How to decide what opportunities to say no to?
June 29, 2019 12:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm in academia, in a relatively senior position (tenured, associate professor). I already have too many projects on the go. I've bought out all my teaching for the next few years with external funding, so there's no real way to make more space in my timetable beyond that. But I keep being invited to be involved in new projects and opportunities that really excite me and I'm having trouble figuring out when to say no and when I can/should accept. What are helpful rules of thumb for figuring this out?

I have no trouble saying no to things I don't want to do. (I used to, but I've figured that one out now). But when I get invitations to do stuff with people I really want to collaborate with, or that I think will have a lot of impact, or that will contribute to my future goals, it's hard to know when to say no.

If all the possible opportunities for the next few years were on the table at once, I think I could relatively easily decide which ones were best, and how many I could take on. The problem is that they come in one by one.

Also, new projects in academia tend to take a couple of years from conception to when they get funding and get started (and while that time period involves some work, it's not too intensive). So most of my current projects would be done by the time anything I'm considering right now takes off, and also it's hard to know how many incubating projects I should have on the boil, because usually only maybe 30% of them end up getting funded or really happening. (But then if you get extra lucky and all the things you have applied for get funded, you end up way over-committed).

I also have trouble figuring out an appropriate work-life balance. I love my research and I often want to spend evenings and weekends working on it. I don't have kids, so I can work long hours if I want to. But I do notice it can make me feel stressed and run down if I do it a lot over a long period. When deciding on whether I'll be involved in a new project, I often could fit it in, but only by working longer hours. It's hard to know when that's appropriate.

I have been trying hard to say no to things lately, but I keep second-guessing my decisions, although I comfort myself by remembering that in a couple of those cases it created an opportunity for someone more junior who works for/with me.

I would find it very helpful to hear from others, particularly in academia, about what factors you take into consideration when deciding about whether to do new projects or accept invitations. And how you identify the appropriate balance of saying yes vs saying no. Also, how you feel okay about opportunities you don't take up.
posted by lollusc to Work & Money (6 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there are universal rules but these are mine

1. Is the person/are the people leading on this known to me as organised and reliable? How about the other contributors?
(logic here being that some projects, esp. things like edited collections, can become a dragging-on, descheduled nightmare if not being managed properly; it's a time suck, it's best avoided).

2. Does this project enable me to do something I could not achieve by myself?
(are the other contributors bringing, say, funding, or langauge skills, or facilities which I would find it hard to access by myself).

3. Does this project support groups I care about?
(ECRs, precariously employed adjuncts, community groups, marginalised social actors...)

4. Is there an opportunity to 'nobut'?
(Instead of saying 'yes' and getting overloaded or 'no' and missing out, is there a way to say 'no I won't do X, but yes I will do Y' and offering to participate in a way that perhaps takes less time, or enables me to use work from one project in another, or something like that).

Also, finally

I love my research and I often want to spend evenings and weekends working on it. I don't have kids, so I can work long hours if I want to. But I do notice it can make me feel stressed and run down if I do it a lot over a long period. When deciding on whether I'll be involved in a new project, I often could fit it in, but only by working longer hours. It's hard to know when that's appropriate.

It's *never* appropriate. This is basic labour solidarity. There are people out there who do have families and kids and dependents and a dog and a house that needs cleaning and mental health that gets worse if they do a 50+ hour week. Don't make their lives worse by setting goals for output that they cannot possibly match. Work your 45 hours and stop. If not for yourself, then for all of your colleagues.
posted by AFII at 1:27 AM on June 29, 2019 [20 favorites]

Hey, you’ve discovered the scholarly version of the best choice problem. The good news is that it’s impossible to optimize. So feel free to read a bit on it and pick any heuristic that you like and you’ll be alright.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire” right? It doesn’t just mean I’m busy, it means I have different things heating up at different rates. It means that I can shuffle an interesting one to a hotter spot and an annoying one over to the cooler spot for now.

When I look at successful full professors involved in lots of projects, they range from big things that get daily attention to minor one-offs that get a few hours a month.

Sure: say no to stuff you don’t want to do, but there’s a lot of ‘yes and/but’ answers that show your interest without necessarily committing much time right now. Maybe it’s a good fit for one of your students and won’t take your time at all. Maybe after a few monthly updates you say you’re happy to have been part of the discussion but you now should bow out. Maybe it’s your next big thing etc: this is far from binary in/out, it’s how much you’re in for.

Finally, where are your peer mentors? Every department I’ve been in has someone at your stage and someone a few years ahead with a big lab running smoothly. Find that lady and ask her, she can probably give better advice for your field and school than we can.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:53 AM on June 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

A framing that might be helpful: you are saying no, but not in a conscious way. When you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else: leisure time, relaxation, teaching, friendships, reading for pleasure, exercise, doing your best work on another project, something.

So you’re not having a hard time saying no. You’re having a hard time accepting your own limitations and making explicit choices.

Maybe spend some time journaling about your values and how you want to live your life. Does it match what you are doing? What needs to happen for you to bridge the gap?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:29 AM on June 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Try out the should i do this project Glitch site!
posted by quiet coyote at 11:51 AM on June 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you supervise any junior researchers? Grad students, postdocs, etc? If so, involving them as the point person or lead in new projects/collaboration is a way to participate in new projects with a lot less time commitment for you. They do the heavy lifting with you in an advisory role. Of course your collaborators need to be amenable, and you need to ensure that junior people get appropriate credit for their work. This is a common scenario in my workplace- senior person gets invited, they join project along with a junior colleague who will play a more active role. Done properly, it's a win for all sides.
posted by emd3737 at 8:37 PM on June 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Post this question on:

thefora a replacement for which is shutting down :<
posted by lalochezia at 8:40 PM on June 29, 2019

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