How to tell a superior you are giving me too much work?
July 25, 2013 7:46 AM   Subscribe

How do I handle someone important in my field who is making a small project of collection data into an ambitious project? I'm just volunteering my time and that's all I wanted to do...

I'm a professional student in a graduate program. This summer block I had off, so I decided to e-mail an individuals if they had any basically work that needed student assistance. I joined on a school project with a group of 4 students led by a professor to do a primary literature search with the goal of having a systematic review performed on several terms and topics found in primary databases. It actually seemed like a lot of work, and kinda is, but it's very organized.

At the same time, while I waiting to hear back from one professor, individual X who wrote back to me and said that I could work on gathering data based on clinical trials/reviews. The problem is this, now having working for individual X has been made me annoyed. A previous student had done this same type of project and collected data on 12 trials, and it took them a long time. However, I was able to collect the data in 8 trials within 3 weeks. The reason being is that probably this student wasn't reading everything and just picked certain numbers from charts (which is my guess). However, I've done a better job at this and done it quickly which has led individual X to postulate that we publish these results somewhere.

Truthfully, I'm getting annoyed with individual X because although he is the director of an organization, he just keeps dumping more things for me to do, and honestly I dont even think he can help in answering my questions to what I need help on. He asked that I collect all the data on adverse effects of several medications but, that can't be organized without re-writing the whole report again. And each drug has a different set of trials and results and different adverse events that were reported. Then he asked another colleague to help me but honestly this person does not want more work to do, and I can tell. So by asking more questions it creates more problems because individual X has not read through these publications and probably can't because this is just extra work (ie some are 95 pages long)

I don't want to put bad relations between me and this individual, but I'm getting aggravated that e-mails for a meeting where I really can't say anything more to the situation other than I'm reading these literature reviews. I think that this needs to be done in phases and that the first would be to collect and analyze the results as a view point than categorize the different classes. I'm kinda like this is not what I had in mind at all, and I'm at a point of just e-mailing to say something... but I'm afraid it may be interpreted in the wrong way.

The reason I know that individual X, is just hanging on my words just to tell me what to do next is that in my other project ---- the professor actually knows a lot about the topic and is able to assist with any problems and a reasonable time line. So it's not that I have two things to do, it's more that individual X is just making me kinda stressed out. He wants me to have a conference call with another professional about "my results".

Help?! What can I say or write to make me not feel pressured to go on conference calls just to say what is not even important. I feel like he's just an ambitious guy or something is wrong for him to make this into something when it's really nothing.. and would take a much longer time frame than the end of this summer to complete. HELP!
posted by anonymous to Education (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not telling individual X that he's giving you too much work, he doesn't have any way of knowing that he's giving you too much work. So go to him (preferably in person, on the phone if that's not possible, try not to do it over email because you lose a lot of verbal cues and it's easier to take the wrong way) and say, "This project has grown beyond the scope of what I thought a volunteer project would entail. Can we set some clearer goals for my involvement?"

If he blows up at you for that, then he would have done so over some other damn thing anyway.

Once you've done that, ask him to prioritize things based on those goals and the agreed-upon scope: "I estimate that these three things I'm working on right now will take me twelve weeks to complete. Since I only have six more weeks on this project, I was thinking I should focus on A and C, and leave B to work on if I finish those. Your thoughts?"
posted by Etrigan at 8:11 AM on July 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can't make volunteers do anything they don't want to do.

Etrigan has the right idea, but it's not your job to satisfy individual X, it's X's job to accommodate you. If you don't get satisfaction, walk. Don't get worked up. You don't owe him anything, and you have the upper hand.
posted by adamrice at 8:31 AM on July 25, 2013

He will push until pushed back. It is that simple. You need to speak up.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:01 AM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would just be honest and say - "Hey I don't have any results yet I'm still reading the papers. I've been through n of them but I"m not sure I will have time to get through the rest. "

You just have to say no at some point.

Whenever I"m doing freebie work and someone is being pushy I"ll usually email and say - Oh hi, Sorry I've been really busy with some other things this week/month. I should be able to get to that next week/month. Sorry for the delay.

They can't really complain... but you have to remind them that this is not your job and not the first priority in your life.
posted by mary8nne at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2013

I think instead of just saying you need more time, you need to make a point of re-establishing responsibilities and expectations here. Even if it's not your fault, being (to their minds) slow in getting your part done could potentially be interpreted as flaky. You should make it explicit (politely, of course) that you signed on to the project understanding that you were responsible for X but are now being asked to do Z. Maybe you can stretch a little and meet them halfway by doing Y; maybe X really is all that's feasible. Whichever, just be upfront about it.
posted by threeants at 1:49 PM on July 25, 2013

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