Who should fund early career researchers’ attendance?

4 minute read

Getting funding for conference attendance isn’t easy, especially if you’re an early career researcher. What can conference committees do to help?

Tseen Khoo and Jonathan O’Donnell, who form the gestalt entity, the Research Whisperer, have kindly helped to shed some light on this topic.

Delegate Financial Support

The Conference Mentor (TCM): Do you think conference committees should support some delegates attending their conference from their own conference funds?

Tseen Khoo (TLK): Of course. Every conference that I’ve been involved with has done this, whether it is a series of waived registrations or through bursaries offered to postgraduate students/ early career researchers (ECRs) on sessional/casual appointments (more on this latter point below). In my experience, however, the support is not always publicly announced or an open application round. At times, it’s a strategic ‘rounding out’ of presenters for the event so you get a good range of voices on a topic. For example, if it’s a community arts session that is talking about artistic practice and all the best speakers for the panel are artists with little or no funding, then supporting one of them to attend works well all around.

Judicious offers of waived registrations to local key researchers (not keynotes) can boost the delegate profile of your event and make it easier for the convening committee to source good session chairs/respondents.

Jonathan O’Donnell (JOD): I absolutely agree with what Tseen said, with some exceptions. You might be running an un-conference, without registration fees. Or a tiny little conference that doesn’t really have enough money. Or it might be the first time that you have run the conference and you don’t know how many people will attend, so you don’t know how much money you will have to dedicate to this.

Even then, there are creative things that you can do to provide travel funds. I’ve seen un-conference sponsors that have sprung for interstate fares. I’ve seen very small conferences ask their keynotes if they would give guest lectures at local universities, and then asked the universities to cover the travel costs to bring out the speaker. I suspect some conferences could crowdfund their travel support funds, although you’d have to think carefully about how to do this.

Student Funding

TCM: Would it be beneficial to set aside a sum of money towards some deserving cases, such as a student who can’t afford the registration fee?

TLK: Further to the comments above, I would say that a small cache of travel and registration funding for students (or those who would qualify for a concessional registration) is always a good idea if your event can afford it. One way to win on this front is to ask event sponsors to cover some of the costs for this kind of initiative, and badge the item as the “<OrgName> Bursary” or similar in all communications about the event. This happens already with keynotes and supported sessions, and I’ve occasionally seen it for conference bursaries. I think it’s a great idea – and everyone gets something out of the process.

JOD: Absolutely! If you do this, I think that there are two things that you need to think about: (1) who gets the funds and (2) what the process is.

Are you looking to encourage diversity? Do you want to help people who don’t have the cash? Do you want to target future leaders? Are you going to include research brilliance as a criteria? What about people with disabilities? It is easy to decide to help people come, but remarkably hard to be clear-headed about what criteria will allow you to find the people you want. What information will you need to differentiate between the different applications for funding?

In the same vein, what process are you going to use to decide? Think about your timeline. Ideally, you want to notify people before they have shelled out for registration or made alternate plans, which might mean you need to have made your decision about the time that early-bird registration closes. Working backwards from there, you probably want to put out your call for applications with your call for papers. This is especially true if you are going to link the two – “do you need a bursary to present your paper?”

Giving Early Career Researchers a helping hand

TCM: Could sponsoring an early career researcher ever be a core part of the grant application process? For example, the conference committee would have to agree to sponsor a students attendance to their conference or perhaps even offer them a keynote slot before funding is granted. This in turn could help grow and develop the next generation of researchers.

TLK: My personal feeling is that it might be more useful to introduce support for early career researchers or postgraduates as an element of conference grant criteria more broadly than to specify certain sponsorships. A short listing of potential ways to support this next generation could be provided that include items like: keynote panel made up from this cohort, membership on convening committee to gain professional experience, inclusion as editors on subsequent publication projects (e.g. edited journal issue or book), and bursaries to attend and present at conference.

JOD: This moves the emphasis from conditional funding (“If I give you this funding, you must also …”) to conference planning (“As part of your application, provide details of plans to support students, early career researchers, diversity cohorts or other bursary recipients”).

It gives the conference conveners room to argue their case. It allows the funding panel to see new, exciting, creative ideas. It builds in flexibility, rather than assuming that the funding agency knows best. And it allows for the assessment in the ideas as part of the overall assessment of the business plan. 

We would like to thank both Tseen and Jonathan for taking the time out to answer our questions regarding conference funding. Be sure to follow their fantastic blog and also on Twitter.

About The Research Whisperer

Every Tuesday since June 2011, Tseen and Jonathan have published a short article about doing research in academia. Some of their articles are mundane (How to make a simple Gantt chart), whereas others are more esoteric (Hashing it over) and heartfelt (Academic scattering).

Along with the blog, they have a Facebook page and curate an active Twitter stream (@researchwhisper), which generates a Paper.li publication every day.

They both work as research administrators (Jonathan at RMIT and Tseen at La Trobe universities in Melbourne, Australia), and both are active researchers. While it doesn’t leave much time for blogging, they are huge fans of Shut Up and Write as a way to quarantine time for writing.