Academia’s ‘no’ problem

I have a problem.

I have difficulty saying ‘no’ to additional work responsibilities. And when I do say ’no’, I have difficulty communicating that I actually mean ‘no’ and most certainly not ‘sure, I’d love to’.

Twice in the last month or so, I’ve sat down with colleagues and said that I won’t be able to take on an additional commitment.

These types of commitments include service to the academic community (chairing a committing or organising group meetings), education and outreach initiatives, or mentoring and informal supervision of students.

I try to plan my contributions beyond research output strategically. I like to involve myself in areas where I have an underlying interest and where feel I can push myself and learn new skills. And when I commit to a task, I try to commit properly and not just be a space on a committee to make up a quorum or a name on a form.

In these recent weeks, I’ve explained what I already have committments to and why I won’t be able to take on an additional responsibility.  Both times, I feel that I’ve explained clearly that I won’t be able to cope with more tasks, without significant impacts on my research and my personal life.

Both times, after long negotiations, an arrangement has been made that falls somewhere between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.  This is a problem on both sides.

From my perspective, I feel like I have been clear in saying that I simply can’t cope. In one instance, negotiations centred around the idea that the opportunity would be so beneficial to my career that it was simply unmissable. Yes, I thought, but I can’t cope now! And what about my ideas about my career future? When do they count?

In the second instance, I was reminded that everyone is balancing complex workloads with life. I would simply have to cope.

Of course, I could have put my foot down with a simple, firm, immovable ‘no’.  Instead, I faltered and we arrived at a compromise. In both cases, I accepted additional responsibilities but with concessions. In one case, the burden was deferred for some months time and in another, the burden was to be shared with another early career researcher.

It’s true that we all have heavy workloads. But if the universal solution to ‘I’m very busy’ is ‘We all are’, I’m left wondering how can we ever communicate that we really aren’t coping.  How can we know if someone is simply busy or if they aren’t coping?

In my situation, I was worried that if I insisted that I couldn’t take on further tasks, my peers and senior colleagues would see me as weak or incapable. I though I would simply have to cope.

With impending grant deadlines, this week should be one of the busiest on my annual calendar.  I’m only a very junior academic, but I estimate that by the time the week ostensibly snaps shut on Friday afternoon, I will have spent around 18 hours in service to my school, undertaking supervision, participating in committees and attending group meetings and seminars.  That supposedly leaves under 20 hours for research for our supposedly 38-hour week.

These two small examples throw out some sticky problems with academia, beyond my hectic schedule.

First, a commitment to academia is  potentially limitless. We intentionally foster a culture of playing hard. You worked on Christmas day? Pat on the back for you, Champ! I was slack and took the day off….

It’s hard to communicate that you aren’t coping, are over-committed or simply need some help, without seeming weak or inadequate or lacking drive.

But the solution to ‘I’m very busy’ shouldn’t be to get over it because ‘we all are’. It should be ‘Let’s take a look at your workload and see how you are performing relative to expectations of your level’.

The other sticky problem is that academics are woeful at utilising the wonderful diversity of our community. I’m encouraged, cajoled and volunteered for tasks with very little regard for my interests or skills. As a result, another researcher is volunteered for work that would better suit my abilities.

Is this a good use of my time or our incredible, collective human capacity? The greatest resource in academy is the people, yet we pay little thought to how to how we organise ourselves around tasks.

After much deliberation (= stress), my plan for my situation remains in flux*. I still worry about seeming weak or incapable. I worry about my ability to undertake my commitments and perform my duties well. I worry about the quality and quantity of my research output. I worry about stressing about a job that realistically shouldn’t be stressful.

But as a result of my recent situation, in the future, I hope I can be a little more trusting of my colleagues. If someone tells me that they aren’t coping, I will endeavour to trust them that this does indeed correspond to a workload beyond their current capacity.

* That is, I have no plan whatsoever beyond trying to enjoy work as much as possible.


One thought on “Academia’s ‘no’ problem

  1. I got a referral to do a video for someone the other week (I think my Dad might’ve forgotten that I’m doing a PhD now), and ‘no’ very nearly turned into ‘ask me in six months’ :/ It’s a lot harder to say no in person, too! Easier when I’m turning down an email.

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