When to say no?

Criteria for saying no: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you always should do something

noMost of our discussions in academia are about what we should do. However, it can be just as helpful to reflect on whether or why we should not do things. Most of us have the tendency to commit to things too easily. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you always should do something. Here is a very nice Guardian article about applying this in your daily life: Tame our inner ‘chimp’ and embrace the power of ‘no’.

In the world of academia, some tasks are plainly unavoidable, but all of us get many requests that are to a large extent discretionary: participate in a new project, contribute to an edited volume or handbook, speak at a conference, give a seminar at another university, be an external examiner, do reviews, write references, supervise a student, organise a conference, be part of a committee, etc. etc.

Yes, it is absolutely the right thing to say yes to many of these, especially if you are at an early stage in your career and still need to establish yourself. Many of these things are also simply part of our "professional citizenship"; without them academic life would drown in a sea of egocentrism. But saying yes to everything might lead to instant burn-out (see also How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia).

So think before saying yes: is this right for me at this stage of my career? Remember many of these requests will come back again and again, so don't feel you are missing out if you say no on this occasion. Are you in fact the best person to do this? Maybe someone would do this particular job much better and enjoy it much more?

Five key tips

In addition, I have found these recommendations to be useful when handling requests for my time.

  • Have a list of acceptance criteria: Have your list of criteria for deciding what requests to accept. Early on in your career many of these criteria might be related to building up your academic portfolio. When you are more established you can be a bit pickier. My current list of criteria is activities that: a. are intrinsically meaningful to me, b. I enjoy doing, c. involve something I haven't done before, d. in some way help those who are important to me. 
  • Avoid chronic over-commitment: Once you really do need to make a decision to commit serious resources to a particular project (research, academic service function, PhD supervision) take a day to carefully scope what would be involved. Then think about it for 3 days before you make a decision. Most of us commit too easily to a project thinking that we will find the time somehow. Seriously scoping a project often gives you a clearer idea of what the project might involve.
  • Ask around and be mindful of gender differences: If you are uncertain whether some task that you are asked to do can really be expected of you, ask around with your colleagues (and read Would you ask a male academic the same question?). Women in particular often just take on extra work without speaking up. Senior managers sense this intuitively. They don’t typically overload you consciously, but in my experience women often end up with more work than men simply because they don’t complain, don’t say no, and often do the job very conscientiously (thus getting even more work). A lot of their work tends to be in the "Wives of the Organization" category, i.e. essential for the smooth running of an organization, but not highly visible.
  • Have standard refusal emails for requests for e.g. reviews, references, committee memberships, and public appearances. Only say yes because you want to or have a very good reason for it, not because you don’t dare to say no. But do say no nicely; I always respond to requests and always explain why I say no. Yes it does take time, but it is about being respectful to others and building relationships. Iain Hay's excellent book How to be an Academic Superhero has a useful table with sample phrases for common requests. You can find the table on Google Books, but I would really recommend reading the entire book.
  • Could this be a welcome career development opportunity for someone else? As a senior academic with a prominent public profile I get many invitations to speak, be on editorial boards, co-author papers, get involved in funding applications, be an examiner or referee, or contribute in other ways to our academic community. Sometimes I get several of these requests in a week. By necessity, I need to say no to most of them. However, I always ask myself: do I know of anyone in my network that might actively relish this opportunity for their own learning or career development. That way, rather than disappointing the asker, I can make both them and one of my colleagues or mentees happy.

Much of what I recommend above in fact boils down to taking a pro-active approach to your own academic career: Be proactive, resilient & realistic! For more advice see this excellent summary by Anton Pottegård.

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