Early career researchers: the hidden costs of interview

Covering interview travel expenses creates financial hardships for early career academics, says Rachel Yoho

April 21, 2017
Mortarboard of coins

Checking the post daily isn’t something that early career researchers typically do. However, those on the job market are often doing just that, waiting (and waiting some more) for reimbursement cheques for interview travel. Sometimes taking months to arrive, these cheques may even total more than a typical month’s rent.

The unprecedented number of PhD graduates is creating a “seller’s market” for institutions offering postdoctoral and assistant professor positions. For those recent PhDs lucky enough to have one or more campus visits, the costs of advancing the travel fees can cause significant hardship. This is especially the case for scholars from less privileged backgrounds.

These high costs, and the lengthy waiting period for reimbursement – sometimes in the range of two to three months after the initial charges – are especially difficult for researchers living pay cheque to pay cheque. The costs for a single interview trip may total up to $1,000 (£780) taking in the expense of flights, hotels, local transport and meals.

With such high costs, credit cards become a necessity. Travel costs alone can push an individual to near their credit limit. Unfortunately, as the weeks stretch into months, advancing the travel on a credit card becomes an even larger burden as interest begins to build.

For early career researchers from less financially privileged backgrounds, paying off the expenses before the reimbursement cheque arrives simply may not be an option. Meanwhile, these expenses are far from the only financial concern for recent PhDs. The salaries for graduate students and postdocs are low, and the costs of living near many research universities can be very high.

Luckily for applicants, some universities contract with travel agencies and advance the bulk of the fees, reducing the financial burden of attending an interview. Having to cover only the costs incurred on the day can be a significant advantage for jobseekers.  

From the early career researcher’s point of view, there are two simple solutions to this burden: expedite the process for reimbursement or advance the bulk of the costs. If you are involved in the reimbursement process at your institution, you might suggest that your department advances some of the costs through the university’s travel agency or department accounts. Applicants, too, can take steps. Would you feel comfortable asking the department to advance some of the costs? If you have a current institution, does it offer graduate student or postdoc travel grants for interviews? 

While being on the job market is loaded with uncertainty, the burden of travel costs disproportionally impacts early career academics from less privileged backgrounds. Decreasing the financial burden, especially for less wealthy applicants, is one way that universities can show that they are interested in the welfare of their potential employees.  

Rachel Yoho is a research associate at Michigan State University.

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