Krysten Blackstone |


The academic world is full of thankless tasks, administrative roles, organising committees, meetings about what will be said in future meetings, and never-ending opportunities for you to spend a lot of time doing countless things that are not your PhD.

I am the queen of non-chapter writing PhD activities.  I have a full page on my CV dedicated to exclusively to committee roles I’ve taken on.  I jump at the opportunity to organise literally anything.  You say responsibility, and I am already signing my name on the dotted line.   However, no matter how much you (I) convince yourself (myself) otherwise, there is a limit to your (my) time.  Saying ‘no’ is often necessary.

To be clear, I write this as someone who is genuinely terrible at saying no, professionally and socially.  I am neither good at it, nor do I enjoy doing it.  How bad I am at it has been a running joke amongst my friends for years .  My first-year review was spent mainly going through everything I had done and explaining how much of a time commitment each of them was.  I filled my first year of the PhD with conferences, seminar presentations, teaching, editorial roles, and taking part in seemingly endless committee meetings – PhD adjacent responsibilities if you will.  And I loved doing all of them. One of my supervisors was worried that doing all of these things would a) wear on me and b) take time and focus away from my PhD.  He was right.

Although these experiences were useful, at the end of the day, my priority has to be writing the PhD.   This is not to say that these extra roles aren’t important, or worthwhile, I think they are.  All of them expanded my skills and experience levels in some way.  As a side note, I also think it is essential to not spent the 3+ years of your PhD just sitting in a room going through endless cycles of research and writing up.  But at some point (apparently the start of my 4th year), your time runs out, your task list is too long, and saying no becomes a necessity.  I have recently hit that point in my PhD and have spent the beginning of the semester reevaluating my commitments in an attempt to reduce my workload.


As someone who finds it significantly more challenging to say no, than taking on a million things and managing my time accordingly, here are a few suggestions to help those of you, like me, who struggle to say that weirdly difficult, two-letter word.

Know your worth

One of my (academic) siblings is constantly going on about the importance of knowing your worth.  PhD adjacent tasks are unpaid more often than not, so you must understand the value of your expertise and time.  Some things you get asked to do will be worth it, and be a positive addition to your working life.  Many things won’t be.  Taking roles and tasks that are achievable and useful to you is incredibly important.



Evaluate the different opportunities you are given in relation to your priorities.  Will they help you move forward? Teach you a new skill? Is it something you are genuinely interested in? If you don’t have a positive answer to any of these questions, it is probably not a commitment that is worth your time.


Know what you are getting into

The longer I am in academia, the more I find that people are rarely honest about the *actual* time commitment something is.  They may say it will take 2 hours of your time, but what they probably mean is the event will be two hours, the planning of the event will be additional.  In a system where everyone is continuously overworked, this is unsurprising.  But try to get an accurate judge of the time commitment something is before you agree to do it.


Retrospectively Saying No is Okay

If you find out, shortly after agreeing to something, that it is more of a commitment than expected, or things were not as advertised, it is okay to say you won’t be able to continue.


Step Away

This is the first year I have ever (begrudgingly) acknowledged that quite a lot of the things I have been committed to over previous years are not productive uses of my time or skills.  I find the experience I gained from holding some of these positions is fixed, it doesn’t increase with every year I participate. I’ve had to write a lot of emails this year politely declining to continue with certain roles, for the sake of my PhD.  And that’s okay.


I won’t lie and say that the past few weeks of culling my responsibility load has been easy, it hasn’t. I find saying no next to impossible. I have always had the attitude of ‘I can make time for that if they need me to’. The problem is, everyone always needs me to, and contrary to my own belief, there is actually a limit on my time. And, indeed, my PhD.  But the process of evaluating my commitments, and stepping back from those I can’t fully commit to has been incredibly cathartic.  My schedule is slightly less hectic, I have significantly fewer meetings to prepare for, and overall there are fewer interruptions to my writing schedule.


Krysten Blackstone is the Chair of Pubs and Publications who uses this position to avoid finishing writing her PhD, the first draft of which is due in the imminent future.  Her research looks at morale in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War  1775-1783.  You can find adamantly refusing to accept she is in fourth year and procrastinating further on twitter.  


Image 1: Flickr