Travis Nielsen is the founder and CEO of Azurigen Management and Consulting Solutions Inc. A STEM project management firm that specializes in linking conservation based science to business and government. He is a published scientist specializing in Marine Biology with 10 years experience in STEM, and 10 years of experience in management and leadership. He has been responsible for projects with budgets up to $500,000, working with multiple stakeholders, large public engagement mandates, and with staffs up to 100 people in locations all across the globe.
Attending Conferences is one of the main ways that academics get their ideas out there. If you’re lucky, your school or business will reimburse the money that you spend to go to conferences, but you still have to put the money upfront first. Sometimes, they will only reimburse up to a certain amount and the rest has to come out of your pocket. I have picked up a few tricks and suggestions in my years of conferencing that may help others plan a great conference trip, without succumbing to the pitfalls.
Plan ahead – Though I realize this isn’t always possible, if you know in advance what you want to do, then plan ahead as much as you can. Research the location, figure travel documents, check ticket prices, accommodation options, food availability, etc. The more time you have to plan, the better prepared you will be, plus you may find deals if you plan earlier, or find someone to share the expense.
Experiment with travel plans BEFORE booking – NEVER book the first option or what you are told to book. If you are paying for things always ALWAYS look to see if there is a creative solution to your travel. Is it cheaper to book a trip as two round trips? A series of one way tickets? Are certain airports cheaper to fly through than others? Is there hostel accommodations nearby? Is it cheaper if you book a few days early? If you are being reimbursed for your travel, then your business will appreciate you trying to make it as cost effective as possible. It can be easier that you think, use sites like kayak.com or expedia and with a little bit of goofing around you can end up doing things like spending 7 weeks circumnavigating the globe for less than $800.00 a month.
Reimbursements and International Travel
Graduate school comes with several financial challenges that require planning and careful attention to details. Chief among these challenges are the two big wallet busters: university reimbursements and international travel. Often these two combine to form a deadly, money sucking hydra. You will inevitably need to pay for something – airline tickets, hotels, fuel, equipment, contractors – out of your personal funds, and then file for reimbursement with your university. Depending on how efficient your finance office is, it could take anywhere from four days to several months for your reimbursement to be issued. If you paid with a credit card, during this time you’re paying interest on those charges.
International travel adds another layer to the mix. Most credit card companies will charge a foreign transaction fee (often 3%), there’s a high degree of variability regarding which networks are accepted where, and many nations have adopted EMV chips (a feature few US cards have) for added security. Whether it’s for a field season or a major scientific conference, you will probably have to make at least one big international trip. If you haven’t planned ahead, you may find yourself stuck with little or no functional currency, and end up leaning heavily on cash advances, travelers checks, or other high fee alternatives.
You should use a credit card to pay for reimbursable expenses, especially travel, if for no other reason than you need money in your bank account for things like food and shelter. If you’ve read my previous post–Credit, why it matters, how to build it, and how to use it–then this should seem familiar. I’m talking about your tank, with some particular caveats for international travel. If you’ve planned ahead and paid attention to the details, you can carry an extra balance for several months without incurring any additional fees.
It’s the end of a long a productive field season abroad. You’ve collected, processed, and packed thousands of precious samples. These samples are your life-blood. They will be the foundation of not only your thesis, but dozens of theses to follow, the cornerstone of a long and prosperous scientific career. There’s only one barrier left between you and scientific glory – you have to get those samples home.
Traveling with samples, especially internationally, carries with it a bit of diplomacy, some tact, confidence, and a huge amount of (often undue) stress. Even if you’re completely on the level, there are horror stories about overzealous security guards, irate customs agents, suspicious packages, and the risk of being detained, having a visa revoked, being stuck on the next plane out of the country, or, worst of all, losing your samples. As you pack up your gear and prepare to board your flight home, take a step back and remember the immortal words of Douglas Adams – don’t panic.