Graduate. School. Is. Expensive.
Even if you have a position as a teaching assistant… Even if you receive grants and fellowships… Even if you only buy used books full of very excessive and unhelpful underlining from the previous reader… Graduate. School. Is. Expensive.
Building a diverse resume as a graduate student is an inherently expensive undertaking that requires traveling around the region, the nation, or the world to conduct research and present at conferences. The main piece of advice that I received early in my graduate career was to apply for funding. Yes, good advice. But that’s not something I exactly had full control over.
Therefore, I was (and still am!) constantly looking for ways to save money for research and conference trips. Here are five things that have helped me afford travel as a graduate student and early career professional.
Set up a research checking account. Affording conference and research travel on a graduate student salary is incredibly difficult (and stressful!). And even if you get grants to help with these travel costs, the money often arrives in the form of a reimbursement (meaning you’re expected to be able to spend ten percent of your annual income on a trip and then patiently wait months for a reimbursement check). Get ahead of this tricky game by setting up a research checking account. Whenever you have some extra money (hey, tax return) funnel it into the research account. Then, as much as possible, only draw from those funds to pay for research and conference expenses. And put any grant or fellowship money (whether paid to you before or after travel) into this account. Putting this money aside slowly (and replenishing it whenever possible) can help lessen the stress of deciding whether a given month’s paycheck can support the burden of research travel.
Plan mini research trips. If you are traveling and have flexibility in your schedule, take a moment during your planning to look up archives, libraries, and historical societies in the area to see if they have collections related to your research. I have added mini research days onto travel I already had planned for conferences, fellowships, and family vacations. I do not suggest skipping conference days or leaving your family on the beach to conduct research. Rather, I recommend considering if you can add a day or two for research onto your existing plans. If you are already paying to fly across the country, see if you can add an extra day at the hotel to gain access to an archive you would not otherwise be able to spend the money visiting.
Seek low cost and easy-access opportunities. For many of us, there are conferences or archives we must attend for the sake of our projects. Take some time to look beyond these to consider what else you can easily access for low or no cost. Are there archives you can drive to for a day trip? Do you have friends or relatives who are happy to have you stay with them? Do you know someone else heading out on a conference/research trip who may be willing to share a hotel? Are there digital archival collections related to your area of study? Consider all the places where your travel and lodging would be low cost and look into whether there are universities, archives, or historical societies that contain manuscript collections that can help your project. Carefully check archive policies around reproductions: some archives allow you to take pictures of documents (goodbye, photocopying costs), and others will send a certain amount of material for free. Also, look up the future sites of major conferences and consider applying for years in which the location will be either accessible and low cost for you or close to relevant archives. Most people cannot reasonably complete all of their research travel with this method, but you may find valuable opportunities for little to no cost.
Shop around for housing and food. To be a graduate student is to be a bargain hunter. Spend time researching the resources available around campus for graduate students. Can you get a discount if you sign up for a meal plan instead of paying cash for campus food? Do graduate students get free flu shots at the campus health center? Do you get free access to the campus gym or free meetings with a dietician? When you begin planning travel for conferences always compare the amenities offered by conference organizers to what is available locally. Sometimes the conference hotel is the best option and sometimes you can find an Airbnb at a better rate. Conference meals are often overpriced, and hotel fridges mean you can shop at a local grocery store. Embrace those graduate school research skills and you’ll be surprised how many cost-efficient options you’ll find.
It is okay to say “no.” There may be times when you simply cannot afford an opportunity. Some archives don’t contain enough material to merit the travel costs. And some conferences are not enough of a boon to the CV to justify airfare and a three-night hotel stay. Your financial security is important. It is okay to say no to opportunities if they are not in your financial best interest. For me, this applied to graduate school itself. A mentor told me as an undergraduate student that I should not pursue a PhD unless I had full funding. This was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. It limited my opportunities; I turned down acceptances to graduate programs because there was no funding letter attached. But I don’t regret this decision one bit because I made a choice that fit my financial goals. These financial choices, of course, are up to each individual and what they feel is best for them. Just know, amid the pressures of graduate school, it is okay to say “no.”
It is no secret that many historians—from graduate students to early career professionals and independent scholars—operate on a very tight budget. And every researcher knows how quickly the costs add up. Don’t be bashful about asking others how they budget for conference and research travel. We are all in this together!
How do you save and manage money for research? Leave a comment below!