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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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