Academic Advice: How to Say “No”

Blogger Fie is right, the tenure-line academics need to learn to say “no.” It’s hard to refuse service, teaching and sociability obligations when you are afraid to make a bad impression that will negatively impact your tenure application process. However, if you give into the temptation to say “yes” to every task that is thrown your way, you will drive yourself into exhaustion, never do any research, and fail to get tenure in the end.

The best and the most honest thing to do, I believe, is to calculate one’s energy realistically and make sure that one doesn’t promise more than one can actually carry out.

This is what I do to limit the number of obligations that I undertake:

1. Make myself hard to reach. This is the golden rule for all victims of blackmail. If the blackmailer cannot reach you to make the demands, you will not have to take any action and will win time to consider your next move carefully. This is why the only way anybody can reach me is by email. I do not have voice mail and I never answer the phone unless I’m sure that I have a need to talk to the person who is calling me. I never ever ever pick up the phone when I don’t recognize the number. This is a great strategy because when people make demands on my time through email, I can ponder my response at leisure. The pressure of a personal request is not there.

2. Limit the time I spend on campus. It is very easy to get sucked into practically living on campus. In my 1st year on the tenure-track, I would be in my office 6 days a week. Now I realize that it was a huge mistake. These days, I inform students that they can reach me during my office hours and refuse to schlep all the way over to campus to wait for irresponsible students who, more often than not, forget to come by. As a result, I’m on campus 3 days a week in the Fall and 2 days a week in the Spring, and nothing can convince me to change this habit. Of course, this makes it harder for people to catch me and press me into service obligations I don’t need.

3. Don’t stroll. Run. Strolling through campus looking all leisurely makes you look like a tasty bait for people who want you to sacrifice your time to solve their problems. Whenever you leave your office to go to the bathroom, the library, the restaurant, the bookstore, the Dean’s office, envision your final destination and move there as fast as you can without getting distracted. Say, “Sorry, running late!” if people are trying to stop you.

4. Take time to respond. When there are chain emails sent out asking people to volunteer for committees and service obligations, don’t respond immediately. Take out your dossier, grab the operational papers, and try to figure out if you, I repeat, YOU, not somebody else, needs this committee or obligation to enhance your dossier (or to have fun, of course.) Remember that being on several similar college-level committees does nothing to enhance your dossier. Do you know what the tenure committee will say when it sees those 11 similar committees you’ve been on in the past 3 years? “She must be doing all this committee work because she is weak on research.” I heard this with my own ears.


5. If people try to guilt-trip you, guilt-trip them right back. Say things like, “Oh my God, I’m so busy, I’m completely overwhelmed.” Start every conversation with a litany of everything you have to do and end with, “I believe my health has started failing me.”

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Don’t buy a momentary alleviation from a meaningless sense of guilt at a price of your sanity, your research agenda, and your leisure. Just say, “no.”

7 thoughts on “Academic Advice: How to Say “No”

  1. Yes, good advice, but instead of just practicing avoidance, I would take a somewhat more proactive approach. Figure out a service obligation that you would be good at, that plays to your particular set of strengths, and then volunteer for it. Then, when asked to do something else, you say that you are already doing your own pet project. Since you have to do some service, it makes sense to choose something rewarding. You also get extra points for volunteering. For example, I am bad at event planning but good at mentoring, good at writing drafts of policy, but bad at telling people what to do. I work better alone than in groups. Knowing those things about myself allows me to do service that I can do reasonably well, while sidestepping things I will tend to screw up more.


  2. I would sum up the advice as:

    Carry your weight but not more. Say if all your colleagues are part of two-three committees, then you should be part of at most three committees.

    You don’t get much more brownie points by doing twice as much service as the rest of your colleagues. On the other hand you do get a ton of brownie points by doing twice as much research as your colleagues.


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