The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel
I travel a lot. I travel for conferences, for planning meetings, for NASA collaboration meetings, for filming, for launches… for a ton of things that are related to my work. I can’t really complain about the travel; I get to see the world while being exposed to new ideas and new opportunities, and to cultures and cuisines I’d never experience in the confines of St Louis. I can’t complain about the business travel, but I can wish that it came at lower personal cost to academics — especially those academics who must travel but lack a travel budget.
Right now, I’m at 35,000 ft somewhere over Arizona. I’m on my way home from spending just over 24 hours in San Diego. For several hours, I enjoyed the productive boredom of working in the Phoenix Admirals Club. This gave me a chance to contemplate things and stuff. More accurately, I contemplated spending and stuff. My 24 hours of work-related travel cost me the tips I left, the insane mark up on the Kleenex I bought at the airport (because of the cold I picked up), and the cost of the coffee that went beyond what I can expect to get reimbursed (but needed to keep functioning through sleep deprivation). This trip, I got off cheap. There wasn’t anything I needed to buy to work effectively while traveling. I didn’t lose anything during this trip. It could have been a whole lot worse.
We don’t generally talk about the cost of travel. There are taboos involved in anything regarding money. Those of us with funds know we’re lucky, and to complain would be to be ungrateful. Those who travel on their own dime know it is a choice: we do it to advance our careers and the money is an investment in our future… but this is a false economy.
We need to stop being silent, and start recognizing that academia taxes people for the right to keep and advance their careers.
I have worked with many faculty who know that in order to be promoted, they must present their work at academic conferences. They also know that the alternative is to be fired. There is no middle ground. After generally 6-years, professors are either promoted to associate professor, or they are terminated. Put simply, to keep their jobs, some faculty must spend personal funds to go to conferences.
This free-to-the-institution business travel saves the institution, and provides a service. People paying their way are showcasing research, spreading the institutional brand, and often recruiting future students, funders, or collaborations. These faculty can easily spend as much as 10% of their after tax income on just 3 conferences, assuming typical conference costs and typical early career 9-month salaries.
Even for people who manage to get funding for travel, the trips aren’t free. Beyond the issues of tipping, replacing lost items (because things will get lost), and random expenses like the Kleenex I got, … beyond all of this, there is the cost of not having access to your money (and sometimes having to pay interest on expenses) while you wait to get reimbursed.
Even our worst paid adjunct faculty are generally expected to pay for things out of pocket and then await reimbursement. Our travel is a no-interest loan to our employers. People who don’t have institutional credit cards may have to fund an entire trip personally, and then wait 30 or 60 days after their trip for reimbursement for conference registration (bought 90 days or more in advance and around $500), airfare (often bought 30 days or more in advance), hotel (which can cost over $500 for a shared room at the typical 5-day conference), and food (which inevitably include expensive collaboration meals). This means an early career researcher earning (pre-tax) $30-$50k might float $1500 for several months (probably paying interest) on stuff they do for work.
And then there are all the other costs: trips may be to climates we’re not used to and require the purchase of professional cloths we’d otherwise never need, it may be necessary to buy a suitcase (and the cost of used is still greater than nothing), and sometimes you just need an external battery and that not-free and not-reimbursed hotel wifi. It all adds up, and it is the price of doing business; the price the business puts on its employees.
As I sit here at now 30,000 ft and descending, I look at the costs I pay to work effectively while traveling. There is my subscription to Gogo Airborne internet. There is the Bluetooth travel keyboard I bought. There are the external batteries I carry and the duplicate set of cables I keep in my travel bag. There are the clothes that are so different from the jeans and T-shirt I wear to work; the dresses and suits and other professional business wear. And there are random things, like travel pillows and travel-sized containers for liquids. It all adds up. It is the cost of advancing my career and choosing not to suffer in the process. I can afford it, but it does mean that the amount I earn in my paycheck doesn’t reflect what I get to keep.
I know that part of the justification for managers earning larger salaries is to cover these kinds of costs. If you have to wear the dry clean only suit for work, you should be able to afford the dry cleaning. When professors become deans, they get a pay bump and have to stop wearing jeans and T-shirts.
But the travel I’m talking about is done by everyone, and starting salary for a professor is just $30k in some fields. I can afford it, but can they?
If we aren’t going to pay our people better, and we are going to ask them to travel, changes need to be made. First of all, anyone who has to travel for work needs work to pay for travel, and to pay what it can up front with timely reimbursement on the back end. Second, we need to reconsider per diem rates in the context connectivity costs; incidentals needs to be sufficient to include wifi. Next, we need to consider creation of travel kits that can be checked out and that contain cables and batteries and all the other random stuff that is needed.
Beyond this, we must sort how to make tipping affordable so the trickle down economy doesn’t trickle down poverty. That maid who cleans your hotel room is underpaid and deals with things you don’t want to think about. It is custom in this country and many others to tip daily, and this is built into how she or he budgets and how his or her manager pays. We need to not punish housekeeping by tipping poorly (or not at all) when hotels host academic events.
Yes, being an academic is a privilege. Yes, we are lucky to get to see the insides of conference centers the world over. And yes, we need to have a discussion about the cost we’re required to pay to keep this privilege.