want to find other people who have been to overseas conferences and find out how they did it.

      Contact the conference organisers and ask if the conference provides a bursary or travel grant. If they don’t have one, ask if they have any other suggestions. Explain your situation and why you need assistance.

      Explain that if you cannot raise the funds, you will need someone else to present your paper for you. This would be disappointing, but you should hope for the best and plan for the worst.

      Good luck.

  8. BALUKU M NELSON says:

    I am BALUKU M NELSON working for ORPHFUND UGANDA and i need to travel to AUSTRALIA MELBOURNE VICTORIA to meet Steve Argent CEO ORPHFUND INTERNATIONAL for strengthening our fund raising drive for Uganda projects and also hold consultative meetings with Anna Bowen working with WORLD VISION AUSTRALIA DEVELOPMENT PROJECT for the same, could you please help me to attain travel tickets equivalent to 3500 USD . Thanks

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hello Baluku

      We cannot provide individual advice in this way. I suggest that you work with Orphfund International and World Vision Australia to apply for funding.

      • BALUKU M NELSON says:

        Thank You Jonathan, we shall apply for this funding as an organization , can you send us the email address and the funding criteria on our Ugandan email address- orphfund.uganda@gmail.com such we can apply. Thanks
        Nelson Baluku

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