Saying No, Nicely

I originally wrote this post in September 2015 when I was just a few months into my PhD, but I wanted to repost it now as it remains relevant. I am lucky that there are still lots of opportunities to get involved in different projects coming my way; I am grateful for them, and excited to see where they take me, but it’s still important to learn where you boundaries are and when to say no.


During your PhD you’ll be given opportunities to get involved with multiple different projects; from attending conferences, training courses and workshops to blogging and volunteering at public engagement events. It’s easy to get caught up in these opportunities and sign up for lots of different tasks – but it’s also important to remember why you’re here. You’re here to do a PhD, to do your own independent research, not to be attending irrelevant events or volunteering too much of your time for writing outside of research.

I think I fell into the trap of PhD FOMO (fear of missing out) initially. I signed up for a lot of training courses and workshops and then found myself wishing I had more time to sit and sort through the questions that remain about my project. I spoke to my supervisor and was assured that this is pretty common at the start of a PhD. You want to make sure you’re super well-equipped to deal with every potential problem you might come up against so training is good, but being honest you’ll never be prepared for every issue you may encounter. It’s also very easy to gravitate to tasks which are less diffuse. In the early stages your project will be a bit vague in parts as you’re still nailing down the specifics of your work; courses and defined tasks are attractive, they’re easy to tick off a ‘to do’ list and they give you a sense of accomplishment.

My supervisor sent me a paper – 13 ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’ nicely, part 1: why to say ‘no’ (nicely), and saying ‘no’ to email. Every PhD student should be given this paper!

Here’s a quote from the paper:
We think how to say ‘no’ is one of the most important skills we can impart to our mentees and younger colleagues. Having to do this for them originally struck us as odd, given that most of them learned the power of the word ‘no’ between the ages of one and two. Then we realized that most of us, having learned to say ‘no’ at an early age, lose this power during years of regimented, authoritarian schooling.

It’s completely true! We’re taught throughout school and university, to take every chance we’re given and to make the most of it. This isn’t bad advice but it can lead us into situations where we’re simply not getting enough of our actual job done; ‘saying ‘yes’ too often and too soon can do more harm than good to your career and to your ability to help others.’

So this week and going forward, I’ll be nicely saying no more often. I’m looking forward to being reunited with my desk and being able to get to grips with my research.

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