Thursday, November 16, 2017

Expenses and Finances

I saw this on Twitter and it reminded me of an experience I had when I started my first full-time paid job post-PhD a couple of years ago. Here is the Tweet:
Like many people graduating from University, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, I didn't have much in the way of savings in the bank. I lived in an expensive city and while my job paid adequately, it was a slow process of trying to save each month while also enjoying myself.

For four months during my job, I had to commute from Oxford to London. Luckily, my employer would pay for this but the expenses process was financially burdensome for someone who didn't have a lot in the bank.

I calculated the cost at approximately £2,400 for the whole 4 month period, or about £540 if I paid monthly. My employer had an advance expenses process, but this involved them advancing a percentage of the cost and then me making up the rest. This would be reconciled later. For ease of administration, my employer first requested that I pay the whole thing up front and do a simple reimbursement. I responded that I simply did not have the money in the bank to do that. To be fair, my employer simply forgot what it was like when you were starting out. We compromised, and did the reconciliation process monthly.

The point here is often there is a lack of understanding from more senior staff about the financial state of its more junior colleagues. This applies massively to doctoral students (especially self-funded ones) and early career researchers (as well as more generally professional services). It affects travel expenses, publication image costs, conference fees, etc. I have received grants in the past for all of these and have always had to pay upfront and then chase reimbursement. Not only does this impact people financially, but it is time-intensive too.

The reconciliation process does seem a more fair way of approaching this issue. An employer could upfront 50% or more and allow the individual to make up the rest. Once proof of purchase is provided, the remainder can be reimbursed.

It is not that employers are innately distrustful of people claiming expenses. They have just been locked into a system that has been in place for years. The disappointment for me is that the more you earn and the more senior you become, filling out expenses becomes a thing of the past. Your PA does it for you (at least, that has been my impression in three separate institutions). That means people become divorced from the realities that junior staff face, who may have to forego a conference because they simply don't have the money in the bank to pay upfront and expense later.

It is an easy problem to fix. If the will is there.

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