We're a little crazy, about science!

When you need to say no

Awhile back I wrote a post called “When you don’t want to say no” about some cool experiments that I was going to do and how the heck could I say no to cool experiments?! Well today is the other side of the coin. Sometimes you need to say no. You may not want to say no. You may not feel comfortable saying no. Nevertheless, you need to say no. Today is that story, the story of how I said no.

I’ve gotten good at what I do because I say yes to basically everything. It’s given me a chance to learn things I wouldn’t have been able to learn and do things I never thought I could do. In fact, during in-person conferences I have a rule that I don’t say no to doing new things with the people I’m at the conference with. That sometimes involves riding a mechanical bull in a suit (seriously), but it always ends up fun and I’m glad I did it. I’ve made a career of saying yes and I’m mostly okay with that because I know my limits and I try to put a good buffer between the amount of work I am doing and the maximum amount of work I can handle.

The end of the school term I was hitting that maximum limit. It was brutal, but I made it! I got all the stuff done, said yes to a new project, and still managed to do better than I expected (somehow). Then summer came and I thought after a few weeks of settling into things I would slow down a bit (as they tend to do). However, that hasn’t been the case.

My two PI’s agreed that I would split my time 50/50 among the labs. That would give me ~20 hours of work in each lab, which includes work at home on lab stuff, big thing to point out there since that counts as work. It turns out it was more like 20 hours in my Co-PI’s lab and 30-35 hours in my main-PI’s lab. The time in my main PI’s lab was mostly going for other projects not related to the stuff I was supposed to be working on. Namely my intro to MATLAB class I taught, other projects that I’m assisting on, etc.

My Co-PI is more focused on doing experiments so that’s been good, but summer is when my main-PI get’s to do a lot of outreach and since COVID restrictions are relaxing (way too early) we’re getting more requests to do outreach collaborations and the such. The last lab meeting we got informed of a new collaborative outreach project that will take a whole week to do. It’s the type of thing our lab is known for, neuroscience and art. So it’s cool, but definitely not going to benefit my research.

Well after the whole intro to MATLAB class taking far more than 20 hours a week to organize, setup, plan, etc. I specifically told my main-PI that I wanted to focus on the work I was tasked with (which I won an award for here). So I was surprised yesterday when I got an email saying that I would be asked to help with this new outreach project since I’m supposed to split my time between labs. This would be fine if I had nothing else to do, but my main-PI has made it very clear I need to finish this research ASAP, so I had to do it.

Last night I sent out an email politely reminding him that I only get ~20 hours in his lab and I would like to use that time to work on the project he wanted me to finish. I’m close so I just need dedicated time to do the work itself. I mentioned that among other responsibilities we have in-person lab meetings, I mentor students, I consult on another project for the lab that has nothing to do with my PhD, and I have my Co-PI’s lab stuff to do too. I concluded that if he really needed me for the project, I would do it, but I wanted to get this project done and done right. I don’t like doing things half ass (I said half way in the email because I am a professional… most of the time).

The story has a happy ending. He responded that he agreed with my assessment. I was off the hook and I could spend the time he wanted me for outreach on the project I’m currently working on. I don’t like saying no and I made that clear in the email, but I really am close to the limit with the work I can take on at the moment. I’m juggling five different first author papers and none of them will get submitted without dedicated time spent on each.

My Co-PI and I work a lot closer together so he understands this and has been trying to make time for me to focus on the stuff. My main-PI has a lot more people and other responsibilities so it makes it hard for him to keep track of what each of us are doing. He still get’s me and another Alex in the lab confused on occasion, so to say he’s busy is an understatement. I’m constantly in awe that he can function at all, but he does it and does it well. It just means he can’t keep track of the stuff each of us are doing in the lab.

Reminding him of all the responsibilities I have already felt awkward, but it worked out for the best. Now I will have actual time I can set aside to address some of the work I still need to finish. Could I have done it all? Yes, I probably could have managed to do everything, but the point is to take care of my mental health and that’s why I said no. I need at least some time for myself, as in not working on lab projects, and this was the only way I could get that. Sometimes saying no is the right response and it’s okay.

Friendly reminder (for me as well) that prioritizing your mental health is never the wrong answer. No one can function at 100% all the time. Don’t exploit yourself because some social media post tells you to work 60 hours a week or your a failure. That’s just propaganda and anyone telling you otherwise is selling you something.


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