When You Are Too Poor to be the Best in Grad School
As a STEM student, one of the most important things during your time in graduate school is attending and presenting at conferences. Whether the conference is big or small doesn’t matter, because the point is to present your work. The next thing employers look at after publications are presentations at conferences, regardless of whether you are seeking post-docs or industry positions. Employers gauge your ability to communicate science on how many posters or talks at conferences you have had. Conferences are also where you do most of your networking in the STEM field. You can rub shoulders with the top scientists in your field, have in-depth conversations with them, and make yourself known. For many, networking at a conference IS how they get their next job.
But what if you can’t go to as many conferences as you would like? As a scientist of color, financial obligations get in the way of my ability to go. First, graduate student stipends aren’t very large. I’m by no means poor but I do live paycheck to paycheck. I suppose by some standards that IS poor. But to me, having the ability to pay rent, buy food, pay bills, AND pay for car insurance is living in luxury. However, although I can take care of myself, I also have to take care of my family. Back home, my family doesn’t live as well as I do and it’s a privilege that I get to go to grad school and get paid for it. So I have to make sure I set aside money to take care of my family. So when my PI pulled me into his office and said “I think you should go to this conference. The abstract is due in 2 days.” I was excited. In my undergraduate lab, being invited to go to a conference meant my PI knew how I was going to fund my trip. So I automatically assumed that was the case here. Especially since my current PI knows of my familial obligations. So I wrote my abstract and was ready to submit it when I found that I had to pay half of the cost of the conference, $1200, up front before I could submit my abstract. I approached my PI about this exorbitant fee. He looked at me with confusion when I asked how I was supposed to submit it. “The $1200 fee needs to be paid before I can submit my abstract.” He turned and looked back at his computer screen and flippantly said: “Can’t you just put it on a credit card?” When I shook my head in stunned disbelief he followed up with “Well can’t you find money somewhere? I paid for all of my conferences in grad school.”
Now, let’s stop here and allow me to inform you that my PI is white.
Those words told me everything I needed to know about his understanding of me and who I am. No, I couldn’t “just put it on a credit card.” My credit cards were maxed out from trying to put myself through college, and I have a family to care for. If he had told me of the conference earlier, I might have been able to apply for a travel grant or other internal funds through the University, or maybe I could have applied for a scholarship but given that I needed $1200 in two days to submit this abstract, those were not options. I couldn’t afford to pay for this conference out of my own pocket because if I did, I would go without food and so would my family. I was furious that he was so insensitive about the situation. As a PI part of your job is to mentor me and help me become the best scientist I can be in every aspect. You are also supposed to understand that even though the other white and Asian students in our lab can afford to drop $1200 at any given moment to go to a conference (this doesn’t even include airfare), I, as a Hispanic woman with other obligations, cannot. We can’t be mentored the same, and you can’t hold it against me that I don’t have reserve money laying around.
My relationship with PI was fractured after that conversation. I informed him I was unable to go and he was disappointed with me. I no longer trusted him the way I used to. I put my guard up and kept my head down and did my work. I can afford to attend one conference a year because we are only allowed to apply for a travel grant once a year, and even with the grant, it doesn’t cover all of the expenses. So there have been times when I just didn’t go to conferences that I knew would help advance my career. I just can’t afford to pay $500 in airfare + $450 for a hotel room + $200 to feed myself +$350 for registration. Let’s subtract the $800 travel grant I receive (only if I am presenting). I still have to pay $700 out of pocket for a 3-day conference. And conference expenses are increasing every year. Conferences have become a privilege.
There smaller conferences out there focused on making science accessible to everyone. The registrations fees tend to be lower however the focus of the conference tends to be nonspecific. It doesn’t compare in terms of impact on my CV with the highly specialized, but expense conference, everyone in my field attends.
I am missing out because of who I am and where I am from. I work just as hard as anyone else in the lab but when it comes down to hiring me or the other person in my lab who was able to attend multiple conferences, employers will pick them. I will be passed over and looked at as unproductive but in truth, I just have a family to care for that will always be my top priority.