How to say no and other impossible things.

How many early career researchers (ECRs) does it take to change a light bulb? We don‘t know, we don‘t have the time to figure that out. The truth of the matter is, no many hours we put in, there is always something ECRs should be doing, but simply don‘t have the time to. I‘ve already written a blog/rant about running out of time and “being busy is ok” so I will try to stay away from that topic. Instead, I thought I‘d write about the myth of „learning how to say no“.

This is a phrase I have heard since forever, and it only increased during/after my PhD. It is usually accompanied by the lovely sentence “It’s important to network”. What a lovely couple those two sentences make. It’s like an 80’s sitcom, the unlikely, but lovable pair. Complete opposites but somehow still make you laugh, cry and wish you had the last 45 minutes back and something better to watch. Like a good-old-fashioned, slightly wrong Spanish horror film from the 70’s. Or just anything else.

But I’m going off topic and clearly procrastinating with all these random reference-tangents. Of course, that is one of the results of following the second advice while nodding on to the first one, ignoring it but loudly declaring to anyone who will listen that you aim to do better just as soon as you finish your current (over) load of work, projects and applications.

And that is precisely the point. It is impossible really to do both. Either, you are actively seeking all possible leads, hints, hopes and vaguely relevant job descriptions OR you successfully learn how to say no to the few, mostly unpaid, extra work that is directed your way. What I’ve come to realize, although it took me way too long, is that you can’t have career projects and be picky.

Perhaps that’s not the best way of putting this problem forward. It’s of course advisable to look at each project thinking about, to put it bluntly, what you will get out of it. But there are projects that you will be offered where you aren’t sure it will help you much at all. An hour on the bus (each way), just to meet someone who has worked in a museum may seem like half a day you will not get back. Yet learning how to say yes to these things can lead to great things. Opportunities, new friends and a workload you can both collapse under and at the same time be proud of. A workload which will allow you to say with feeling, “I’m going to learn how to say no at the start of next year”.

Essentially that phrase about saying no is pretty meaningless then. At least in relation to any practical applications of the phrase. But still, I keep saying it, and I keep intending to follow through. Because at some level it gives me hope. It gives me hope that at some point I’ll be in the position to say no. To provide opportunities for others, rather than just hoping some for myself. I hope that, to some extent at least, I do that with my teaching. Provide an opportunity for students from varied academic backgrounds to learn new things, to provide opportunities for them to pursue new viewpoints on their chosen topics and interests. To provide opportunities for people to realize all topics can be discussed in academic terms, including kitschy horror films, sex and rubber ducks. I also have to admit, that it gives me great joy to put papers, written by my friends and colleagues, on the syllabus. Not because I assume that this will provide my friends with a brilliant opportunity in Iceland (they’ll have to cue for that, I’m first in line over here), but because I feel as if I’m one step closer to the position I would like to be in. It means I’m being paid to read papers my friends put countless hours into writing. I’m also showing others, my students, how brilliant these people are and how much they deserve their opportunity to say no to things.

At some point I’ll finish writing a proposal, suggesting an on-site field research determining how many early career researchers it takes to change a light bulb. It will be immensely practical, for example saving on medical bills which result from severely stubbed toes. However I don’t really have the time to start that just yet, I have so many deadlines right now. At some point I’ll learn how to say no.

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