For want of $2.41... some background on reimbursements.

A week ago, I submitted a reimbursement request for about $2200 - I'd just come back from a pretty extensive east coast trip, visiting five different institutions (including the FBI!) on various grant-funded projects. The reimbursement ended up going on five different grants, and involved a fair amount of explanatory paperwork (e.g. I'd scheduled a meeting for project B because I had to be near there for grant A; how do you allocate reimbursements for the plane flight back? Angels on the heads of pins stuff.)

On Monday, that reimbursement got kicked back to me because I'd misidentified a $2.41 purchase of milk at a convenience store as "miscellaneous supplies" rather than "food". This occasioned a snarky tweet on my part about how annoying the reimbursement process is.

As these things do, my tweet got interpreted by some people as I intended - "ugh, paperwork is annoying and frustrating" - and by some others as me being an entitled git who thought $2.41 was worth reimbursing. While I would characterize some of the responses on the latter point as not very thoughtful, I think there are some interesting points to be discussed in response. So here are my thoughts!


Reimbursements are frustrating for most academics I know, and (as always) the burden falls more on junior people than on senior people. At least two people from my lab (i.e. junior to me) responded to my tweet with their own complaints about their reimbursements being kicked back, for similar reasons. So this issue of "blind bureaucracy", as someone put it, affects others - mostly people junior to me.

If I'd known the $2.41 charge was going to be a problem, I'd probably have just eaten (hah!) it. But you never know what bit of paperwork you'll fail to fill out properly - it could have just as easily been the $400 flight back to California. Regardless, the effect would be the same: until I fill the paperwork out right for the $2.41, I don't get any of my $2200 back.

Why even bother putting the $2.41 on the reimbursement? Honestly, I put all my receipts in my shoulder bag and then mechanically scan them in and upload them into the system. This is because anything I don't have a receipt for is essentially invisible and I usually end up forgoing the reimbursement process for it. I also cannot reimburse late fees or interest charges due to slow filing (or slow approval) of expenses. So on top of the stuff that I can't reimburse (like cookies and apples for the lab) I've probably lost about $1000 this year alone, and conservatively estimate my overall burn for the last 10 years as between $5000-10,000. Even small things add up! So I have A Process to minimize this loss.

In this case, all of this was on my personal card, so I didn't need to put the $2.41 into the system. But since I'm behind on other reimbursements from the summer institute I ran, my travel card is not valid at the moment. If I'd been using my travel card, the $2.41 could have gone on there and I would have had to put in the receipt because every transaction is entered into the system and demands a receipt. That's why I upload all the receipts reflexively as part of My Process :).

It turns out I can bear $2200 for a month (although this month was actually about $4000, if you include the Binder workshop), since I'm (a) reasonably well paid and (b) partnered with someone who is reasonably well paid and ( c) neither of us have any lingering student loans. This is not necessarily true of people in my lab, which is one reason why I have another $1,200 sitting on my personal card: UC Davis can't pay for some things in advance, and some things can't be put on travel cards, so even people in my lab who have travel cards are occasionally asked to sit on thousands of dollars of credit card charges. In two recent situations I simply paid for it in advance myself and am waiting for the people in question to get reimbursed so they can pay me back.

I know many faculty who do variants on this - they outrate pay for things, or have an in-lab slush fund, or otherwise help out with money for their students and postdocs.

Of course, many other faculty - especially the junior faculty, and/or the faculty with young kids, and/or the faculty with non-working spouses, and/or the multitude of reasons why people don't have any spare cash - cannot do this, and often there's no recourse for these people or their labs, as far as I can tell. Every institution I've been at has had different rules, all of them somewhat arbitrary and bureaucratic, for who gets travel or purchasing cards, what gets reimbursed when, and whether or not travel advances are allowed. It's often super hard to know what rules are there and how to exploit them in the service of your lab - an underappreciated aspect of professordom, I think.

One person brought up the massive unfairness inherent in the situation. Why am I even getting anything reimbursed when there are starving grad students to be fed?? Well, each of the five funding sources I'm using for reimbursement for this (and my students and postdocs) is money that I received in the service of accomplishing a specific goal. Much of that required this travel (e.g. I did the osfclient grant closeout on this trip, and that had to be done in person). I don't think it's reasonable to ask me to pay for that travel myself - or, at least, if the grant came with that expectation, I'd be a lot more hesitant about taking on the work. And it's certainly not ok for the grad students to pay for their own travel. So the work that the funding agencies wanted done wouldn't get done. And we wouldn't have the money in the first place if there wasn't a way to pay for the things that needed doing. So I'm definitely not taking money away from graduate students who might otherwise get reimbursed were it not for my Scrooge-like ways.

Why talk about this, anyway?

Travel and conference costs have been cited on my Twitter feed a few times in just the past few months as one of the big challenges for diversity in research. If you don't have much money, being asked to spot $1000 (or lots more) for plane flights and hotel rooms is essentially impossible. Even students who aren't massively in debt balk at this! And since many underrepresented minorities don't have lots of money to start with, this burden falls disproportionately on them. That's actually one of the problematic aspects of structural inequality, as I understand it - the small stuff that falls on the privileged hits the underprivileged with considerably more weight.

Interestingly, the message "look, just cover the small stuff yourself if you're a professor" is arguably the wrong one to send here, because it assumes a lot about the situation of the professor. (I know professors who are far more cash poor than their grad students.) I think a far better message is to encourage institutions to pay for more stuff up front.

I've also noticed that many people less fortunate than me (or simply more careful than me) are hesitant to spend money on good things because of the extra burden of reimbursement. For example: one of the unpublicized success stories of our workshops is that frequently we provide free food and coffee as part of the workshop, which really makes for a positive learning atmosphere. But for long-running or big workshops, this can really add up - this summer I was carrying a $7,000 tab for a few weeks until I got the big reimbursements through the system. Most faculty would simply not do this, I think, because of the time and cost involved (several have expressed amazement at my willingness to do this). But it's something that really helps our workshops be successful, thus it's worth it to me.

So overall I believe the academy is poorer - in diversity, and in activities - because there is this expectation of reimbursement for activities, rather than up-front payment.

I have to say that our bureaucracy doesn't really care about any of this. The rules are put in place and enforced by people who care about financial compliance, and not getting sued by the federal or state government for bad accounting. It takes champions - generally faculty champions - to advocate for any kind of human-centric change, and frankly driving change within large bureaucratic institutions is not often very effective or at least requires massive and focused effort. So I'm not currently charging the castle trying to make the reimbursement rules at UC Davis more humane; I've got other battles to fight that are more important to me (and that I think are more likely to serve my aspirations in outreach and diversity). The most I feel I can do is act within my sphere of influence to help those I'm directly responsible for. So that's what I do.

(Not to mention, the cost involved in spending so many person-hours on reviewing every jot and tittle of reimbursement requests must be significant. There's gotta be a better way!)


Awareness of the larger context and impact of a painful reimbursement process is important, though, and hopefully this is least mildly informative :).

And the situation could definitely use some fixing.

I'd be really interested in hearing what academic institutions do well in this space. I know that some institutions are pretty flexible about travel advances, and others give travel cards to anyone who wants them. Some institutions pay for all big travel costs in advance (airfare, hotel rooms). I've heard of a few that even offer debit cards for job interviewees. I'd be interested in advocating for this kind of thing at UC Davis, but I'm not sure what actually works well for people and institutions. Pointers and tips welcome!

--titus

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