I am writing to you from Antwerp, Belgium, where I have officially attended my first PhD defense in person as external jury member, invited by my colleague, Prof Sarah Lebeer. After becoming a prof during a worldwide pandemic, it is very nice to be attending these kind of events in person and getting to meet stellar researchers from all over the world. I am very grateful to have these privileges, but also to work alongside wonderful trainees in the Laforest lab (go check our instagram to see their outstanding outreach initiatives) who are inspirational and motivated.
But oh boy, I feel like my work honeymoon phase is now out the window. I have officially entered the terrible three, the âge ingrât (or is it the sagesse?) of being a professor. I am over-solicited, I naively said “yes” to way too many things, and I am discovering the joy (kidding) of having to be the bad cop to make things advance, all simultaneously. Even my browser and Instagram account keep showing me publicities on avoiding “burn outs”… Rejoice people, not all hope is gone, I am also learning to say “no”. Yes, I mean, NO! (this is going to take some practice), I can use this word too and discover the fun in letting go of (some of) the additional unrealistic and unhealthy burden.
I am sorry if I said or say “no” to this amazing opportunity, because I have reached my limit. I can’t perform that extra manuscript review weekly, participate to these additional grant panels that only include six 20-page applications (only a few hours each you know), mentor this extra student, present on the importance of networking to graduate students, volunteer to be the NSERC representative for EDI, write this text on science accessibility, etc. Did my job come with the possibility to have a clone? Because it seems I should be two or three humans to do all of it in a normal 40-hour work week… I have reached a limit where if I continue taking on responsibilities, I will lose part of the fire that drives me, and the love of my profession.
Context. As a “young” or “early-career” PI (I defended my PhD in April 2017 and started my position as a professor in January 2020, after one year of mat leave), I have faced many challenges when starting my own busy, diverse, and wonderful research group (see chart below inspired by Janet Hill’s twitter post). Though I love my job and my team, one of the biggest challenges that I have faced in the last three years is learning to say no (really what is this word? ^-^). I have found it difficult to turn down exciting/intriguing opportunities, new collaborations, or requests for my time and expertise that could advance my career or make a positive difference in the life of others.
#1 Scientific FOMO is a real thing. As a young researcher, I feel the pressure to say yes to many things to build my reputation and establish myself in the field, and of course eventually be tenured.
#2 I can’t escape from the desire to please others and be seen as a team player. I have been hesitant to say no to requests from colleagues, collaborators, or students because I did not want to disappoint them. Even as a PI, I still live with the imposter syndrome. Am I really good enough to succeed in this job? Also, you never know which opportunity will lead to an outstanding breakthrough. So, the more the merrier?
#3 The sheer volume of requests that young PIs receive is crazy. Once my own research funding was secured, I became inundated with requests for grant reviews (e.g.,this year I received six petitions to review NSERC DG grants over my end-of-the-year holidays from three different panels), manuscript reviews (e.g., I receive ~5 per months), invitations to speak at conferences (e.g., I gave ~30 conferences since 2020) or to participate in committees (e.g., I sit on three executive committees, two institutional EDI committees, and many more). And all these commitments to service end up taking SO much of my time. The better you are at service in Science, the more requests you get. One can wonder, should I strategically do a poor job to have time to produce high-quality research?
About women in Science. Oh yeah, I forgot something, something big. This is no surprise to anyone (well I hope so in 2023) but women professors in academia face an added burden when learning to say no. Studies have shown that women are often expected to take on more service and mentorship roles, which can lead to higher levels of burnout and stress. In addition, we may also face implicit biases and expectations that we should be more collaborative and accommodating, making it difficult to assert our boundaries and say no. And also, we often feel the need to demonstrate that we did not get this position as a favor because, you know, “we need more women in Science”, but because we are great at what we do. Having at least one woman on every freaking committee, ensuring that women students are mentored adequately, having women as leaders, etc. The list is long. We are on our way to a more inclusive and equitable academic community for all, sure, but there is still a long way to go. Especially as we see a rising uproar against the oh-so-difficult EDI requirements…
Result. At times, even more during teaching semesters, I have been flirting with the limit of a non-healthy work-life balance, which then has taken away part of the joy I feel in my work. So, I started this year with a newfound goal: saying no to protect my time and energy. But how?
One eye-opening moment happened when I petitioned for an accelerated tenure, feeling I had demonstrated to my institution that I have gone above and beyond to reach excellence in teaching, research, as well as in services to the University and to my community. The negative answer that I received made me realize that part of my effort was not being recognized, and that I was maybe doing a “little” bit too much.
So, I went back to the drawing board and reflected on my five-year plan (2020-2025):
What are my goals for the next two years?
Which commitments, projects, and activities are the most important to me?
I need to say yes to the opportunities that align with my goals and accept that I will say no to other opportunities, even if they sound good, even if the scientific community would benefit from my input, for I am no superhuman.
How to build the yes/no compass? Starting from now (this is like a contract with myself), I will say no. I will be clear with others about my limits. I will explain that I am unable to take on a particular task due to other commitments or time constraints. I shall be clear, respectful, and professional in my communication, but also firm in my decision. I will ask myself: does this task help me reach my goals? If not, I shall say no.
About mental hygiene. Mental hygiene is a crucial aspect of life in general. As a prof, sometimes the demands can be overwhelming, and it is important to prioritize self-care and seek support when needed. Here are the strategies that I use to (try to) protect my mental health: exercise (sitting is the new smoking), mindfulness practices (time to think and slow down), rely on friends and mentors to discuss difficulties and brainstorm solutions, as well as use the access to professional help before it is needed. It is also important to establish boundaries and set realistic expectations for myself, recognizing that it is okay to say no to opportunities that may add unnecessary stress or workload.
Final words. Amidst the challenges of being a young PI, I focus on why I entered academia in the first place. Conducting useful and innovative research, mentoring the next generation of scholars (I am so very grateful for the people in my lab, their courage and curiosity impress me), and contributing to the academic community motivate me in my work. I hope that by prioritizing the projects and activities that align with my values and goals, I can find meaning and fulfillment. I know that learning how to say no is a skill that takes time and practice. I plan to stick with this job for many years, while also being able to enjoy life!
Oh, and I didn’t reinvent the wheel today so here is another clever post on the topic if you are interested: https://hbr.org/2010/01/say-yes-to-saying-no