The challenge of saying ‘no’ to academic requests

Last year Rob Kitchin had a short post on his blog ‘The View from the Blue House’:

Over the past couple of years I’ve been getting more and more invites to do work that extends beyond my usual day to day work.  This last week has bought it home to me that I really need to try and put a strategy in place to manage how I deal with these requests.  Excluding spam, I was asked to: edit a handbook; write an op ed; review two papers, one grant application, and a set of document for a municipality; present five invited talks; attend six other events; and give six media interviews.  That’s over twenty additional jobs, which collectively would take up more than a working week in time, only one of which provides any recompense.  My inclination is to try and be helpful and do as many as I can, but for the sake of sanity I need to start saying no a lot more.  And since I said yes to 14 of these requests, though not the one that pays, I need to say no a lot, lot more.  I guess I just need to say it, but any strategies for handling this kind of avalanche of requests will be gratefully received.

Well Rob certainly gets more such requests than I do – see his discussion of talks here, for instance – but I can certainly relate to this. When I was recently away, I came back to a lot of requests and I needed to say ‘no’ to most of them. Now I’m on sabbatical and trying to focus on writing, I’m being as focused as I can be (see my self-imposed rules, here). It is a never-ending task to consider all such requests, to work out which I can do and which I can’t, and then to say ‘no’ to some in as nice a way as possible. For me at least, a non-reply is not an option.

As an editor I know how hard it is to get referees; as an author I want my work refereed; and I enjoy speaking and writing. When people are putting together a conference panel or seminar series they are not picking random names from which any will do, they are frequently considering different audiences, balance of speakers, etc. One person saying ‘no’ can upset a whole programme. Somebody has to review work, otherwise the system breaks down. So I want to say ‘yes’, but I realise I need to say ‘no’. I simply cannot do everything I’m asked.

In the past, if I complained about how busy I am, people seemed to think this means that I must be bad at saying ‘no’. But I’m not sure that this is actually true. I say ‘no’ a lot more now than I ever used to do, I just am asked to do a lot more, and so the question is of balancing how many times to say ‘no’ with saying ‘yes’. This features in a lot of registers, but four would be referee requests; requests to comment on other work; requests to write; requests to speak.

Referee requests: I keep lists of referee reports done on a yearly basis – articles, grants, tenure or promotion cases, books or proposals. I keep a tally of things I declined. The count is always higher for the ones I’ve done – I seem to do roughly two of every three I’m asked. Since 2008 it’s been between 30-50 review tasks completed a year. These are on top of the Society and Space editorial work I did from 2006-15, and I don’t count journals of which I am a board member.

Requests to read other stuff: I read work by colleagues, friends, ex-PhD students etc. – these are people I’ve chosen to act as an informal reader for. This means my capacity to read and comment on other stuff is severely curtailed. If I read everything else that was sent to me for comments then I would never get anything else done. So, if you’re a student somewhere else, who maybe vaguely knows my name (less often my work) then this doesn’t mean you have a right to expect comments on your essay, dissertation etc. I now frequently get ‘Dear Professor’ messages that have clearly been sent indiscriminately to many other people. Nor do I have time to offer comments on papers by third parties so that people can then use these comments as their own critique. Unlike many other people, I do actually reply to emails to say ‘no’, rather than not reply and leave the sender to work out the ‘no’ from lack of response. But if I reply, politely declining to comment, don’t come back to me to try to persuade me… By the way, there are two very good discussions of how to write emails that get read and answered, and what not to do, here and here (the first led to me to the second).

Requests to write: These come increasingly regularly. And it’s extremely flattering, but often the kinds of things that I’m asked to write are ones I would not be writing for other reasons, would force me to go back to a research topic I’ve long left behind or where I have exhausted what I have to say on the topic. I’ve been trying to decrease the number of book chapters I write in recent years – it can be a lot of work for something that frequently ends up buried in an expensive hardback, and rarely seen. But there are always exceptions. Sometimes invitations force me to engage with something I know I need to, sometimes they fit conveniently with what I’m doing, sometimes they spark an idea I’d never have had otherwise. And since it is impossible to predict, I value each and every invitation, and try to weigh them up against each other, and other demands.

