The Bug Geek

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Yes or no?

One professional philosophy that I’ve tried very hard to embrace is, “be open to the possibility of doing new things or taking on new responsibilities“: a new collaboration, a new side-project, a new outreach activity, a new workshop. In other words, to say, “yes” whenever possible.

I’ve observed a trend towards grad students saying, “I don’t have time”. They spend most of their waking hours working on their research, their papers and their theses: in other words, being good, conscientious students.

I do get why so many grad students balk at doing something new: “new things” almost invariably translate into “more work added to an already stupidly busy student workload”. And while I have no doubt that these students will be great successes academically, I worry that some of them are letting important professional opportunities slip away.

I try to view new things as occasions to learn something new, to practice or develop a skill, or to expand my network of colleagues. These benefits are significant in and of themselves, in that they enhance and enrich the overall grad student/educational experience. They also can lead to broader recognition (by your peers, your institution, or potential future employers) of you and your work, or to novel and important additions to your CV that let you stand out from the crowd (and let’s not kid ourselves – the job market is fiercely competitive right now).

I also believe that taking on just a little more than you think you can manage (you probably can manage more than you think) is a good opportunity to learn the fine art of time management in academia. If you watch any professor, you’ll quickly discover that she or he is constantly juggling about a hundred things at once: developing courses, marking papers, teaching, meeting with their grad students, running lab meetings, managing their labs, participating on committees, writing papers, writing funding applications, running journal clubs or seminars, etc. etc. etc. They rarely (if ever?) have the luxury of getting to focus on only one thing (i.e., research).

Those of us with an interest in academic careers will (hopefully) find ourselves conducting similar juggling acts one day, and frankly, juggling is not an easy skill to learn. The idea of being responsible for running a lab is already a daunting prospect: add to that the myriad OTHER responsibilities of an academic position, and…well, phew. I’d much rather figure out what tools and techniques best help me juggle things NOW, rather than to try to learn it on the fly later on when tenure is at stake.

*steps off soapbox*

That said, it’s also perfectly OK to say “no”.

Not to everything (see above), but when it matters. One thing you learn by saying “yes” is how much you really can manage – your own personal critical mass of new things, if you will. No one can (or should) do everything, and your head will explode if you try (also you’ll likely consume too much caffeine and not sleep very well – not that I’ve been there before or anything :/). If taking on one more thing would truly compromise the success or progress of your research – if you’ve reached your critical mass – don’t hesitate even for a moment to say “no”.

If the time commitment or the aggravation outweighs the potential professional or personal payoff – say “no”.

If you have a gut feeling that the new thing might turn into a time-sucking or career-wrecking disaster – um, yeah…you should totes say “no” to that.

If you think it might compromise or strain existing important relationships (professional and personal) – say “no”.

If you’re asked to take on something only sort of relevant/rewarding that might prevent you from taking on something really rewarding/interesting or relevant to your career path – it’s totally OK to say “no” to that too.

Occasionally you might be asked to so something that makes you think, “Boy, I’d rather poke my own eyes out with a fork than do THAT.” You could say “no”, but before you do, consider the possibility (with long-term career or short-term CV goals in mind) that it might be good for you do to anyways.

The bottom line is that there’s no simple formula for determining how much extra stuff you should do, or what things are worth your time – it’s all highly dependent on your own abilities and also on your own academic and professional goals. But, I strongly encourage other students to keep an open mind, to accept challenges and to step outside their comfort zones. My own experiences have led me to believe that it truly pays off in the end.

I’d like to throw this discussion out there: what do you other grad students think? How do you manage and prioritize your time and activities? Do you think there’s any value in doing non-research-related activities?  Can anybody who is now working in academia tell us about their experiences?

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5 responses to “Yes or no?

  1. Scott Chamberlain October 23, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    Thanks for your post! This is an important topic for sure. I just finished grad school (phd) recently. I did strive to engage in as many side research projects as possible, got involved in the university on committees, etc. But in the end, when I was trying to graduate, none of that mattered. What mattered for getting your phd was what papers were actually in your thesis, and their quality, and how complete they were. All of those side projects that lead to papers didn’t seem to matter. So two things: 1) for the short term of actually graduating, I would say focus completely on your own papers for your thesis; HOWEVER, 2) if you are thinking about the long term, do some side projects that will lead to papers, which will get your CV filled out. Last, although “interdisciplinary” and “collaborative” are catch phrases that we seem to think are good to strive for, in the end, and some profs have even told me this, they don’t ever hire interdisciplinary people that collaborate a lot. Grad school squeezes any thought of collaboration out of you too since, at least in my experience, you can’t get a thesis paper out of a collaboration with another grad student in the department. So grad school trains us to go solo, do research alone, etc. Anyway, this is based on my experience, soooo, for what it’s worth.

    • TGIQ November 28, 2012 at 9:58 AM

      Interesting feedback – thanks for joining the conversation! I think, like a lot of things, the extra stuff you do may or may not matter depending on where you ultimately end up working and on the culture of the department where you currently work. Just a couple of weeks ago I was speaking to other academics about this subject while at a conference. It was amazing to me how one person could say “only focus on publications; it’s the only thing that matters” and then five minutes later someone else would say “the only reason I got my job was because of all the extra stuff I did”. I’ve similarly had some people tell me that teaching experience was completely inconsequential for getting an academic job, while others stated that it was their strong teaching portfolio that gave them the winning competitive edge. I guess my approach has been to try to keep my options open, just in case I end up applying somewhere where the “extras” DO matter.

  2. Ted C. MacRae October 23, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    You seem to be way ahead of the curve compared to most students. Yep – learn to say yes, then learn to say no. Knowing the right time for each is crucial.

    I know this was targeted to an audience with academic aspirations, but I’ll add that the same goes for careers in industry, if not more so. Of course, the things that get you considered for academic positions versus industry positions are different – the latter cares not much about papers but a lot about multidisciplinary capabilities and demonstrations of working effectively across team limits. I wouldn’t count out the usefulness of these capabilities too soon – many people who think they want an academic career end up, by circumstance or choice, working in industry. In fact, I know several entomologists who had solid, tenure track positions but decided industry was a better fit for them.

    You’re gonna make a great advisor!

  3. Chris Buddle October 24, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    Great post – a constant struggle for grad students, academics, and (as Ted points out) many other professions. I think figuring out when to say “yes” or “no” is a fundamental skill that can make a big difference in your career (don’t worry, you are on the right track!). Scott’s point is a good one, too – finding the balance between specialized work and more general (collaborative) projects is quite important and will vary as your career develops. In general, you don’t want to be the person who always says “no” to things…that does not make you a team player. BUT be cautious about too many “yes” items too – otherwise you will do nothing but work, work, work! It’s all a difficult balancing act 🙂

  4. Pingback: The work-life balance: How many hours do Professors work? | Arthropod Ecology

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