For graduate students, conference travel grants are a terrific way to attend that prestigious, career-defining conference in a beautiful remote locale while keeping your adviser’s budget sheets in the black. I have served as travel grants (co-)chair for the CoNEXT 2012 and SIGCOMM 2015 conferences, and have noticed that awarding travel grants sometimes gets more bumpy than it needs to. I am going to share some advice from the trenches in the hope that it will help avoid headaches along the way for all parties involved. Most aims at students, but grants chairs and advisers might also find a bit of useful input.
First, some background. A student travel grant is a subsidy for your conference attendance, typically including the cost of transportation, accommodation, and conference registration. Not all conferences offer such grants, but in the systems/security communities of computer science (where I’m at home) the larger ones regularly do. In order to obtain a travel grant, you usually need to be an enrolled student at the time the conference takes place. Sometimes postdocs or young faculty may apply as well. You typically need to submit an application by a deadline weeks to months ahead of the conference. The application includes a cover letter in which you make your case for obtaining a grant, your résumé, and a letter of support written by your adviser.
A conference’s travel grants chair manages the finances available for the grants in cooperation with the conference’s treasurer, reviews the applications, and determines the amount of support to award to each applicant, subject to the overall budget. Funding for travel grants can come from industrial conference sponsors or from large research funding organizations such as the NSF. Sometimes this money comes with constraints. For example, NSF-provided money will generally only support students registered at U.S. schools. The larger conferences often have multiple sources of funding so they can cover students around the world.
The policy governing award allocation depends on the conference, but generally, the organization committee will strive to enable as many applicants as possible to attend the conference.
With the basics out of the way, let’s focus on your travel grants application.
A good application for a student travel grant should include convincing demonstration that you actually depend on the grant in order to attend the conference. It’s surprising how many applications fall short in this regard! In your letter, make sure to convey where you are in your studies, describe your interests, and explain why attending the conference matters to you. Identify ways in which you could contribute to the conference.
The travel grant is only a subsidy. If you submit your application in time and the chairs approve it, you will generally learn the amount of your award long before you start making travel arrangements. This amount is the maximum you will be reimbursed, and not necessarily the exact amount. The grants chair will determine the actual amount of money you’ll receive in the end based on receipts you provide. Hopefully you’ll manage to cover all expenses using the grant, but it’s your responsibility to work toward this goal. If the trip proves too expensive, then perhaps your group or school can cover the rest, but make sure to understand the constraints. If you don’t, you may have to foot the bill for any excess on top of the grant out of your own pocket.
Always read the conference’s grants policy and application instructions closely and follow them. The travel grant virtually always comes in form of a reimbursement. This means that, in general, you will need to fund the travel expenses out of your own pocket and get the awarded amount reimbursed later on. This usually won’t happen until weeks after the conference has ended, because the chairs require paperwork proving your expenses, need to clear the reimbursements with their own accounting department, and mail out the checks. You won’t receive the money until weeks after the conference, so plan accordingly.
If it’s a considerable financial hardship to pay the travel expenses out of your own pocket until the reimbursement, talk to your adviser or other suitable funding sources at your school. The conference travel grants chairs will most likely be unable to help you in this regard.
Never purchase or book any part of your conference trip before it’s clear that you will be able to attend and that the travel grant will cover the expenses, unless you are happy to cover any resulting costs yourself. The travel grants chairs have little to no freedom regarding the conference’s policies, so there exists a real risk of getting stuck with part of the bill if you aren’t careful. For example, you may need to book your flights via certain carriers, you likely need to stay at the conference hotel, share the hotel room with a fellow student, and attend the main conference. (So much for your grand plan of topping up the grant a bit so you can stay at the Ritz-Carlton with your significant other.)
