practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

I frequently find myself recommending the National Center for Faculty Diversity Development (NCFDD) in reference to their advice on how to say no.  If you haven’t seen it, they have a helpful list of steps for what do when you get a request for your time and energy to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with the kind of service that doesn’t “count” for tenure.  After a few years of reading this advice from NCFDD, I have a few things to add to this conversation. First, while saying no can be hard, figuring out what to say no to is just as difficult. Second, in addition to saying no, some of us (I’m speaking to myself here) need to learn to shut up and not volunteer for things.  Both of these are particularly challenging for those of us who are underrepresented in the academy and, thus, more likely to get requests for work that is not deemed important in the tenure and promotion process, but who also might want to do some of this work.  

For me, the biggest challenge to saying no is requests from students.  My commitment to providing transparency and support in all things PhD means requests that come from graduate students in particular whether that is a request to be on a comprehensive exam committee or sit on a panel about work-life-balance during graduate school are very hard to decline.  To avoid being overwhelmed, I consider how much is on my plate and see if the exam or event works with my schedule. But if it does, I’m inclined to say yes.  

My other personal tendency that I have had to suppress is volunteering both in my department and outside.  I’m organized and process oriented, so I often see different ways to do things. Furthermore, I have opinions about things like professionalization, graduate training and mentorship, and diversity and inclusion, which makes it hard to bite my tongue in certain conversations.  Outside my department, I have also been known to offer my knowledge of non-academic research to folks and support folks on the academic job market. Given my experience watching a good friend frequently say “how can I help?,” I have a hunch that many of you are offering up your time, energy, and resources when you should be biting your tongues and being stingy.  As a first year Assistant Professor, I try my best to keep my mouth shut, but there are certainly instances when I volunteer ideas and offer to do things because the opportunity is important to me.  

While I haven’t yet implemented this, the best advice I’ve seen on this is to limit the total number of these requests you take on or volunteer for.  If you want to provide support for professionalization of graduate students in your department, great! Do it! But set a cap on the number of events you can take on and stick with it.  The other thing I would add to this is ask for what you need to do the work. It’s okay to say “I’m interested, but would need administrative support for setting the date and booking a room” so that you can do something you care about without taking on all of the labor to make sure it happens.

Part of implementing this kind of quota system is identifying what’s important to you.  Is it student professionalization? Community engagement? Supporting student groups? What kind of work matters to you?  Whatever that is, document the work you do and include it in your records for tenure and promotion even if your institution doesn’t currently reward those activities.  I suggest this because institutions and departments change what they are looking for sometimes, which could mean that this work “matters” more than it would have previously.  But, even if this doesn’t happen, you can make a case in your statements for how this work (1) promotes the university, department, or your work and (2) supports your research, teaching, and/or mentoring.

So what’s important to you?  What do you want to prioritize in your professional work beyond the demands of the job?  

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