On Saying No

The comments on my last post have prompted me finally to write this one, one that I have had in mind for a few weeks. In fact, ever since I gave a talk at Merton College, Oxford, when an audience member pointed out I had both stated that one should seize opportunities and not say no without thinking and that it was important to be able to say no when stuff was dumped on you. I’m sure I did say both those things – and I don’t feel they are incompatible. I hope this will become clear when I expand upon them, so that the two different contexts I had in mind become apparent.

When starting out on one’s career as a PhD student, it is easy to feel that anything but the straight and narrow of research is unimportant, a distraction or too difficult.  Thus, an opportunity to try out something else, outreach perhaps, a little teaching, giving an oral presentation at a conference or getting involved with committees in your department, may feel a bridge too far. Better to stick with what you know best and keep your head down may be a natural reaction. But all four of those options I mention I think should be a natural part of development as a researcher and should be, if not mandatory, at the very least a normal expectation during a PhD. Similar considerations apply later on too. As an early stage research fellow or postdoc it is all too easy to feel that opportunities to expand horizons equate with threats sent to cause confusion, distraction and distress and that is not a wise reaction.

If that reaction sounds like you, maybe it’s time to reconsider. I’d advance two reasons for this. Firstly there is the trivially obvious one that having skills beyond pure research to write on your CV may well be beneficial in the job market as you seek to progress (in whatever sector that may be). But, at a more personal level, if you never try something new you won’t know whether you were cut out for it. If you don’t spread your wings how will you know what exactly you want to do? This becomes particularly acute it if it turns out that pure research or an academic career is not right for you. If you’ve gone into schools to enthuse kids about your project, maybe you’ll discover a career in teaching is much more to your taste than the bench. If you’ve sat on a committee or two, organised social or research-based events for the department or written up some material for the student magazine, you may have found skills that your first (and possibly second) degrees had never highlighted: skills that suggest a new career path, chosen with enthusiasm and certainty, not merely as a mental second best.

I believe, and many previous posts have said this too, that seizing opportunities opens doors and can provide much satisfaction – as well as, naturally, the occasional embarrassment or failure. Saying no because of fear of either of those outcomes is likely to mean you’re holding yourself back. However, there are other times when equally I believe saying no is the right thing to do. This is when you realise you’re being taken advantage of. I believe this is potentially a perennial problem at any stage.

If this happens to you it may mean you are the kind of person who can always be relied on to do the tasks no one else wants to do or, too often, it can be because you are the minority that everyone feels is needed to give balance to a committee. This, you will recognize, is more likely to be a problem for women but it could apply to anyone. These are the times when thinking hard about whether a firm ‘no’ is the right answer applies. I worry about the people I know who seem buried in repetitive responsibilities that may be very valuable to the community as a whole, but that go way beyond what could be regarded as a reasonable load on the individual. Unfortunately it may not always be easy to distinguish between being a pillar of the community and a doormat when stuck in the midst of a situation like that.

Now, it would seem that some of the readers of my last post thought the fact that my life is always close to descending into chaos meant I must be incapable of saying no. I hope that isn’t the case, although I am quite sure that things might be better if I said no even more often than I do. But I don’t think I am guilty of being guilt-tripped into doing the repetitive tasks that I am discussing here. It is those guilt-trips that can cause problems. Comments such as ‘we need a woman – and you’d be so good at it‘ are a giveaway. If gender (or unusual disciplinary expertise or some qualification other than the skillset itself) is offered as the primary reason why you are wanted, no may be the appropriate answer. Except, that is, if it is actually a task you want to do or feel that it would give you invaluable experience. If that is the case it is then I would put the request in the ‘opportunity to be seized’ camp.

So if you want my excuses for why my life is at the edge of chaos I’ll offer three, which may not be convincing to the reader but to my mind explain why I am where I am relative to equilibrium. Firstly, more than one task I took on willingly and with pleasure some time back has mushroomed into a role quite different from how they were ‘sold’ to me. That may be largely down to the opportunities they have offered me to make a difference, as I hope I have. That being so it makes it, if you like, my own fault. I’m not going to regret this fact, because the work gives me satisfaction. I merely note that what initially looked like a balanced portfolio of responsibilities has bulged in all directions.

Secondly, through my gender work I get many invitations to talk to schools, departments and institutions as a whole, each coming in as a separate request obviously. These have tended to arrive long in advance when the diary looks quite empty luring me into accepting more of them than I probably should, but by the time they arrive they are hemmed tightly into a packed week.  I simply cannot accept all of them, interesting though they each individually may be, but I do feel apologetic at the number I have to turn down due to the state of my diary. Both these problems are now compounded by the new responsibilities which I will take up at Churchill College in the autumn. Already there are things it is helpful for me to do straight away to help me acquire a firm background on which to build when I formally take up the reins later on.

Saying no is important. Knowing when to say no even more so. There are times when it is absolutely the right thing to do and your goodwill is being abused. There are other times when saying yes may offer all kinds of experience, interest and satisfaction that the timid who won’t seize the moment may miss out on. Saying no, in that case, may be a grave mistake. Work hard at distinguishing these two types of requests!



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5 Responses to On Saying No

  1. cromercrox says:

    Athene, I have a conundrum, which, as my Dad says, is different from two elephants sitting on a cake.

    Comments such as ‘we need a woman – and you’d be so good at it‘ are a giveaway. If gender (or unusual disciplinary expertise or some qualification other than the skillset itself) is offered as the primary reason why you are wanted, no may be the appropriate answer

    At Nature we are encouraged to find referees for manuscripts, or authors for reviews, commentaries and so on, who are female. We are conscious that women are under-represented in science and wish to do something about it. Of course, to combat the thought that we might be seen as harbouring tokenism, we make sure that our choices are always informed by the need for necessary expertise first, but the issue of gender is never far from our minds. (More widely, we are always looking for people who don’t hail from Anglophone countries – because we see ourselves as serving a global community.)

    As someone who is asked to do things for people who are only trying to do their best as regards gendr balance, how do you balance saying ‘no’ against the need (and it is a real need) for gender representation?

    This is an honest question – it’s something we ask ourselves constantly at the office and your perspective would be genuinely helpful.

    • You raise a very valid point to which there is no simple answer. My piece above is written from the perspective of the (potentially overloaded) individual and how they should make their decision. From the perspective of the person seeking to get a piece of work done the problems can be stark. In certain situations, however, I believe organisations rely too heavily on the obvious, ‘usual suspects’. This can apply just as much to invitations to men as women when it comes to conference speakers or committees. The best that can be done is that an honest and extensive trawl is done.

      I am hugely aware of this issue through my work with the ERC where finding appropriate panel members from EU13 countries (as well as women) is a particular challenge. This is the tension I refer to above between what is good for the community as a whole versus the individual. But ultimately we are all individuals who have to make the judgement call each time for ourselves.

      • cromercrox says:

        Thank you! (I’d write something more, but as you say it’s a difficult issue without obvious solutions, and I just wanted to acknowledge having seen and read your gracious reply to my question.)

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