Professors are in an odd industry. Nominally, we are paid to teach students. In actuality, a lot of the material and psychic rewards bestowed upon us are a function of our research. The bulk of that research comes in the form of peer-reviewed articles and books. There are, however, other opportunities available to the ambitious academic. There are special issues and edited volumes to be curated. Textbooks need to be written. I have heard that there are blogs and online platforms where one can engage in the wider Ideas Industry. There might even be speaking engagements and consulting services to provide.
This can leave junior academics in something of a quandary. Which opportunities should be taken when offered, and which ones politely declined? This is a hard question to answer in the best of times, and junior academics must overcome their inculcated FOMO (fear of missing out) bias. All graduate students believe that there are interesting conferences and research projects that are happening without them. Once actual invitations come in, saying “no” can be psychologically painful for even the most self-assured of academics.
Chris Blattman is an economist-turned-political-scientist-turned-public-policy-professor who blogs on occasion. About five years ago, he blogged his advice about this conundrum to junior academics, and it can be summed up in his title “Just Say No”: “Saying no is something I push on my colleagues and grad students, mostly unsuccessfully. I was forced to start it after (1) saying yes to too many projects, (2) starting a blog, and (3) having two children. … This rule doesn’t just mean turning down the good-but-not-great opportunities. It means saying no to terrific opportunities as well.”
This seems harsh, but Blattman has his reasons, and they’re pretty good ones: “Why? It keeps me sane. It also means I can get my current projects out in reasonable time. And it gives me space to think and to read and ponder big new projects. It is simply amazing how too many projects (especially field experiments and surveys) crowded out my ability to think.”
This post was recently resuscitated on social media and generated some responses. Some academics applauded the advice. Rachael Meager, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, tweeted that Blattman’s advice was, “probably the single best advice to junior faculty I wish I had taken in the last 2 years.” Non-academics seemed flummoxed, with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias tweeting, “I’ve seen this advice offered so many times to junior scholars and it really makes academia sound like a pain. A big part of the fun of journalism is you get to say yes to a lot of stuff!”
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would draw some slightly different lessons than Blattman. My advice to junior faculty is to remember the following:
- Your main project is the first and most important thing in your untenured life.
- All main project and nothing else makes you a very dull prof.
- You’re young, so take advantage of that energy for a few side projects.
- Not all of these side projects need to be academic; some can even be policy-relevant!
- A big advantage of side projects — you will learn about other aspects of your chosen career.
- Find a senior mentor in your field to help you separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to side-project offers.
Another analogy to use is to peer-review requests. Academics are taught to accept such requests from an early stage, with the understanding that there is a limit to the number of papers one can review at a given time. The same is true of opportunities that lie beyond one’s main projects. Some of them should be taken, but certainly not all of them.
But — and I mean this sincerely — take some risks. Academics who spend the first decade of their careers doing everything within a narrow, approved stream of research will find it hard to break those habits after tenure.
So don’t just say no. On occasion, say yes. You’ll be a happier academic if you do.