How I Traveled the World in Grad School

6 minute read


If you follow me on social media, you might’ve seen that I’ve been traveling a ton this past year, and most of it has been related to my grad school work. In my five years as a PhD student, I’ve visited five states and five countries for conferences and other events. As someone who didn’t travel much as a kid, I’ve been loving these opportunities!

However, travel is terribly expensive and I make pennies as a PhD student. And what’s more, my advisor doesn’t have any grants that he can use to pay for my travel expenses. Finding funding has KEY to making this all possible. I wanted to write down some tips because people ask me all the time, how do you travel so much? It’s pretty simple: seek out opportunities and ask for money.

Tip #1: Speak at small conferences in cool places

Here’s the first place where people go wrong. It’s tempting to try and get your papers into the big, prestigious conferences where all the big name professors attend every year. That’s a mistake: your chances of getting your work accepted there as a grad student are pretty low unless your faculty collaborators are well-connected. We can pretend that research quality is important, but the reality is that academia is all about connections.

Instead, look for smaller conferences. Seriously, whatever niche you’re in, you can find a conference for it. Chances are that your advisor is connected to people in that community if they’ve been researching this subject for a while, so there’s your in. Plus, you have a better chance of making meaningful, lasting connections at small conferences.

You’ll need to have some work to present at this conference. Don’t be discouraged from submitting your work to a conference if it’s not in tip top shape. Sometimes it needs to be a complete, polished research paper, but often it doesn’t. Lots of conferences have special options for grad students too, like short talks and posters. As long as you’re presenting something at this conference, you’re set.

Tip #2: Apply for scholarships, fellowships, and grants

Now, how are you going to get to this conference? Expenses add up: flights, a place to stay, conference registration, and food. For conferences in the U.S., plan to spend around $1000. If you’re going abroad, it’ll be more like $2000.

There are tons of different ways to cobble together money:

  • Scholarships are usually one-off payments, unrelated to travel.
  • Fellowships tend to be more long-term awards, where you’re part of a cohort of fellows. They usually come with a stipend and sometimes an allocation for conference travel.
  • Grants are one-off payments for a specific purpose. The Graduate Division at UC Berkeley has conference travel grants for grad students. Professional societies sometimes offer travel grants as well.
  • Sometimes, conferences will offer student travel grants that you can apply to.

I’ve used all of these sources of funding, sometimes in tandem for more expensive international trips.

You have to apply for all of these, so it’s good to always have a written statement of purpose and a faculty reference handy.

You have to google around for lists of scholarships and whatnot. Some universities compile lists. But always be on the lookout for them!

Tip #3: Partner with multi-site organizations

Outside of traditional academic departments, lots of campuses house organizations that are funded privately or through campus. As part of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, I’ve gotten to travel to different states for our annual MSDSE meeting with UW and NYU. The institute covered this travel for me.

Is there a group on campus that you can join that aligns with your research? This is also an awesome way to expand your professional network outside of your department.

Tip #4: Just ask for money

I ran out of grants to apply to a few months ago after my (very expensive) trip to E-VOTE-ID in Austria. But travel opportunities kept popping up! I had to step outside my comfort zone and just ask organizations if they’d be willing to fund my trip.

For someone to give you money, you must provide them value. How does your attendance at whatever event impact the organization?

For instance:

  • I got a stipend to spend a week in Padova in exchange for teaching a short Python course.
  • I got asked to speak at a conference, and told them that I’d love to if they could book my flight and hotel for me.
  • I asked a nonprofit to send me to an international conference to present work directly related to their mission.

Asking for money is uncomfortable, but the worst they can say is no.

Tip #5: Tack some additional days onto your trip

So you’ve gotten your travel all set up, great! Now that you have the means to get to your destination, if you have some extra money, tack on a few additional days to your trip. The flight is the most expensive part, usually. If you can afford a few more nights in a hotel or Airbnb, why not?

To get to E-VOTE-ID in Austria, I had to fly through Zürich, so I added a few days in northeastern Switzerland to my itinerary before and after the conference. Tiny Airbnbs in Europre tend to be pretty cheap; a hostel would have been even cheaper.

You might have to explain your extra time if you have to fill out reimbursement forms. Don’t expect that your funding source will pay for extra days on your trip.