Requests to speak: I really like to accept these, but it increasingly the decision has to be based on whether it moves forward a project I am currently working on or would like to work on. Speaking about old projects is inherently less appealing – I want feedback on things that are useful to me, hopefully delivered in a way that is interesting to others, rather than talk about something that is already out or forthcoming. I can think of only a handful of the talks I’ve given where I’ve not gained something from the discussion, either the formal bit or later. (Those are often ones where the paper is a repeat of one given too many times, where the genuinely original, challenging questions are harder to get given previous audiences. This doesn’t mean the paper is immune to criticism, of course, just that I’ve probably already heard those criticisms.) Talks are often an opportunity to visit interesting places, meet interesting people, try out ideas, give a definite date to produce something by, etc. They often lead to publishing opportunities, research collaborations, etc. But logistical issues also come up – am I able to be there? Can I reduce the number of trips I take? Do I have the time before the event to prepare something worthwhile? Will I be able to see something of the place I’m visiting, rather than airport-hotel-conference venue/university-hotel-airport?

I know other academics have different strategies for deciding/responding: “What’s the honorarium?” “I only travel business class” – both will lead to several requests disappearing. Or they don’t reply. Or, the bane of editors’ lives, they agree to deliver a report or chapter or something, and then don’t. While some people say, or imply, ‘no’ as a default, others find it hard, even exhausting to do so, but know the alternative is worse. Perhaps we should keep more of a record, that is the list of all the things we could have done, but said ‘no’ to, for various reasons. Maybe this would be our ‘inverse cv’.

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21 Responses to The challenge of saying ‘no’ to academic requests

  1. Pingback: Top posts on Progressive Geographies this week | Progressive Geographies

  2. There is a lot in here! The key points I take away are:

    For the requester: Think more carefully before you ask!

    For the requestee: Say no politely, firmly, and quickly.

    I’ve written a bit about this topic, and for me, the key issue is to be clear on what you want to say YES to and making sure you have the capacity to do what you say yes to.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Jo – yes, it probably does boil down to that. The person asked should definitely only say ‘yes’ if they also plan the time required to complete the task – I regularly put appointments into my diary for the time needed for, say, completing a referee request. But the onus should also be on the requester – there have been times when I’ve said ‘no’ to something, perhaps after debating and deliberating, and I’ve had a quick reply to say ‘oh, never mind, it wasn’t that important’ or some other thing that makes me wonder why I spent anytime thinking about the request…

  3. Pingback: Learning to say ‘no’ in academic life | The Sociological Imagination

  4. Stuart, I’m still as useless at this as I was when I wrote the opening quote you posted, and I still don’t have a strategy in place. In fact, I’ve probably got worse – I’ll have done c.45 talks by the end of the year, having vowed to half the number last year! I guess my rule of thumb now (with the exception of reference letters) is ‘am I going to get anything out of the task?’ (is this a paper which I might get anything useful from; is this a talk I’m going to get useful feedback from; is this a committee I’m likely to get useful knowledge from, etc). The problem is the answer is too many times, ‘yes’! (though in practice, the answer turns out to be ‘no’). Thankfully media requests have lessened a little and I turn down about half of those on the basis that others are more of an expert on them than me (one of my other rules of thumb). I’m thinking about setting quotas of different tasks, but real issue will be implementing them. Best, Rob.

    • stuartelden says:

      Those are definitely good rules to govern decisions, but easier thought than applied! 45 talks a year is crazy – I’ve gone up to c. 25, and that felt too many. I’ve found keeping a tally of reviews done and declined has helped – while the first always outweighs the second, it does make me feel less guilty when I do say no.

  5. Hi Stuart, thanks for these reflections, lots of great points. Myself, Simon Marvin, Johannes Stripple, Michele Betsill and various others have recently formed something we call ‘opportunities annoymous’ – for those of us addicted to opportunities its helpful to have a self-help group who can support you in reflecting on what your priorities are and how to say no in a positive way. We’ve various rules of thumb – like ‘an urgent opportunity is usually someone else’s problem – and try to celebrate our success in not taking on everything and sharing opportunities with those who might not always be at offered them but who do excellent work that deserves recognition. As someone who makes requests, a quick no is always more appreciated than a drawn out yes or worse failure to deliver on something that I am counting on, so often saying no early is a much better policy for all concerned. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog on OA, but probably that’s an opportunity I should resist… Harriet (@HarrietBulkeley)

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Harriet – this sounds like a good idea. Yes, as editor I always much preferred a clear ‘no’ immediately, and try to do the same, rather than a drawn-out no, later renegotiation or failure to deliver. (I don’t think I’ve done much of the last, though.) I always try to suggest other people, though if the task is unpleasant or an imposition it feels like you’re dropping someone else in it. After this November, when I’m doing several talks, I don’t have any more in the diary until September 2016, which took a lot of prior work to achieve. I’ve not been on a plane since July, and apart from a bit of winter sun, have no flights booked. I’m going to try to keep things relatively calm for the next several months, with the view to actually having something new to say when I do go out on the road again. We’ll see how well I stick to that…

