Just say “No”

Ha! I can’t believe I’m writing about this, but I think it’s important for those who are beginning a new chapter in their professional journey: a first tenure-track job, a new post-doc, a first/second year grad student. Learning to say “No” is a difficult lesson to learn, in part because we think it conveys too much finality about your involvement, and also because really, some of those opportunities sound very interesting. Unfortunately, oftentimes we are at the cusp of receiving some very bad news when we’ve realized we said “Yes” one too many times.

When I joined our faculty, the provost and president welcomed us with a free breakfast and a serious message: we value the teacher-scholar model at this institution. Research and teaching get priority here. Message received. However, it was 7 a.m. So, within one year of joining the faculty in my department, I had committed myself to two departmental committees, one university committee, two independent study courses, and advising one masters student. Yes. Yes. Ridiculous. I know. But I didn’t realize that as I was saying “Yes” to all these things, I was also saying “No” to other more important things. In that first year, I was also teaching three new-for-me courses with nearly 200 students in total, each semester. In that first year, I was also a mom for the very first time in a new marriage in a new town of a new state. I know. I had you at “two departmental committees” — this was way too much for any one person to handle, but did I change in year two? You betcha I didn’t. I added a two hour commute and took on advising undergraduate students…

As you can imagine, my first and second year reviews from the chair and tenured faculty were horrendous, but it fell on deaf ears. Afterall, I was doing so much for the department and the university — doesn’t that count for something? The answer: Not so much. At the start of my third year, my chair sat me down and we had The Talk. I needed to focus on research. My teaching could use some improving. Research and teaching should be my priority and nothing more. I realized then what I should have known all along: I said “Yes” to low-priorities when I should have been saying “No.” After The Talk and a box of chocolates to calm my nerves, I cleared my calendar and started all over again. After months of saying “No” and focusing on the high-priorities, my back-burner research projects turned into articles, the thesis projects of my masters students helped keep my research program alive while I worked fastidiously on an award for an undergradaute research program targeting Pacific Islanders. Whatever time I had left, I spent in crafting my lectures. Every so often, I felt left out of the activities I used to do, but I told myself that later I’ll have time to do them. I learned to say “No” in a most respectful way and since then, I have learned to be more discerning about the commitments I make.

If your chair, advisor, mentor, colleague, fellow student or friend requests your participation in something apart from what is highly valued in that particular chapter of your professional life, you should *take a moment* before you respond. Give yourself enough time to weigh the benefits and effects on your priorities before you commit that precious amount of time. Learn to say, “That sounds very interesting — can I get back to you in a couple of days?” This move not only gives you a chance to analyze the situation, but it also shows that you are thoughtful about the things you do. Remind yourself, when you’re feeling like you are letting go of an opportunity, that it is okay to *wait until you can confidently say that you are contributing successfully to what is highly valued.* There will always be plenty of “other things” to do and you will have plenty of opportunities to say “Yes,” but only if you learn in the beginning to focus on the things that matter most and just say “No, not right now” to all the rest.

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2 Responses to Just say “No”

  1. moorekwesi says:

    I have similar experience as a graduate student and really glad to read this article. Sometimes, I feel I’m letting friends down by ignoring invitations, especially when invitations keep coming for weddings, house-warming, birthdays, etc.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. Mason Porter says:

    The people making the requests also need to be better about not being abusive of faculty (especially new faculty). They often put social pressure on people to say ‘yes’ even though they know these priorities well. From the description above, it sounds like some of the requests were from the same people who later criticized.

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