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Learn when—and how—to say no in your professional life

Early in Leah’s career, she said yes to absolutely everything. Review this paper? Yes, sounds interesting! Give this presentation? Ooh, yes please! Serve on this time-intensive committee? Happy to help! Take part in an uninteresting activity in another country at a highly inconvenient date and time? Sure, why not? Whether caused by a combination of excitement about being a part of the field or an aversion to letting people down, she simply did not know how to say a simple word: “No.”

In hindsight, Leah should have said no more often. Saying yes to one thing inevitably took time away from something—or someone—else. Her commitments ballooned and put a crunch on the time she needed for core academic activities, such as writing and mentoring. Being overcommitted also induced a chronic state of stress. It’s a common problem in academia: Over time, a propensity to say yes to everything can lead to burnout, mental and physical health problems, and an ironic lack of bandwidth to say yes when more valuable opportunities arise.

Leah has since learned how to decline invitations—or to push back on the specifics, asking for accommodations that could ease her workload or make the opportunity more feasible. That doesn’t mean she declines every invitation. She’s still a big believer in the need to pay it forward when it comes to helping others and keeping the wheels of science churning. As a faculty member, there are also certain obligations that come with the territory, such as teaching, mentoring, and departmental service, so she says yes to most of them by default. But overall, her more balanced strategy has kept her commitments in check, which has, in turn, created a more sustainable, enjoyable work life.

Here, we ask you to consider whether your workload threatens to overwhelm your professional and personal homeostasis and to proactively adopt strategies to help you manage your commitments.

When to say no

We strongly recommend getting into the habit of being deliberate about what invitations to say yes to, even before you get to the point of filling up your weekly calendar. You can do that by conducting an informal cost-benefit analysis.

Start by asking yourself questions to assess the potential benefits: Does this opportunity align with my goals and values? How much will I learn? Will this opportunity create or fortify important professional relationships? What is the likelihood that it will create more beneficial opportunities in the future? How important is this activity to me personally? Or, as Marie Kondo would ask, will this spark joy?

Next, ask yourself questions to assess the potential costs: How much of my time will it really take, factoring in prep time, travel time, and logistics? How much availability does my schedule have around when this activity would take place? Will saying yes mean I can’t say yes to something else that’s important to me? Will saying yes steal time away from my personal life? Will this activity cost money? How much stress will the activity cause me? Finally, would I suffer repercussions if I said no?

When you’re done, carefully examine the pros and cons. If your analysis indicates that an activity would yield many benefits and few costs, then that should be a top candidate for a yes response. Conversely, low-benefit activities might be a straightforward no, even if they are low cost as well. In our experience, it’s the high-benefit, high-cost activities that require the most careful deliberation. Because it can be hard to be objective, we recommend asking for the advice of close colleagues to get a second opinion on whether you’ve thought through all the costs and benefits. Then make a decision that feels right to you, perhaps thinking through whether you can free up bandwidth for a high-cost activity by reducing your time commitments elsewhere.

Leah did that recently when she was asked to chair a new initiative. The opportunity will give her a chance to contribute to her university’s reevaluation of the Title IX process, as well as the development of a faculty code of conduct. But it will be a big time commitment, so before she said yes she decided she needed to make trims elsewhere. In the end, she decided to step away from her post as a Science Careers columnist—making this her last column.

It’s worth noting that these decisions may be doubly hard for some people. Early career scientists might be worried about the consequences of saying no, especially if the request is coming from someone more senior. Scientists from historically underrepresented groups, who are often asked to take on inordinate amounts of challenging and time-consuming service, may also have difficulty saying no, especially if they feel as though the work is important. For people in this situation, remember you don’t have to go it alone. We recommend finding senior allies and mentors (both within and outside of your institution) who can advocate for you and give honest and frank advice.

How to say no—or maybe

The next step is formulating a response, which isn’t always easy—especially if your answer is no. In fact, we’ve said yes to plenty of low-benefit activities simply to avoid the need to say no! We also have friends who have such difficulty saying no that they will adopt the ill-mannered strategy of ghosting the request altogether—in other words, they simply do not respond at all. Of course, those are not good strategies, so figuring out how to craft an honest response can help avoid overcommitment and time spent on low-benefit activities. Here are examples of potential responses.

The “hard no.” Some activities are a clear no. When responding to these requests, we recommend being gracious yet firm. For example, you might say:

Thank you so much for the invitation. Although your book sounds very interesting, I’m afraid I am not able to write a chapter for it due to the writing projects I have already committed to. You might want to consider asking [insert names of other scholars in the area].

The “not now.” For some requests, you might not have the bandwidth now, but you could see the benefits outweighing the costs sometime in the future. In these cases, you have the option of negotiating some aspect of the commitment rather than giving a flat no. For example, you might say:

Thank you for inviting me to review this paper for your journal. I would be happy to do so, but the 2-week turnaround time is not workable for me due to other commitments. I could say yes if I were given 4 weeks to complete the review.

The “not so much.” For some requests, the benefits might be favorable, but the scope of the request might be too costly. In these cases, you could consider negotiating for a more workable scope rather than giving a flat no or saying yes and overcommitting. The scope could be reduced by narrowing the range of content, narrowing the time commitment, or asking to forego travel and do it online instead. For example, you might say:

I’m honored you thought of me to lead a workshop in your department; thank you so much! My existing commitments will unfortunately prevent me from leading a full-day workshop, but I’d be happy to give a 1-hour tutorial instead. Would that work for you?

The “maybe, if the deal were a little sweeter.” Our previous examples aimed to negotiate a reduction in the costs. It is also possible to negotiate the benefits upward. For example, you might say:

Thank you for inviting me to give a presentation at your lab meeting. I’d be happy to do so, especially if you can cover my travel costs and if I could meet with you one-on-one to ask your advice on a project I’m planning. Would this be possible?

The “maybe, if the benefits or costs were clearer.” Some requests do not come with sufficient detail to judge the actual costs and benefits. Do not hesitate to ask for clarification to guide your decision making. For example, you might say:

I’m flattered you invited me to teach your student how to conduct this complicated analysis for their project. In order to evaluate whether I can take this on, I have a couple of follow-up questions. Can you give me a sense of the timeline and time commitment that would be required of me? Would I be considered as a collaborator and eventual co-author on the project?

As you progress through your training and into your career, you may find that opportunities grow. While these opportunities can be an absolute thrill, saying yes to all of them is not without its drawbacks. Saying no to the right things will help you prioritize high-benefit activities while maintaining a sustainable workload, avoiding excessive stress, and mitigating the risk of failing to meet your obligations.

We encourage you to do three things this year to fine-tune your “no” abilities: Make it a priority to think carefully before saying yes to requests; identify mentors or peers who can you help you weigh the costs and benefits; and, finally, take a clear-eyed look at your existing commitments to ensure you are leaving the time you need to take care of yourself.

As for Leah, she’s signing off as a columnist, thankful that she’s had a chance to work with her fellow Letters to Young Scientists contributors over the past 2.5 years. Writing these columns has been a low-cost, high-benefit experience, but sometimes you have to let go of even those activities, especially when new, high-benefit opportunities are calling.

Send your thoughts, questions, and suggestions for future column topics to letterstoyoungscientists@aaas.org and engage with us on Twitter.

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