Advice for Faculty: Learning When to Say No

I’ve seen multiple posts on social media this week from faculty members struggling with the question: when is it OK to say no to a request for my time? It’s a central challenge of an academic job.

College professors get asked to do lots of things. Consider this list of real requests I’ve gotten recently:

  1. Meet with a student in my class to help them with their course project.
  2. Meet with a student in my class to help them with the startup they’re working on in their spare time with a friend.
  3. Be interviewed by a student from another university for their class project.
  4. Be interviewed about my research by a colleague at another university who will anonymize me in the final account.
  5. Be interviewed about something in my personal life (parenting teen boys?). I will be anonymized in the final account.
  6. Talk on Reddit with an anonymous student at my university who is stressed out, and offer support and advice.
  7. Review a journal article or conference paper for a venue I have submitted to in the past.
  8. Review a journal article of conference paper for a venue I have never submitted to and don’t plan on ever submitting to.
  9. Meet with a faculty junior colleague at my university who wants advice.
  10. Sponsor a student volunteer from another university for a research internship.

Faculty get asked to do lots of things. In some alternate universe, I would be able to do all of them. But I simply can’t — there’s not enough time. Which would you do? Make a mental list before you read on.

I personally will prioritize 1, 6, 7, and 9. For me, those are important. I will put them ahead of other things I’d like to do like reading a new paper in my field or listening to an interesting lecture. I will do 5 if I have time. I rarely do the others. I never do 4, because if I am talking about my work I would please like to be credited — I’m happy to be an anonymous source about teen parenting, but not about my research area.

It took me years to learn to be comfortable saying no to the other items on the list. I want to be helpful. But I can’t do everything, and I need to prioritize.

One thing that makes this task harder is that students and the general public sometimes don’t understand what faculty jobs entail. Because Georgia Tech is a state school, on more than one occasion citizens of the state have responded with indignation when I tell them that I unfortunately can’t advise them on their startup idea. (“You are a Georgia employee who specializes in online communities and I’m a citizen of Georgia who wants to build one — why won’t you help me?”). I decline these requests as politely as I can. They don’t understand what my job actually is, and don’t realize the request is out of bounds.

Your list of heuristics will be different from mine, but you need that list. The more comfortable I’ve grown with my own priorities, the more graciously I’ve been able to decline.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.

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