Opinion

Lack of Travel Funding Hurts Graduate Student Job Prospects

Natalie Buttaglia | Loyola University ChicagoA student takes part in research in a Loyola lab, pictured here.

Loyola’s graduate school is providing insufficient financial support for graduate students’ conference travel.

Currently, according to the graduate school website, “The Graduate School provides up to $400 for conference travel related expenses.” This is not enough money to cover most registration fees and travel costs, and other Chicago-area universities provide significantly more funding for their graduate students’ travel needs. For example, DePaul University reimburses graduate students for two conferences each year, with no official cap on the amount reimbursed. Given Loyola’s more limited financial resources, many graduate students here are happy to have $400 to offset what they must pay out of pocket.

But the graduate school has increasingly been rejecting funding requests because there aren’t enough $400 grants to reimburse each student. In years past, graduate students could expect to receive two allotments of $400 per academic year, with additional funding available through individual academic departments. But in the past few years, available funding has decreased. Under a new policy this year, graduate students must apply for funding during specific application cycles, depending on when the conference takes place. Because there are limited slots available for each application cycle, many students’ funding requests were denied.

When responding to questions about why they rejected applications for travel funds, representatives from the graduate school explained they ran out of funds for the first cycle, and encouraged students to apply for funding for future conferences so they have another chance to receive funding. The problem with this solution is that many students don’t plan to attend more than one out-of-town conference per year because they are only allowed one $400 travel grant per academic year. And even if students had enough conference-worthy research to present at another conference, there is a chance that the graduate school may run out of money during future application cycles — applying means that students would have to commit to presenting at additional conferences before being guaranteed reimbursement (and indeed, they would risk being denied reimbursement again).

This might sound like an insignificant problem. How important can it be for graduate students to spend time with a bunch of academics for a weekend? But conferences are arguably the most important and useful opportunity for networking that graduate students have. To be a competitive job applicant, students are usually expected to have presented research at multiple conferences. One can make the argument that conference presentations are required of graduate students, despite the lack of funding from Loyola.

Loyola doesn’t pay graduate students enough money to fund their own conference travel. And if the graduate school caps reimbursements at $400, and then doesn’t even have enough of those grants to go around, then all graduate students at Loyola are at a disadvantage when we apply for academic jobs. Graduate students’ research, job prospects and ability to teach the most current debates in their fields all suffer when they can’t engage with and learn from other experts in their fields.

It is understandable that Loyola doesn’t have limitless funds to distribute whenever a graduate student wants to present at a conference; it is difficult to see a solution to the problem if there simply isn’t enough money to go around. But despite the difficulty of funding every student who needs to present, the question remains — by making travel funding inaccessible to many graduate students, what is Loyola saying about the importance of intellectual inquiry? Why is Loyola implicitly assuming that students will be able and willing to cover their own travel costs? What has the university invested in at the expense of graduate students’ intellectual development and their ability to hone their research and teaching skills? When thinking about how to allocate funds for the next academic year, the university should consider ways of making conference funding more accessible to all graduate students.

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