The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel

Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.
5 min readJul 18, 2017
Tiny plane flown to Penn State to give a talk. Credit: Pamela L Gay

I travel a lot. I travel for conferences, for planning meetings, for NASA collaboration meetings, for filming, for launches… for a ton of things that are related to my work. I can’t really complain about the travel; I get to see the world while being exposed to new ideas and new opportunities, and to cultures and cuisines I’d never experience in the confines of St Louis. I can’t complain about the business travel, but I can wish that it came at lower personal cost to academics — especially those academics who must travel but lack a travel budget.

Right now, I’m at 35,000 ft somewhere over Arizona. I’m on my way home from spending just over 24 hours in San Diego. For several hours, I enjoyed the productive boredom of working in the Phoenix Admirals Club. This gave me a chance to contemplate things and stuff. More accurately, I contemplated spending and stuff. My 24 hours of work-related travel cost me the tips I left, the insane mark up on the Kleenex I bought at the airport (because of the cold I picked up), and the cost of the coffee that went beyond what I can expect to get reimbursed (but needed to keep functioning through sleep deprivation). This trip, I got off cheap. There wasn’t anything I needed to buy to work effectively while traveling. I didn’t lose anything during this trip. It could have been a whole lot worse.

We don’t generally talk about the cost of travel. There are taboos involved in anything regarding money. Those of us with funds know we’re lucky, and to complain would be to be ungrateful. Those who travel on their own dime know it is a choice: we do it to advance our careers and the money is an investment in our future… but this is a false economy.

We need to stop being silent, and start recognizing that academia taxes people for the right to keep and advance their careers.

I have worked with many faculty who know that in order to be promoted, they must present their work at academic conferences. They also know that the alternative is to be fired. There is no middle ground. After generally 6-years, professors are either promoted to associate professor, or they are terminated. Put simply, to keep their jobs, some faculty must spend personal funds to go to conferences.

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Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.

Astronomer, technologist, & creative focused on using new media to engage people in learning and doing science. Opinions & typos my own.