Learn to say NO … diplomatically

As I said in my blog intro, I will post about advice that I’ve heard from numerous wise and tenured women in mathematics. Here we’ll talk about the most frequent piece of advice I have heard: learning to say NO.

In the previous post we talked about the realm of academics where, in order to put oneself on track for a favorable review, faculty must manage the holy trifecta of academic work: research, teaching, and service. If you take on every possible task you will become overloaded quickly. The most frequent piece of advice I have heard is to learn to say NO.

Prof A: “I started a club.”
Prof B: “What’s the club?”
Prof A: “It’s called the Learn to Say NO Club.”
Prof B: “I need to learn more about that, can I join?”
Prof A: “NO.”

When I say under-represented groups in mathematics I mean any group of individuals whose representation in math is disproportionately low in comparison to their existence in the general population. (This definition is not the universal, sometimes the term refers only to racial under-representation.)

Under-represented groups are faced with more service requests than the average faculty member. In some situations it could be for a good reason, namely that everyone wants under-represented perspectives on their committees! In other situations you could be getting typecast as the go-to person for a particular issue (i.e. being the spokesperson for all people in your group). Whatever the case, this means that people in under-represented groups are at a particular risk of overwhelming themselves with service work. Unless you are at an institution that doesn’t emphasize research in favor of service, this can cause problems with your tenure case if you’re not careful (i.e. if it causes you to not accomplish other things that you should).

People in junior positions and women in particular may worry too much about pleasing everyone. If you take on every service request that is asked of you, will you still have time for research? Will your teaching suffer?

Take time to think it over. Of course, you should respond to service requests promptly, but there is no harm in simply saying you’ll get back to them in the morning. In deciding whether you should take on the service work, ask yourself:

  • am I the only person who can do this? the answer may be yes or no !
  • what will I learn from taking on this service? it could be huge or minimal !
  • how does this service compare to my existing portfolio?
  • how does the service work impact my own goals?
  • how does the time commitment weigh against the above considerations?

Maybe the time commitment is low, the work expands your current portfolio, and it’s a natural yes. Maybe the time commitment is intense but you feel you could make an important contribution and/or learn a lot so you say yes. Or maybe you’re already on X number of committees, X+1 is over your limit, and you say no. A person who approaches you with a request may not know about the X number of other committees you’re serving on that semester.

Don’t make the decision itself of whether to accept a request an agonizing research project, but DO simply take the time to consider the impact on the grander scheme of your workload.

Only you are the gatekeeper of your own time allocation. Keep in mind that you are the most valuable when your own goals are also being achieved. Take on new tasks thoughtfully, not frantically. 🙂

p.s. I’ve heard the same “say no” advice in the context of “tips from highly successful people”.

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