Why And How To Say No

noPeople in our line of work, whether academic or altac, are often at serious risk of over-commitment. This can happen for a number of reasons, including disorganisation, pressure from other people, and the inability to say ‘no’.

Disorganisation is often made up of the best intentions, lack of foresight or planning, unrealistic expectations, and inability to understand how long different jobs actually take. It can be truly difficult to figure out how long it will take to do a given piece of work, but a useful strategy is to make your best guess then add fifty per cent. So if you think you could definitely get an article written in six weeks, tell anyone who needs to know that it will take you nine weeks. One way to keep your expectations realistic is to take care to factor in all your existing commitments – which, don’t forget, include your social life and holidays as well as work. Also, remember that the empty spaces in your calendar in the months to come will fill up as the dates come closer. People often say to me things like, ‘I’m really busy this month and next, but I’ll have lots more time after that.’ I think, ‘No you won’t, you poor deluded fool, because by the time you get there “the month after next” will be “this month” and you’ll be just as busy as ever.’

People often over-commit from the best intentions. They want to help, or they are being offered interesting projects, and they think they’ll find a way to get it done. Often they do find a way, but that can be at the expense of their happiness, their relationships, and their health. I know, personally, two senior academics who have been reduced to taking sizeable portions of sick leave due to over-commitment in the last year alone. Part of this is because of the structure of academia and the ever-increasing demands placed on its staff. The only real solution to that is collective action. Yet, without wanting to sound all neoliberal, there is also scope – and, I would argue, responsibility – for individual action in the interests of protecting our own well-being.

Some people seem completely unable to see what is around the corner. One fairly senior academic I know moved from a research job to a teaching job, and was then astonished to discover that time-consuming preparation and marking were required. Another, a parent of two young children, seems continually surprised by the need to provide care for them. Perhaps over-commitment breeds over-commitment because, when you’re currently over-committed, it’s hard to find the time to give proper thought to potential future commitments and their likely implications. But finding that time is the only way to escape the over-commitment trap. And the only way to find that time is to learn to say ‘no’.

Saying ‘no’ can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour. So, to begin with, try learning not to say ‘yes’ immediately. Say something like, ‘That’s a really interesting proposition. Can I think about it and get back to you? I need to check my other commitments before I can give you a firm answer.’ Then if you decide you don’t want to say ‘yes’, you can say, for example, ‘I’d love to help but right now I don’t have the time to do the work well, and I don’t want to do a bad job for you.’

When you owe a favour, even this can feel very difficult. It can help simply to acknowledge the fact that you owe a favour. ‘I know you did X for me, and I am still very grateful. I do want to return the favour but I’m afraid it’s a really difficult time for me right now, as I am already fully committed for the next few months. Is there some other way I can pay you back?’ Being up front like this can feel scary for some people, but it is a great way to diffuse the anxiety that unspoken worries can create, and therefore it is worth the effort.

The wider pressure to ‘be collegial’ is another difficulty faced by those working in academia, whether from inside or outside institutions. For example, I recognise that I can’t expect people to peer-review my articles without offering to peer-review the articles of others. However, I can decide how many articles I am able and willing to review, per month or semester or year. Given that there is a need to review articles which are not and never will be fit for publication, as well as those that are or could be publishable, I might decide to review two articles for every article I submit. Or I might decide I can manage one per month, or two per semester, regardless of how many I write myself. The number you can manage will, of course, depend on your other commitments, but the basic principle is the same. You need to think the whole thing through, make a decision, then stick to that decision – and explain it to people where necessary. The same could apply with other regular one-off tasks such as examining theses, reviewing book proposals or typescripts, writing forewords, and so on. You have the right to set a limit on any such task you’re being asked to do more often than you can comfortably manage – and to enforce that limit.

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the ‘unsexy undergarments’ of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who over-commit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families, and friends, we have an obligation not to over-commit, and that means learning to say ‘no’.

Self-Publishing For Academics

Self-Publishing For Academics - High Resolution.jpgToday Dr Nathan Ryder and I are launching our co-authored e-book Self-Publishing For Academics. Self-publishing offers a huge opportunity for many academics, and they’re beginning to take it up. Nathan and I have self-published several e-books between us, and have self-published in other forms too such as blogs and zines. We wrote the book we wished we’d had when we set out on our self-publishing journeys.

