From the Science Student Council

Academic overload: When to say no during graduate school

Deciding which opportunities to participate in during graduate school can be a daunting task.

By Rachel Manes

The wide range of activities in which graduate students participate outside of their own research-related work can seem overwhelming. Whether a new or seasoned  graduate student, one may be asked to serve on committees, coordinate and run departmental events, provide peer review, teach an extra course, assist faculty and students with research and prepare and present a guest lecture. The eager beaver quality associated with being a graduate student, especially a first-year, will encourage one to say yes to these tasks (and others). But saying yes and completing these new commitments will make it hard to remember that research should be a top – if not the top – priority. While others’ requests may seem immediately imperative to fitting in with the departmental community, they may distract from research goals and lead to academic overload.  Instead of saying yes to everything, politely and diplomatically saying no will be the best weapon to stay or get back on track.

It is not expected by faculty that a single graduate student should serve on every committee and fulfill every departmental role (e.g., organizing the lab space), but rather that you do your part to contribute to the community. The expectations of your peers matter too, as no one wants to become resentful by picking up the lion’s share of the work. Fortunately, advisors are often willing to communicate what the norms are for level of participation. Advanced students are also a great resource to disclose specifics; they are usually happy to discuss how many and which committee roles they fulfill as well as how much time each one requires. Asking how often committees meet, how long meetings run and how much time is needed to carry out various tasks can help pinpoint the amount of work involved. For example, a departmental admissions committee often conducts an enormous amount of work in a relatively short period of time. However, to its advantage, this committee generally will not require service again until the next academic year. Furthermore, graduate students’ administrative workload on a committee may even be negotiable. One who does a large amount of committee work at the department level should consider minimizing participation in organizations at the university level. If a graduate student feels that he or she is stretched too thin, it may be that faculty and fellow students are unaware of how much administrative work is already being undertaken. Therefore, routinely notifying the faculty advisor or chairperson of the array of assumed responsibilities will help to ensure that one’s academic work does not suffer due to an overwhelming amount of administrative work.

For the purposes of conducting research, it is useful to learn which academic opportunities are important and which are not. A few second- or third-author publications certainly help graduate students to build their curriculum vitae. However, additional non-first author publications might be achieved at the cost of first-authorship. Therefore, opportunities to collaborate should not be accepted if they interfere with one’s main line of research. On the other hand, consider helping colleagues with their projects because this activity can help to hone or gain research skills.  Moreover, after assisting a fellow graduate student, the favor is likely to be returned and you may receive assistance with a research task in the near future. The same rationale can be applied to peer reviewing written work as well. By doing so, something will likely be learned about the content area or peer- review process and the potential favor may be returned when your paper needs review.

Graduate students should also be willing to regularly engage in departmental social functions and opportunities outside of school to get to know fellow students. One should make time to have lunch together, accept and return invitations to dinner and attend informal departmental gatherings. After all, a great deal of departmental business is conducted in these settings, which makes it especially important to be present. But perhaps more importantly, it will encourage friendships to develop and an understanding of colleagues as people outside of academics.  

In an effort to stay focused on research goals, the temptation to pass an opportunity off on a colleague may present itself. For example, due to lack of funds or a scheduling conflict a graduate student may have to pass on attend a conference for which their poster proposal was accepted. In such a case, one could ask a fellow student to attend the conference as a representative. However, be aware that the more of favors are asked, the higher the likelihood that requests will be passed back.  If graduate student life does not permit the time to reciprocate, it is best to develop a well-honed way of saying no in the first place (e.g., resisting the urge to even send a proposal to the conference).  Carefully choosing which conferences to submit proposals to, for example, may help avoid overextending. After all, attending conferences can increase visibility but wandering from conference to conference will most certainly distract from accomplishing more proximal research goals. 

And in between accomplishing everything from proximal research goals to distal career goals there will be times when graduate students should say no to everything except taking the time to rest and gain perspective. Setting aside a few days before a new semester/quarter to reevaluate priorities is a great use of time for students at any stage of graduate school. Taking the time to rest may encourage clarity regarding how and when to say no to the range of opportunities that will undoubtedly be waiting just around the corner.

Rachel Manes is the developmental psychology representative on and Chair of the APA Science Student Council. She is currently a doctoral student at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. 
See the APA Science Student Council website for more information about its members and activities.