September 26, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The power of “no”.

Being in academic science makes me wish for more hours in the day. There are so many demands on my time that time has become the most precious of commodities.

In academia often times there is a drive to say “yes” to almost all requests that come your way. However, that is a recipe for disaster. Most of these requests will not significantly enhance your research program or your development as a scientist or person. Therefore, it is best to say “no” almost all the time when people ask you to do things.

Default answer = “no”.

It doesn’t have to be nor should it be “no!” with an exclamation point. You don’t want to piss people off. Rather it should be a polite “no” and depending on who is doing the asking perhaps a brief explanation of why you are saying “no”.

If you fail to make a habit of saying “no” then you will quickly find yourself overburdened with responsibilities that take you away from what should be your core areas of focus. In the case of science these critical areas include your lab/research program, your trainees, your growth as a scientist and person, core teaching, writing, your passions such as in my case patient advocacy, etc. You must devote time to these core elements or you will crash and burn. Every time you say “yes” to something that is outside of these core areas and hence is not really important to you, you drain some time and energy away from the things that truly are essential.

As someone who is just about at 6 years on the job as a professor with my own lab, I get asked to do stuff constantly.

I receive more than 1,000 emails a week and a significant fraction are from people asking me to do stuff that is not crucial or in other ways wanting a piece of my time.  I get invited to gazillions of conferences. I get invited to write articles. I get asked to be on a ton of committees. I would have to clone myself many times over to do all this stuff. Some of the time I say “yes”, but most of the time I say “no”. A confession: for a significant number of email requests I do not even respond at all because I just don’t have time. Sorry! As a side note, if a professor does not respond to your email it is not that they are trying to be mean or snubbing you, but rather most likely they are utterly swamped. Don’t get mad or offended, but instead send a gentle reminder email.

Of course there are some exceptions to the “rule of ‘no'”. If your boss or mentor asks you to do something, then most of the time the default answer should be “yes”. Such “yes” folks might include your PI if you do not have your own lab, your department chair, a dean, provost, or other some such bigwig. However, I’ve found that I even have to say “no” to some of the biggest big wigs.

To sum up, one bit of helpful advice for both academic newbies and veterans alike is to take advantage of the power of “no”. Be assertive but polite to preserve your time for the most important things.