Thursday, 11 August 2016

On Saying 'No'

I struggle with saying no. I feel like I have to build a roster of achievements to try and compensate for pursuing a PhD without funding. Since the opportunities don't come as part of my funding, I have to make them for myself: interning for 8 hours a week; organising a graduate conference; planning outreach activities for 7-12 year olds. Each has been rewarding in its own way, but doing them while working (and researching!) has been stressful.

I'm sure you know where this is going: I took on too much at the start of this summer because I couldn't say no.

There's another reason I need to learn to say no, and fast. As of this past Tuesday, I'm working full-time. This is good news! The job plays to my strengths, and offers plenty of learning opportunities. But it also means sacrifice: less research time; fewer conferences; postponing teaching for a few years.  This means I'll have to be more intentional with how I use my time.

There's a risk of being too instrumental in how you spend your time to the point of selfishness. I'd never want to get to the stage where I'm only chasing prestige. But there's also a need for balance. So in the future, I'm going to ask a few questions before I take on anything new.

Will this let me do more of what I love?   If the aim of these opportunities is to build experience and build a network, there's no sense in doing things half-heartedly. No one wants to be remembered as disorganised, disinterested, or distracted.  For me? I love sharing my enthusiasm about my research. For you? It might be writing; it be archival work. Either way, focusing on opportunities you're enthusiastic about enables you do things properly.

My second question seems to contradict the first: Will this opportunity challenge me? Will it enable me to develop? Building on your strengths is good, but it's too easy to bobble about in your comfort zone

For me? I gravitate towards anything that requires enthusiasm. So outreach events are exactly my forte. But I'm terrified of anything that sounds like academic competition. You might be the opposite: public speaking might terrify you. In the end, academics need to do both so it's worth developing both.

And then there's the question I most often get wrong: how much of my time will this opportunity take up? It's the question I've got wrong over the last few months: "of course I can intern for 6 hours. And do conference admin for 2 hours. And read 4 journal articles. And still be a pleasant human being to live with." You can imagine how well this goes.

This is a brilliant way to feel unproductive and anxious. It's also a cycle. Overestimate your ability > fail to finish tasks > feel like a failure > place more demands on yourself to compensate.  My new rule of thumb? Estimate the time commitment. Multiply it by at least 1.5. If it still seems reasonable, it probably is. 

Three questions do not mean a perfect PhD/work balance. But my hope is that thinking a little more critically about these opportunities will enable me to focus on the right ones for me.