Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Challenge of Saying ‘No’ to Academic Requests

English: Work Managment: Goals, Unstructured W...
Work Management: Goals, Unstructured Work, Requests and Structured Work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Progressive Geographies: http://progressivegeographies.com/2015/10/05/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 documents 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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