Several years ago I worked at a research centre with a strong mentorship program. In a meeting with senior faculty members one day, one professor mentioned that he considered it part of his job to protect junior faculty from taking on too many administrative roles—basically from doing any work that doesn’t have a tenure-track payoff or get much prominence on an academic CV.
He described a conversation he’d had with one of his mentees, explaining how to ward off requests by saying, “Can I get back to you?” and then discussing the opportunity with him. The other senior faculty members nodded in agreement. They all felt that early career researchers needed to focus on building up their profile for tenure and promotion, whereas the senior faculty could afford to take on more committee work. That said, all of the senior faculty were known for putting junior faculty on important committees or otherwise finding career-building opportunities for their mentees.
I remember thinking at the time how unusual that seemed, and how lucky the junior faculty affiliated with the centre were to have such strong mentors. I knew plenty of early-career folks who agreed to any and every opportunity, either because they thought it would help their career, or because they thought it was too risky say no.
This post over at the Thesis Whisperer offers a similar (and scathing!) take on voluntary peer review: I call bullshit on pointless hope labour.
This doesn’t just happen in higher education, of course. I saw it from a different angle when I was in the non-profit sector: mission-driven organizations rely on people’s passion for a cause to sustain them through outrageously long days, low wages, and emotionally exhausting work. As described in a piece from The Atlantic in 2016:
“Too often, I have seen the passion for social change turned into a weapon against the very people who do much—if not most—of the hard work, and put in most of the hours. Because they are highly motivated by passion, the reasoning goes, they don’t need to be motivated by decent salaries or sustainable work hours or overtime pay.”
This is not usually the fault of the organizations themselves, who struggle to gather enough funding to keep the lights on. It’s the double standard that non-profits, particularly those who work with the most marginalized people in a community, are expected to rely heavily on goodwill. (I have a lot more to say about this, but not today.)
I’m not saying that you should never attend another useless committee meeting (although: CAN YOU IMAGINE?) or go on strike at your non-profit. Any job you choose will make you eat a shit sandwich now and again. You need to decide what kind of work is worth that flavour of shit sandwich. But if you have an outrageous workload and you keep saying yes to more? You need to take a hot minute to figure some things out.
Women are particularly prone to saying yes to everything like it’s their job. We say yes to things we have zero interest in doing and/or zero time to do. We do this because we think we have to, or because we think that we’ll disappoint the person asking us. We want to please, to acquiesce, to make peace. Setting aside for a moment the fact that we’re socialized to behave this way, it’s admirable to want to want to please others and to keep the peace. Well, mostly it is – until it depletes us.
So. What I’m saying is that you should think about whether your work feeds you. And then decide how you want to handle that. Feed has two meanings here: one is fulfilment, and the other is survival.
Does your work feed your fulfillment?
No? I’m so sorry. Now you have to figure out why and how you ended up there, and why you’re unfulfilled. (Could it be that you’re just tired?) Then you need to figure out what to do about it.
Yes? AMAZING! You’ve hit the jackpot. Now you have to figure out whether you’re taking on unnecessary roles, projects, or tasks because you feel like you have to, or because you don’t have a game plan for advancement.
Does your work feed your survival?
By survival I mean emotional, physical, and financial.
You might be burned out, suffering from physical pain, or overworked and underpaid. It can be extremely difficult to imagine an alternative to any of those situations. But it is possible, and the first step is simply to acknowledge your situation. Then, ask yourself:
- What can you say No to? (No, seriously. What can you take off your plate?)
- What habits or patterns can you consider changing?
- Who can you talk to?
I promise you: answering -and acting on- these questions is the beginning of a whole new career. Even if you stay in the same place.
Does your work feed you? What are you saying Yes to that maybe you shouldn't? Tell me in the comments!