Lessons Learned: Advice on Securing Undergraduate Travel Funding

Jessica Thurmond

University of West Florida


It wasn’t long ago that I was accepted to my first three professional research conferences.  After a year and a half of working on my independent research projects, I was thrilled with the opportunity to present my work at APA, APS, and the Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA). I was extremely proud and grateful to be accepted to every professional conference I had applied to as an undergraduate.  But soon the feeling of bliss was replaced by another equally memorable emotion: sheer panic. How on earth was I ever going to afford all of these conferences? My head started to spin thinking about the cost of traveling to Atlanta, GA, Washington, DC, and the real kicker – Honolulu, HI.

I immediately started my quest for funding and was fortunate to get my first conference covered with a university travel grant through our Office on Undergraduate Research.  Here I was faced with the first of many big “uh oh” moments: my school – like most universities – only provides travel grants for one conference per semester and there is a monetary limit for individual students.  All my conferences fell within the same term and I had just used all my funding for the conference closest to me. Great! Now what?

I am a generally resourceful individual so I didn’t let this setback deter me. My first piece of advice during this exhausting process is to know ahead of time that you will most likely not get your entire conference funded by one organization, so plan accordingly!  You can anticipate applying to a handful of organizations to secure funding, especially when you are faced with major travel expenses and competition with other students for a limited number of awards.  My second piece of advice is that you should not wait until the last minute to secure travel funding. Get started immediately! Most conferences fall at the end of the fiscal year for grant funding and unfortunately this means that funds could already be low.  Another point worth mentioning is that some organizations may only reimburse travel costs and not cover them up front, so save your pennies because you may need to find a way to cover the cost ahead of time.

Student organizations such as the Student Government Association (SGA), Psi Chi, and your individual departments are a great place to start.  If you find yourself in a conundrum like I did, try to space out your requests based on the conference.  For example, I applied for one grant at SGA for my Hawaii trip and another through my specific department for my DC trip.  By spreading out your resources you will have a much better shot at getting funding.  Also keep in mind that each grant application is lengthy and requires substantial effort including cover letters, statements of purpose, letters of recommendation, and everyone’s favorite: an itemized budget. Your school may give you some guidelines for how to create your budget, but in case you are as clueless as I was at the beginning of this process, here are the main items: travel (e.g., rental car, gas, flight), a daily allowance for food (also referred to as a “per diem” in many grant outlines), hotel accommodations (the conference may offer a discounted rate or check sites like Priceline, Expedia, and Travelocity for cheaper alternatives), and finally conference registration. Organizations often offer discounted rates for student affiliates. This amount can range anywhere from $50-$200 depending on the conference.

After exhausting my school resources I still had uncovered conference expenses. I started looking into the organizations that were hosting the conferences to see what kind of support they offered for student travel.  Good resources for larger-scale funding include the organization putting on the conference, individual divisions of APA, and the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). On average most organizations provide from $200-500, and if you are faced with a $1,200.00 budget, you need to make sure you have all your bases covered. APS is one of the few organizations that have a program for student affiliates aimed at deferring the cost of travel (roughly $200-300) in exchange for a small amount of time volunteering at the conference with things like set-up and registration.  My next piece of advice is to not be afraid to ask about funding.  I e-mailed all the conference liaisons where I was attending to ask if there were any volunteer programs available to help reduce the cost of travel in any capacity. Most organizations will do what they can within their power to ease some of the financial burden in exchange for your time and assistance at the conference.

My biggest “uh oh” moment came when I started searching for travel grants online through various psychological organizations and realized that most of them are geared towards graduate students.  I was incredibly frustrated and found myself yelling things like, “What about me? I got in! I’m a researcher too! Why are there no awards for undergraduates?” It is an unfortunate but true reality.  Most travel awards you will find are specifically designed to help graduate students, and perhaps this is because there haven’t been as many undergraduate researchers in the past.  This is something we need to change.  As graduate admissions become increasingly competitive, the bar will be set higher and higher for undergraduates to gain acceptance to graduate school.  We need to do something to set ourselves apart from our cohort, and a great way to do this is by conducting research – whether it’s independent or through a lab – and presenting these works at conferences.

To date I do not have all of my conference expenses covered and I am prepared to pay out of pocket for the remainder; a reality you should always keep in mind.  So what’s my final piece of advice? Be proactive and don’t give up!  Attending professional conferences is exciting and enriching.  I am continually amazed at the magnitude of fantastic research that is in our field and always return home with renewed dedication. Just because there aren’t many undergraduate travel awards now doesn’t mean that will be the case in the future.  The only way to change this is to show everyone that being an undergraduate does not mean we aren’t contributing to the field in original and meaningful ways.  In fact, we are willing to work even harder to do just that and more!


Author Note

Jessica Thurmond is a graduating senior at the University of West Florida who will be joining the fall 2013 cohort at Vanderbilt University for graduate school.  Jessica’s independent research focuses on the long-term influences of co-occurring forms of childhood maltreatment and resilience.  Jessica aims to receive her PhD in School Psychology and obtain a faculty position within a university where she will continue pursuing her life-long goal of helping abuse survivors lead successful lives through her research and advocacy.