If you’re a US-based student the award often comes with the constraint of having to “use a US carrier” for flights, particularly when the underlying funding is provided by the NSF. This term usually causes considerable confusion, so let me explain. It essentially means that the flights must be performed by or under a code-sharing arrangement with a US air carrier, if available. For example, you can go to the United Airlines website and book a flight, even if it’s actually operated by Lufthansa. You also can go to Priceline and book a flight on Delta. But, you cannot just go to Lufthansa and book a flight. The US carrier flights may be more expensive and they certainly may be more inconvenient — it does not matter. Take this constraint seriously and double-check with the chairs when in doubt. You can read the exact rules here.
If you’re an author of a paper accepted at the conference (congrats!) make sure to double-check the travel grant policy. The conference organizers often assume that paper authors, particularly the author presenting the work, will have sufficient funding from their institution to attend the conference. If you decide to go ahead with an application regardless of this situation, be up-front about your author status and explain the situation. Some conferences (e.g. CoNEXT) organize special workshops for students, and these workshops form the exception to the above rule—acceptance to such workshops can increase your chance of obtaining a travel grant. The same often holds for poster sessions. Again, check the award rules.
Be reasonable. It may seem natural to you to want to bring your partner to the conference hotel and visit your grandmother in Brazil while en route from Canada to that conference on the Costa del Sol (this is not as made-up as you might think) … but the travel grants chair may disagree. If your itinerary is adventurous, inform the travel grants chairs of your plans to save yourself and the chairs hassle later on. Do not assume the chairs are running a travel agency.
Be realistic regarding your financial needs. If you’re from a U.S. institution generally known to be awash in cash and ask for 2000 USD to go to that conference in Boston, the chairs will not view your application favourably. The opposite applies as well—if your school is in dire financial straits and you need to fly half-way around the world, conference travel quickly gets expensive. It helps the chairs to rank your application accordingly if you convincingly demonstrate the costs. Most importantly, the application likely requests that you state the approximate amount of money you will need in order to enable attendance. Make sure to provide one, particularly if you already have partial funding and require only, say, support for the conference registration.
If you need a visa in order to attend the conference make sure to mention this in your application, particularly if you’re concerned about the visa fee (which the grant may not cover) and processing timeline.
Belonging to an underrepresented minority, being a first-time attendee, convincingly arguing the need for financial support, and demonstrating real interest in the conference’s technical area all help your case, so make sure to cover these points in your letter. Some conferences ask you to help out at the event, for example by writing session summaries. Use your cover letter to indicate areas of particular interest to you.
If you’ve previously applied for a travel grant to the same conference or another one by the same organization (ACM, USENIX, etc) but have been turned down, mention this fact. It’s entirely possible that the chairs simply did not have enough money available to fund you, which might well improve your chances of getting a grant this time.
Finally, make sure that your application actually mentions the correct conference. You’d think that’s obvious, but …
If you can make a credible case of needing travel support, your chances of receiving a travel grant are generally quite good. So let’s assume your work has paid off and you’re the proud recipient of a travel grant. Congratulations! When you travels commence, make sure to keep all relevant documentation—this certainly includes any receipts you’ll need, but you should also keep boarding passes and other documents, just to be safe. Most importantly, enjoy the trip!
After the conference, contact the travel grants chair regarding the reimbursement procedure. Similarly to the booking process, make sure you fully understand the reimbursement procedure before doing anything. Ensure that you send all required documents in one go, to avoid delays due to additional mail round-trips. Be kind to your travel grants chair and only send those receipts that actually matter.
Once the chairs have received your paperwork, they will work on getting you the money. In the U.S., this generally means they will write you a check and send it to you in the mail, which takes time. In other parts of the world you can expect to get the money transferred directly into your account. Either way, make sure your chair has the right coordinates … and will be able to read them. It’s not a bad idea to follow up with the chairs about two weeks after you’ve sent your paperwork, to check on the status of things.
Hopefully the above has given you a better understanding of the nature of travel grants and how best to go about getting one. For some examples of travel grant instructions from real conferences, check out the following:
The USENIX organization provides detailed instructions for the travel
grants process at conferences it organizes:
Best of luck for your conference travels.
ps: a big thank you to Renata Teixeira, for sending helpful feedback on the article.