Saying no is a difficult academic skill − and one that shows maturity. A previous dean of mine used to ask the same question in every promotion interview to join the professorial level: “Can you name one thing to which have you said ‘no’ lately?” But academics and researchers should not wait until this point in their careers to start practising this mystical art form.
Of course, it is all easier said than done. I am an opportunity junkie. I always said yes for the usual varied reasons: I was ambitious, eager to learn, eager to please, curious and afraid that people would never ask me again. I am still all these things. But I have learned to say no.
Now, let me just put it out there: it’s especially hard for ECRs to say no. And this whole thing that we should enjoy our research time as an ECR while we can (something muttered a lot by senior colleagues) sounds idyllic in hindsight, but it’s not tenable if you do not have a permanent contract. People with precarious contracts, such as ECRs, need to be visible. So, protecting research time is great but not a compelling reason why ECRs can afford to, or should, say no to things.
That said, there are also risks of saying yes too much. Years ago, an ECR colleague was passed over for promotion despite a truly outstanding service record because they had not done enough research − since all their time was taken up by service. Do not fool yourselves into thinking service will be valued proportionately to the importance of the job, or how much you put into it.
How do we strike a balance, then? I started trialling prompts that would help me discern what was worth saying yes to. If the opportunity failed to clear too many of these questions, it needed to be a no.
The first (admittedly clichéd) factor to consider is whether the opportunity before you “sparks joy”. I know what you’re thinking: a lot of opportunities are just busy work and you “have” to do them. Well, you don’t.
Unless you can find something enjoyable in the opportunity, you will not do a decent job at it. And doing a bad job at something means you get no usable credit from it down the line. So, try to find joy in the opportunity as presented − and if you can’t, pass.
Another factor is whether the opportunity is sufficiently self-contained and has a clear end in sight. Do not sign up to things indefinitely − it means they will grow indefinitely and take over more of your time than you want.
A third question to ask is how this opportunity will help you develop community: do you want to be in a research project with these specific people? Will it help you interact more with colleagues in productive ways? Will it help you have a positive influence on students’ lives?
If the project does not create community in a meaningful way, it is work that can be done by someone who already has their communities, instead of an ECR who needs to grow and nurture their own.
Fourthly, it is important to consider whether this opportunity will push you out of your comfort zone (but not so far that it reaches the pain zone!) and whether it fills a gap in your CV that could be handy for the next job, a permanent position, a promotion etc.
Relatedly, I often asked myself as an ECR whether the opportunity was sufficiently “showy” or if it was one of those jobs that are important but get no recognition. Leave the latter jobs for senior academics.
Doing this will also help you spread the opportunities to which you agree across different areas − one of each in research service, teaching service, institutional service. When I was an ECR, doing so ensured some balance and a well-rounded CV at the end of it when I was going to apply for jobs or try to get promoted. I also keep a draft email where I list the things to which I have committed (particularly publications) and have a cap of things I will accept in a year. It is then very easy to see what I can and cannot reasonably do, and it creates an easy basis to pass on things.
When considering an opportunity, I have also learned to sleep on it. Time helps me gain clarity about the value of the opportunity, as opposed to indulging my people-pleasing instincts. If the opportunity is urgent, it usually means it’s more of a problem for the person asking than an opportunity for you.
Lastly (and related to giving yourself time to think over the opportunity), if you cannot form a “committee of no”, rely on your peer and mentoring connections. They will be able to see things more clearly than you can from a distance, however small, and you having to articulate to them why the opportunity seems useful will help you understand whether you want it in the first place.
Do not think for a second that you can learn how to say no overnight. It takes practice and persistence, like any other important skill. So, if you stumble and say yes to something you should not have agreed to do, do not despair – after all, there will be another demand on your time just around the corner.
Lucas Lixinski is a professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW Sydney.