Friday, April 30, 2010

Should There Be a "PostDoc Registration" Rate?

Most every computer science conference has (at least) two rates for registration:  students and other.  Ostensibly, this is because we want to encourage student attendance at conferences.  While it's not often put in these terms, it should be said that this is part of the reason registration fees seem so high:  non-students are effectively subsidizing students.  (Which, I think, is fine.)

What about post-docs?  I've had this question in the past when I was running local arrangements for a conference and have unsurprisingly heard it come up again recently. 

I've looked around and, as far as I can tell, separate registration rates for post-docs don't appear common.  I don't think any of the conferences I regularly participate in have them.  If you know of conferences that do, please comment. 

Since CS seems increasingly to be moving to a state where postdocs will be common -- possibly the norm -- this seems to be a question worth considering.  The problem is there is a big range in postdocs.  We'd like to charge postdocs with money (such as, say, postdocs in research labs that pay for conference travel) the full rate to keep standard registration rates low, but we'd like to charge postdocs that don't have specific travel money less so as to encourage their attendance (and not burden them financially).  While it would be nice to have two different postdoc rates -- postdocs with money and postdocs without -- I don't think that would go over well with conference organizers or the people who could pay for postdocs. 

The default we seem to have wandered into is that postdocs are charged the full rate, but I'm unconvinced that the system ended up that way because of careful thought.  Perhaps it is because until recently postdocs have been relatively rare.  It seems a question worth revisiting.  Any opinions? 


Anonymous said...

The system might be ok the way it is for the following reason: if you are an academic postdoc that has, say, $1500 per year to spend on travel, you simply cannot pay the $500 registration fee for STOC or SODA.

So, what I would do/have done, is to register as a student. No one really checks. However, when I was a postdoc from a place with a lot of money, I always paid the regular fee. (Just don't be strict about poor postdocs paying the student rate, and don't be strict about local people coming to a conference without paying.)

Anonymous said...

Create a formal way for postdocs to ask for student rate (i.e., by writing the organizers and explaining their situation). That way, industry postdocs still pay the full rate but everyone else gets the lower rate.

Anonymous said...

I don't know of a CS conference, but there are certainly conferences that offer a postdoc rate

Lev Reyzin said...

Perhaps a good rate to charge postdocs would be the rate one would be charged if his/her registration were not used to subsidize students, nor be subsidized by anyone else. This somehow seems fair.

Shirish said...

I think this is a great idea, and hope is taken up seriously.

If a postdoc is an author on a paper presented at the conference there should be a slight subsidy, and if the postdoc is attending even otherwise the subsidy should be significant.

Ofcourse you can save money by not giving lunch tickets, no CDS, no t-shirts etc. Encouraging postdoc interaction should be a GOOD thing.

Paul Beame said...

For several, years NEC donated money to STOC specifically on the condition that it be used to reduce the rates for postdocs. During that time there were separate reduced postdoc rates.

One difficulty in justifying continuing this in the absence of such an incentive is that the notion of postdocs as a single group with common needs is not accurate. Some industry postdocs pay much more than many faculty positions. NSF Math Science postdocs and the new Simons postdocs have very substantial research/travel allowances. On the other hand, many other academic postdoc positions pay much less and don't have anything like such benefits.

It does seem appropriate that we allow postdocs to ask for travel support in the same way as students can. If they can justify the need then it seems appropriate to try to support them.

Cara said...

It's not easy when you get into who should pay more and who less based on financial burden. It's not just an issue of post-docs. Isn't the issue that of anyone who has to pay their own way versus those who have a company or university that pays it for them?

Andrew said...

Generally, I'm not okay with postdocs (or students) getting a subsidized rate, since the subsidy seems to come disproportionately from people like me: professors with limited research funding, who can only afford to send themselves and/or one student to a conference.

In my perfect world, everyone would be charged the same amount for registration, and travel grants would be awarded on a case-by-case basis.

Paul Beame said...

BTW: Except for the "non-member" and "late registration" rates the notion that any one group of attendees "subsidizes" another is not really accurate. Student registrations pay for almost all of the "marginal cost" of their conference attendance (and any difference is more than made up by donations). However, the fixed costs are not apportioned to them. If the students simply did not attend then it would increase the marginal cost of some items for everyone else (because of bulk discounts) and our hotel rates would be significantly higher.

Jeffe said...

I'd love to see computer science adopt the mathematics model for registration fees. In addition to the standard registration fee, there is a "student/hardship" registration fee, which covers students, postdocs without travel budgets, teaching faculty without research money, adjunct faculty (who typically have trouble affording macaroni and cheese, much less conference travel), retired mathematicians, and people off the street. And it's usually on the honor system; if you need the hardship rate, just pay it.

Of course, I'd also like to see computer science adopt the actual registration fees as well. Regional AMS conferences (with 14 parallel sessions, 10 invited plenary talks, and 500+ participants, but no banquet or proceedings) charge $25 regular, $5 student/hardship.

Anonymous said...

It is an important problem. Students don't necessarily need a student rate, if their advisors can afford it. But when postdocs can't afford to submit papers to our top conferences, we are all losing out.

One of the easiest solutions is to keep conferences expenses low. Sometimes the local organizers do a great job with this, but other times it doesn't seem to be a priority.

Anonymous said...

The increasing reliance on postdocs is a sign that the CS PhD market is flooded. Not every CS PhD that wants to be in academia will end up in academia, so at some stage you will have to be bumped from the line.