  6. DrHG says:

    Reblogged this on The Culture of Enthusiasm and commented:
    Stuart and Rob and colleagues in the comments lift the lid on the difficulties of saying ‘no’. Declining opportunities, prioritising current activities. I’m finding this to be a real challenge, but I now ask myself the following question – if I say no now, what difference will this ‘no’ mean in 6-12 months time? Admittedly I’m not invited to give 25-45 talks per year, but there are pressures on my time that there weren’t 4 years ago. Another academic skill they don’t teach us but we learn by doing! This post is definitely worth reading.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for the reply. I get the impression that this builds its own momentum – do reviews well and on time, and you get asked to do more; give talks and your visibility increases, so you are asked to do more, etc. Good luck with the pressures on your time.

  7. Well-known academics get loads of requests and have to manage them – that goes without saying. Most scholars get hardly any nice requests of course, and would love more…. But I think the criteria we adopt should not be how appealing the request is personally, or how it contributes to one’s career, current work or travel plans. Rather, is it useful to others, and do they really need you? If not, don’t consider it. If they do, it is part of the scholar’s job to do it. Personally aside from running a journal I referee 30+ papers a year (not for the world’s worst and biggest academic publisher of course) plus the usual Phds and theses. They are all tasks where I might be able to help the author. . My colleagues use “no” more often to guard research time-I regard any of the latter as a luxury especially during term.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Simon. In general terms I agree, and none of this was about not helping people. As I said, I do 30-50 reviews a year, so I think I do more than my fair share. But research is not a luxury – it’s 40% of my contract, and so I have to protect time for it, in the same way I make time to prepare classes, mark, examine theses, hold office hours etc.

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  11. Something worth considering in declining requests is to suggest emerging younger scholars in your place – and even better if you can promote under-represented groups with those suggestions. This obviously doesn’t work in all cases or for all sorts of requests – particularly not letters of reference! But it’s a good response, perhaps particularly to writing requests, somewhat for reviewing requests, and certainly, if the person issuing the invitation is in a position to be flexible, for invitations to speak.

    • stuartelden says:

      Yes, that’s good advice. I try to do this if it’s an opportunity; not so much if it’s a duty. The Chronicle Vitae piece I linked to earlier this week made this point too.

  12. Pingback: Veronika Cheplygina – 5 strategies for saying “no” more often | Progressive Geographies

  13. citybyrne says:

    Dear Stuart, this has been really helpful. In recent years I have found myself totally over-committed – and it has been taking a toll on health and wellbeing (not to mention family life). I have found that I have to say no more often – and each time I feel a pang of guilt, for some of the reasons discussed above. Yes people need help; yes I can make a positive contribution; yes we need more journal peer reviewers, yes PhD students need assistance; yes colleagues need feedback on paper proposals, draft conference presentations etc.; yes that internal committee needs strategic leadership; yes I need to write reference letters; yes I am committed to social justice and helping NGOs and community groups, and local government officers etc. But if this means that I become less effective at my job, begin to let colleagues down, get angry with my family; consistently deliver referee reports late and; start to forget critical meetings etc because they slipped being entered in my diary – then I am looking at a dashboard of warning lights caused by saying yes too often. I have actually printed out the 5 strategies for saying no more often and put them on my door, and a dear friend – Jean Hillier gave me a 6th: “No is a complete sentence!”. I love that our colleagues are helping each other – the posts are a great example. Harriett’s ideas for a support group are both humorous and important. Simon Batterbury and I have been writing about the neoliberal university – and the ever increasing workload seems to be partly related to that – and partly related to our dedication to pushing back against global systems of inequality and exploitation. It strikes me that the Professors who were lecturers when I wasn an undergraduate only had a fraction of the workload and expectation that we have now – so if universities and academic workloads were able to function so well then, why are they unravelling now? Perhaps because too many of us are effecting working for free, cross-subsidising our institutions?

  14. stuartelden says:

    Lots of important points in here. I think the wider context of this hasn’t been examined enough, so the work you and Simon are doing is helpful. Many of these requests are generated as a response to more work being written, but there are reasons for that too. It’s important to take care of self, family and colleagues in this, and finding the right balance is tricky to do. I really like Jean’s ‘no is a complete sentence!’ line – will remember that one. I usually try to provide a reason for a ‘no’, but that can lead to the request being changed to try to accommodate it, which can become awkward. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

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