Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Word is No

This article in IHE reminded me of an important point I'd like to emphasize in this here blog:

If you are interested in a research career
And someone asks you do something that does not directly help your research career
Just say No!

This is yet another critical survival skill that often goes unmentioned. Sometimes it is difficult to tell what helps your research career and what doesn't, but in the end, it's going to be the quality and quantity of your publications. Occasionally service to your community may give you a slight edge in the review process, but in general it's unlikely to make much of a difference. (While good writing may compensate for mediocre research, I've yet to see service do the same thing).

I think a lot of people are afraid that if they don't say "Yes" to everything people will think poorly of them. In my experience this has not been the case. In fact, if anything, it reflects that one is a mature researcher who knows their limits and can manage their time well.

Research takes time - uninterrupted blocks of time where you can think, write, and do. If you are interrupted frequently it's hard to gain traction while at the office and tempting to procrastinate. But the "work at night/weekends" solution has its own set of distractions that also make finding uninterrupted blocks of time difficult (housework, family, blogging :-), pets).

To help learn to say oh-nay, I will share one of my favorite Sesame Street videos, in all its 1980s splendor:


  1. While it's easy to fall into the trap of doing too much, there are some activities that I find really worthwhile even though they aren't directly related to research. My involvement with the women-in-teach community has brought me a lot of exposure that I'd never get otherwise, and some of that exposure has been to really awesome researchers who might be able to help me in the future. :)

  2. Oh absolutely. By no means am I suggesting one cloister themselves in the lab 24/7. It's all about finding balance, and staking out personal research time. It's all too easy to get caught up in service activities that eat into that time, even service activities that are nominally relevant to your research (like organizing a workshop).

    Hmm, maybe I'll write a post tomorrow or this weekend about good time suck vs. bad time suck service activities. I'll have a think. :)

  3. Right on. But you should always be ready to make exceptions for things that sound fun.

  4. What John said. Around year 2 on tenure track, my motto became: on top of the research/teaching/advising that is absolutely critical for my career advancement, anything I do must either (a) result in a bullet on my CV, (b) be a favor that I can expect returned/am returning to a trusted colleague, or (c) be fun. [Examples would be (a) organize a special session at a conference, review papers for a prominent journal, (b) serve on the PhD committee for a colleague's student, (c) lunch with women faculty and students.] There is plenty of stuff women get asked to do that are just plain energy drain; if you don't say no you can get literally drowned with service which fulfills none of the above criteria. Extra energy is better spent on research or family.

    Once I got tenured, I did take on a bit more service as I feel it's my duty, but I am still not going crazy with it. On tenure track stay away from unnecessary service activities as much as humanly possible. No one thanks you if your research or family suffer because you have taken on too much committee work. Unless, of course, you have administrative aspirations (which I don't, not in the least), in which case go crazy with service, it will serve you well on your route toward deandom, chancellordom, and ultimately world domination. /sinister laughter

  5. "Research takes time - uninterrupted blocks of time where you can think, write, and do. If you are interrupted frequently it's hard to gain traction while at the office and tempting to procrastinate."

    So true. While I don't do active research anymore I still need time and space to do my job. Unfortunately I am now a fire-putter-outer and spend about 70% of my FTE doing small, mundane things to keep our programs running. Makes it hard to work in large blocks now.

    Like now, for instance, when i should be reading & getting ready to edit a manuscript...