Maybe the fact that you've had to take a postdoc that doesn't cover your travel expenses well is a nudge from the academic universe trying to bump you off?

M said...

I think what you've got to ask is why there are two levels to begin with. After all, I'd wager that, in most cases, a student is not going to be paying his or her own way. The research group does it. Granted, the one time I went as a student, my group didn't pay jack, but I think that was more unusual than not. Also note that the student fees are often offset by subsidizes from the organization, making matters even more confusing.

I've always assumed students are less so that groups aren't as picky about sending them, boosting both early participation and numbers in general. If this is the goal, giving postdocs a different rate would be ludicrous, since postdocs aren't going to have the same will-I/won't-I uses that an unpublished doctoral student would.

If it's a matter of raw income, then I suppose that could be justified, though you might encounter the situation where a postdoc from a well-funded department saves that department a few hundred dollar while raising the rates for folks in private industry who increasingly have to pay their own way. (I did so for the vast majority of my conferences, although I was, admittedly, making more than postdoc at the time).

In the grand scheme of things, though, even for an "expensive" conference like ISIT, fees account for only a portion of overall costs once you factor in travel costs (flight, hotel, etc.), assuming you aren't lucky enough to get a local conference (ISIT 2012 for you, for example). Even doubling up on rooms, there's only so low you can go. So I'd suspect the only affect of lowering postdoc prices would be to bring in the few half-interested postdocs from cash-poor groups who happen to be local. Considering the loss of income, that's not exactly a huge gain. Providing a way to give a grant to such local, unfunded postdocs would be far cheaper. And since there will be relatively few of them, there wouldn't be as much additional paperwork as for, say, a student subsidy.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe the fact that you've had to take a postdoc that doesn't cover your travel expenses well is a nudge from the academic universe trying to bump you off? "

What a totally creepy and obnoxious/arrogant thing to say! Are you saying that these people shouldn't attend conferences? That they won't be benefited by them? Even if they go outside academia, doesn't mean they wouldn't benefit from a particular conference. You can isolate academia even more, but that is not good for them either.

Also, one problem with such a statement is that many of the people who are now "flooding" the market are a lot more qualified to be professors than many people who are currently professors. So why should they stop educating themselves and participating in research if that is what they want to do?

Anyway, this comment was likely from someone who is just worried about the threat to their own position imposed by the "flood" of people with poorly funded postdoc positions.

Anonymous said...

There should be a general push in TCS to actually have affordable conferences. If that means no banquet, no expensive lunches, so be it.

They should be held in the winter and summer at universities that are accessible from large metro areas.

Anonymous said...

Leo R:

Why is your notion "more fair"? The point is to help the postdocs be able to attend. If they can't afford even with the "more fair" rate, then why is it fair? How are we helping them?

Making sure everyone pays the same dollar amount is surely not an efficient use of time ...

Jeffe said...

"Maybe the fact that you've had to take a postdoc that doesn't cover your travel expenses well is a nudge from the academic universe trying to bump you off?"

I had an NSF postdoc, which is generally considered a rather high honor. It only paid about $36k, with no additional travel budget; I paid for my own travel anyway.

In other words: Screw you and the horse you rode in on, you arrogant twit.

Anonymous said...

According to Paul Beame's earlier comment, NSF math science postdocs have good travel funding.

I certainly wasn't aware of that. Has the situation changed recently?

Shirish said...

"Maybe the fact that you've had to take a postdoc that doesn't cover your travel expenses well is a nudge from the academic universe trying to bump you off?"

Lol!!!....maybe we should have right to research document, what say Sir!!!.

steve said...

This is in response to the statement that non-student rates are "effectively subsidizing" students.

I'd argue instead that the attendance of students lavishly subsidizes the egos of the non-student attendees.

Imagine a world where conference attendance didn't cost $500, and where catered meals in beautiful $200/night/room hotels seemed strange and unusual.

I don't think that anyone needs these perks in order to enjoy talks and meeting with peers. The marginal income (here defined as the part of your income above the poverty level) of students is several orders of magnitude smaller than that of faculty, and they are perhaps less accustomed to such niceties. When you look at conference costs (even accounting for student/faculty rates) divided by this marginal income, who is subsidizing whose needs, exactly?

What marginal fraction of your income do you spend to attend such a conference? Divide that by the fraction for a student. If greater than 1, you're subsidizing students. If not, they're "effectively subsidizing" you.

In order not to come across as being too negative (and, with full disclosure, since my conference expenses have been completely funded by my advisor via the american taxpayer), I'll make a positive suggestion: how about making conferences more about academic concerns and less about financial ones?

Ideal: pretty much anyone off the street can afford to show up and listen to talks. This is ideal because academia should be about communicating ideas.

Book an auditorium (or room) or three at the local university over the weekend. Let everyone make their own hotel and eating arrangements. It shouldn't be a big deal.

It's about the science, right?

Anonymous said...

NSF math science postdocs have good travel funding.

I certainly wasn't aware of that. Has the situation changed recently?

The NSF Math Sciences Postdoc solicitation dated 2008 lists the stipend which includes:
$5K per month for 2 years, $10K for travel and other direct research costs (over 2 years), and $5K overhead to the host institution.

For the second item the details are:
"A research allowance of $10,000 is paid as a lump sum to the Fellow ... for expenses directly related to the conduct of the research, such as materials and supplies, subscription fees and recovery costs for databases, travel, and publication expenses. The Fellow should keep records to document the expenditures."