Working together turned out to be a dream collaboration and we’ve written about that this week on the Research Whisperer blog. For this blog, we thought we’d interview each other; this gave us a chance to ask some questions we hadn’t got around to before. Here are the results.

Helen: What surprised you about our work together?

Nathan: How easy it felt. Writing a book is hard, and I’ve always thought that collaboration is quite tricky too, despite how necessary it is. We started from a concept, expanded out, divided the areas up and got to work. I know we’re both busy, but we made this a priority, and I think because of that it’s got done in a far more timely manner than I thought.

Given your own experiences in publishing and self-publishing, why did you want to co-author this one?

Helen: There are so many different options for self-publishing and marketing that I suspected you and I had taken different routes, even though we have both self-published for the same audience, i.e. doctoral students (up to now, anyway!). When we began talking I found we did indeed have different, but complementary, experience and knowledge. I think the combination of our approaches has made for a much better, richer book than I could write by myself.

Where do you think self-publishing will be most useful for academics?

Nathan: A big problem for many people is that they wait a long time to be “picked”. Someone waits for someone to pick them for a job, or a project or to write a book, say. The need to be chosen is a really tough need to overcome, but it’s barrier that can be hurdled. Academics don’t have to wait for a publisher to say yes to their monograph: it’s perfectly possible to do it yourself. A consequence of this could be that they could do the work that they think matters and will connect rather than what someone else thinks they can sell. There can often be shortened turnaround times for publication too.

What have you learned about self-publishing by doing this project?

Helen: I learned a lot about covers. I guess I vaguely knew it was possible to design your own but, not being a very visual person, I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do. Now, though, I might just have a go! It’s also useful to know where good bespoke covers can be obtained more cheaply than by commissioning a professional designer. Also, I learned a lot about self-publishing for free. I haven’t spent a huge amount on my e-books, but I certainly haven’t done them for free, and it’s really useful to know about the options there.

Which makes me wonder, what have you learned about self-publishing from our project?

Nathan: The value of beta-readers and an editor. For both of my previous books I had relied on myself and asked my wife to look through the drafts, but we don’t have the experience to know everything to look for when it comes to editing. And for this book, the beta-readers really helped us to spot gaps in our writing or logic – and even corrected us on some of the terms we used!

Do you have a routine or process when it comes to writing?

Helen: For the first draft of a book, I calculate how many words I need to write per day or (more often) week to get the draft done by the deadline. Then I add that to my weekly to-do list, and ensure I get those words written – even if that does, on occasion, mean spending Sunday at my computer. Also, I am quite focused about using my writing time for writing, so I’ll produce several hundred words in an hour rather than spending my ‘writing time’ fossicking about on social media or surfing the internet. I don’t need a particular place to write, I just need my laptop – I write on trains, in airports, on friends’ sofas, and in bed. However, unlike many writers, I’m not keen on writing in cafes because I find the people-watching and eavesdropping opportunities too distracting!

What do you plan to self-publish next?

Nathan: I’m going to finish a project I started some time ago, and get my first book available for print-on-demand. Fail Your Viva came out in January 2013, and within weeks I was exploring how to get it in print. At the time and for a long time since I’ve convinced myself that I can’t manage a print run, but as we were working on our book – and through doing a little hobby self-publishing – I’ve gained the confidence to finally make it happen. That, and digging some older writing out and seeing if I like it again.

I know you’ve got your series that you’re past the halfway mark on. Have you got any plans beyond them?

Helen: Lots and lots of plans! I want to narrate the audio-books for all the e-books I’ve self-published for doctoral students. I also want to start making videos for YouTube. That’s something I’ve tried several ways but haven’t yet got the hang of, but I feel as if I’ve learned quite a bit in the process and if I keep trying I’ll get there eventually. Also, I’m doing preparatory reading, thinking, and interviewing for my next full-length trad-published book, on research ethics, and I expect to start writing that in earnest in the autumn.

