Blog number 5 in the June Blog series…
Last year – by which I mean, from May 2019 – April 2020 inclusive, I tried to say No. I’ve talked before about how successful that was. The patterns in this interim blog post largely were sustained to the end of the Year of No, though of course in the last couple of months I wasn’t getting a whole ton of new enquiries about stuff!
Now that the Year of No is over, what next?
I guess I’m going to have to start saying Yes again…!
But I want to make sure that my experiences of the past year inform how and when I say yes. My workload issues have not gone away in the past year. While I’m more practised at saying No, I still find it hard sometimes and worry about fulfilling my responsiblities to the wider academic community, as well as supporting colleagues with less job security, power, privilege and opportunity than I have.
So, I’ve decided what I need is some rules for saying Yes to help guide and justify my decisions. I want to manage the volume of things on my plate and I want to make sure the things I accept are contributing to a better world, and not merely to my career. And here they are…
Rules for Saying Yes
at least ONE of these:
- Does it have the potential to improve the lives of neurodivergent people and their allies? This could include fundamental sicentific discoveries that may yield benefits far into the future, not just research / practice / activism on the front line. But I think my tendency is to favour work that is fairly close to an implementation goal.
- Does it have the potential to improve the way that academia is structured or delivered? Examples might include endeavours focused on widening participation for people from less privileged backgrounds, supporting career development for higher education staff in professional services, technical and operational roles, or campaigns to address on-campus discrimination.
- Will my participation meaningfully advance the job security and personal goals of a close colleague? Even if neither of the criteria above are met, I would still agree to things that are likely to benefit someone in my team and help them achieve their targets. I’m particularly talking about early career researchers and students here, but not exclusively. Ultimately, I’m not going to rule out doing stuff as a favour to friends.
plus ALL of these:
- Do I have time to make a contribution I would be proud of? I’m not prepared to compromise on the quality of my work even when the goals are laudable. I’m proud of my reputation as someone who – mostly – does what they say they will and it’s important to me to protect that. One way to implement this question (that I copied from somewhere but I can’t recall who – sorry!) is to ask “would I be saying yes if this was happening within the next month?”. If the answer to that is No, for reasons of lack of time, then I should say No because when the thing actually happens, I will be just as busy as I am right now.
- Can I say yes without compromising family time? For example, I aim never to travel twice in consecutive weeks and to have at least 3 weekends per month with my family. I aim to have a meal with my kids every day – usually breakfast or supper on a weekday. And I want to be available for all the milestones in their lives. For example, my eldest is starting secondary school in autumn 2021 so I am planning in advance to avoid any unnecessary commitments and do no travel at all from August – December that year.
- Are the other people involved people I trust and expect to enjoy working with? I think we don’t always want to admit this, but ultimately academic work, like any other work, is about teams of people. I need to know I will get on with them. I need to rely on them to pull their weight and make good choices. I need to be sure that communication channels will be open and any obstacles will be overcome together. This shouldn’t mean however that I end up working exclusively with people who are “like me” in terms of identity. But over the years – and I am sure readers will have had similar experiences – I have found that getting a collaboration right is a huge part of doing good science that makes a difference. If there are challenges within the team, and no collective will to resolve them, there’s barely any hope that the group will manage to produce something of value at the end.
- Is my expertise going to add value to the project? A really common and excellent reason for turning things down is that there are other, better qualified people available. Its been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the last Year of No that I’ve been able to promote colleagues and connect people with each other in my stead. Often there is a bit of a gap between what I feel I am good at, and what other people might perceive I can bring, so it’s important to monitor this as well. I need to have a clear dialogue about what’s expected and make sure I am truly the right person for that activity / role.
This brings me to one final note which isn’t a rule per se, but more of a strategy. An incredibly common reason why I’ve failed to say No in the past is a sequence of events like this. First, someone gets in touch with an outline of an idea, asking if I’d be willing to chat about it with them – just a half hour skype, or something like that. I nearly always say yes because how churlish to turn down such a modest request. It would be premature to decide on so little information whether I can be involved. Then we have the call and basically by the end of it I find I’ve agreed to supervise a new student, collaborate on a grant or sit on an advisory board. I’d say a whole ton of stuff I take on happens this way and it’s quite dangerous as it means I’m saying Yes not objectively but instead being carried along by lovely ideas (so many of those around) but also a kind of peer pressure / social niceties factor. So rom now on I’ll be practising the technique of delaying my response. “That was a great discussion. Let me have 24 hours to think about it and I’ll get back to you”. or “What a brilliant idea. Could you send me a note on what we’ve discussed and the likely timeline and I’ll see whether it’s possible for me to keep being involved”.