This post is written by Alex Holmes. Alex (she/her) is a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. She’s found herself working somewhere between biochemistry and biophysics to research a membrane proteins. When she’s not in the lab or hacking supercomputers, she is very interested in science communication and public engagement. She has led stalls for university events, been a Pint of Science team leader and had her work made into colouring pages. Follow her on Twitter to find about more about her and her work.
We’ve all done it, taken on that one favour that we don’t really have time for, or stayed late to quickly look over something for someone. Or maybe something bigger? An impossible deadline you felt unable to say no to.
Why does saying no feel uncomfortable?
Saying ‘yes’ is ingrained in us from an incredibly young age – just imagine saying ‘no’ to your teachers. Responding to someone’s request with “no” can be interpreted as rude, argumentative, or label you as not a team player. Academia, in particular, is built on a foundation of unpaid labour or ‘volunteering’; the peer review process, teaching, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, outreach and more, and women pick up the majority of this labour. The structure of academia is inequitable and unsustainable; therefore, we should practice saying no to it.
When to say no
Now, this isn’t to say that you should be turning down everything and everyone, let alone turning down things you desperately want to do, but there is value to assessing opportunities and thinking “what if I say no?”
I did this a lot over lockdown. Having a computational aspect to my PhD project that I’m very good at led to a lot of scientists seeking out my expertise and help on computational projects they wanted to start while they didn’t have access to lab space. It made sense for them to capitalise on the opportunity to try out something new. However, a combination of mental health struggles, my own project not being on standby, and other commitments, meant it didn’t make sense for me to take on many, if any, of these requests.
After struggling with saying no, I came up with a checklist to help. It covers the time something would take, and whether you’d have to deprioritise other responsibilities (including your responsibility to look after yourself), what you would gain from helping, whether you really want to do it, if other opportunities to do the same or similar thing might come along and whether there’s anyone who would benefit more and has been overlooked.
How to say no
Okay, we’ve reached the decision that we don’t want to do this, what now? Here’s the hard part, we need to say no and stand firm in that decision.
If this request is something that’s dropped into my inbox, I tend to structure my emails like this: Compliment the request and tell them you don’t have capacity (saying I didn’t have time made people less likely to accept that this was a no – I’ll touch on this more in the next section). Depending on the situation, I’ll suggest a date to revisit this or someone else to reach out to.
Is the request in person? Take a moment to go through the mental checklist and make it clear you are weighing it up. Then say, “I don’t have the capacity for this, somebody else might be able to do it for you.”
Some non-optional points? Don’t apologise – you don’t owe anyone your time, expertise or knowledge; even if it’s a teeny-tiny thing, even if it’s your supervisor, or even if it’s your best friend. If it’s outside your normal responsibilities, it’s asking you to go above and beyond. Also, don’t just not reply, you aren’t the kind of person to leave someone in the lurch, let’s send that polite ‘no’.
Finally? Pat yourself on the back! Nice job saying no!
Uh oh, they’ve not taken no for an answer
Maybe they reframe the request as something smaller – “I just want to pick your brain on it” or think they need to convince you. First things first: congratulations! You’re clearly very good at what you do, and they desperately want to work with you – that should be incredibly reassuring!
You guessed it: it’s time to say no again. I’ve found even just letting someone ‘pick your brain’ on the topic can be a slippery slope.
Practice makes perfect
Let’s make next month NO-vember and really flex those ‘saying no’ muscles – note: this challenge is the only thing I won’t let you say no to! Want to share your refusals and get a virtual pat on the back from me? Tweet me at @aomholmes.