So if you could sum up in a sentence the main piece of advice you’d give someone who was thinking of self-publishing… well obviously that would be ‘read our book’! But apart from that, what would you say?

Nathan: Start now! There are a hundred-and-one things that can get in the way of finishing any writing project, but the only thing that’s really in the way of starting is the writer. Start today. (then read our book)

Last question from me: what are you going to do to celebrate Self-Publishing for Academics being finished and out there?

Helen: Have a cuppa with you on Skype! After that: take your advice, and start writing the next e-book. That’ll be the last in my series for doctoral students, and the last one I write for a while, so when I get that one finished I’m really going to celebrate.

Things Are Really Happening!

juggling.pngDuring this academic year I’ve been involved in various enterprises on top of my commissioned research work, teaching, and writing commitments: solo self-publishing, collaborative self-publishing, and course development. And they’re all starting to come to fruition!

The course I’ve been involved in developing with Dr Janet Salmons is Path To Publishing, aimed at people who have a completed doctoral thesis or dissertation and want to publish from it to support their career goals, whether academic or otherwise. We opened for registration a few days ago and, even though the course doesn’t begin until October, people are already signing up! Universities are recognising that the course we are offering is excellent value for money and will benefit their early career researchers, and individuals are welcoming the opportunity to receive expert help with a complex process. The course is limited to just 20 participants, to ensure that we can give everyone good quality personalised feedback.

The collaborative self-publishing is a short e-book, co-written with Dr Nathan Ryder, called Self-Publishing For Academics. And it’s available for pre-order! The link is for Kindle books but it is also available via iBooks, Kobo and Nook, with Oyster and Scribd to come. Nathan and I have combined our experience of self-publishing various texts in a range of formats, and written the e-book we wish we’d had when we started out. The formal launch is next Wednesday 18 May, so prepare for whooping and hollering.

The solo self-publishing is my series of short e-books for doctoral students. The first, Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, is now permanently free to download. The fifth, Research Ethics for your PhD: An Introduction, is with my editor and should be out next month. I just have the sixth and last one to write, on Finishing Your PhD: What You Need To Know, and I’ll be done!

It’s an exciting time towards the end of a really busy year. I’m still kidding myself next year will be easier, but actually I think it’ll just be different. I’ll be working on my next full-length book, on research ethics (I’m in the middle of preparing for that right now), running Path To Publishing with Janet, and managing my commissioned research work and teaching too. It’s just as well I like my work!



Research Ethics – Can You Help?

telephoneDear Internet

I wonder whether you can help me. I need people, from outside the UK, to talk to about research ethics. They can be academics or practitioners, from any discipline or field, and they need to have some interest in research ethics. If they fit that specification, and they’re based outside the UK, I’d like to talk to them.

This is for my next book which will be on research ethics. I’ve done a bunch of interviews with people from the UK, but I want to take a more global look at the topic. I’ve asked everyone in my networks but I’m getting nowhere, so I’m throwing this out to you in the hope that you may know one or more people who might be willing to talk.

Interviews are taking about an hour and can be done by phone or Skype. The interviews will be kept confidential, and I’m happy to email over my questions for someone to look at before they decide whether or not they want to take part. I won’t use anyone’s name in connection with the book. I am compiling a list of the roles and countries of origin of the people I’ve spoken to, to give my readers some idea of the breadth of contributions, with interviewees choosing their own designation e.g. ‘senior lecturer in social work, British university’ or ‘independent researcher, UK’, but if someone doesn’t even want to go that far, that’s OK with me. Some of the people I’ve spoken to have held several roles in connection with research ethics but have chosen to speak to me from just one of their roles, which is fine. Some have chosen not to answer all my questions, or to answer several in one; that’s fine too.

I would be particularly interested in talking to people doing, or who have done, research in countries with authoritarian rather than democratic governments – though I’d also love to talk to Australians, Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and so on. In fact I’d like to talk to people from pretty much anywhere outside the UK, though I only speak English.There’s no big rush; I’m hoping to get the interviews done some time in the next 3-4 months.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect you to give me someone’s contact details, but if you know people you think might be willing and able to help, perhaps you could draw their attention to this post and then, if they want to get in touch, they could email me through the contact form.

Here’s hoping…