Dividing the bill for dinner at scientific meetings

Did you notice the pained face of the young graduate student when she realized she would be subsidizing that fried calamari, rib eye, 4 beers, and dessert that the professor across the table just enjoyed? She had ordered carefully, deciding on a salad and an appetizer rather than a full meal, accompanying it with a single beer. But now the slightly inebriated leaders had decided that the simplest way of handling the bill was to simply divide it by the number of people. This does happen; it happened at a meeting I was at not long ago.

A KITP dinner

You don’t need me to tell you that this is not fair. But it is a challenging problem when groups dine together. There are basically four solutions: have the organizer pay for everyone, divide the bill evenly, convince the servers to issue separate bills to each person, or have a set menu so everyone gets the same food (though they still won’t eat the same amount). A fifth alternative, attempting to divide up a group bill will be challenging, and is seldom attempted. NSF panel dinners often have set meals in my experience, at least for the one main panel dinner. The very nice dinner we had last night here at NESCent had individual food bills, with only bottles of wine with shared bills. At our table our gracious host snatched up the wine bill. As far as food went, we each paid for our own. So there are solutions that do not make students subsidize their professors. It is worth taking the effort to make it fair. Then everyone can concentrate on getting to know new scientists and talking about ideas.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Scientific meetings, Social interactions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dividing the bill for dinner at scientific meetings

  1. jlarvae says:

    My adviser did this all the time. Painful for us students! Good for him, given that he was getting full per diem.

  2. Jeremy Fox says:

    My rule is the same as my adviser Peter Morin’s: students who are out to a restaurant or a bar with me don’t pay. Not for food, not for drinks. Whether they’re my own students or someone else’s. And postdocs pay for their own food & drink, but don’t subsidize anyone else. And if that requires doing a bit of math when the bill arrives, well, we’re all good at math so we can figure it out. πŸ˜‰

    Do faculty operating this way sometimes get saddled with big bills? Sure, though never more than I can afford. I’m tremendously fortunate and privileged to have a faculty position. And to get paid as much as I do when in fact much of the work of the lab–including the really creative work as well as the day-to-day drudgery of data collection–is done by grad students. It seems like the least I can do is pick up the tab for students. Plus, I benefited from Peter’s policy on this when I was a grad student. Seems only right to pay it forward now that I’m faculty. Indeed, I have to “pay it forward” since I can’t “pay it back”–Peter never lets his former students buy him dinner! πŸ˜‰

    • Me too. I’ll never let a student pay in my presence. And they know this up front, so they don’t have to worry about paying during the meal, and they can order what they want.

      • Janis L. Dickinson says:

        I agree. I pay for meals for everyone down the chain. When people balk, I say pay it forward. It will be appreciated, and fun for you, too. I love Joan’s blogs! What a great way to teach and create community.

  3. Todd Oakley says:

    When I was a postdoc a U Chicago, there was a great tradition associated with the EvMorph seminar, which was a fairly paleo-oriented seminar series (probably still there, it has a long history). A group would dine (at a Thai restaurant) with the speaker. There would usually be 10 or more people. Some experts would order a number of dishes to share. All the dishes were passed all around the table, so we all could always try a variety of dishes.

    To divide up the bill, there was a set price, depending on career stage. At that time (~10 yrs ago) it was something like – 0$ for speaker, $5 for undergrads, $10 for grads, $15 for postdocs, and the faculty present divided the remaining bill. Priceless.

    I always thought it was a fantastically appropriate socialist tradition.

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