A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
10 minute read
Faculty are evaluated along three dimensions for tenure and promotion: research, teaching, and service. At the majority of colleges and universities, the most important metric for tenure-track faculty is research productivity. But many pre-tenure faculty fall into the trap of spending too much time on teaching and service, and not enough time producing scholarly work.
That makes a lot of sense. If you’re a new assistant professor, this may be the first time you’ve taught a stand-alone course. If it isn’t, you’re probably being asked to teach a course you haven’t taught before. Moreover, faculty (especially women, and even more so women of color) also face a lot of pressure to perform service work. Academia is bursting at the seams with tasks that fall under the banner of “service,” and early-career faculty are often eager to show that they are good colleagues by performing it.
But here’s the thing about both teaching and service tasks: they gaseous in the sense that they will take up as much space as you give them. If you aren’t careful, they’ll take up almost all of your time. Either you won’t have enough left over to devote to research, or you’ll end up working around the clock to fit it all in.
That’s why I want to talk about one very important skill that you probably didn’t learn in graduate school but that is invaluable to anyone pursuing a career in higher education: when and how to say “no.” Learning to say “no” effectively will give you the time to focus on developing the research ideas you really care about, it will also ensure you have enough time to do something other than working 24-7 (so you can have a social life, pursue your hobbies, or get some shut eye).
We usually think of boundaries as ways of communicating our needs to others. But it is also important to have boundaries with ourselves. Maintaining healthy boundaries with yourself is about prioritizing your needs (e.g., getting enough sleep) when they conflict with your desires (e.g., staying out late with friends at a conference).
It’s also about reminding that little voice in your head–the one who keeps alive your dream of doing it all–that she lives in a fantasy land of limitless time. The reality is that you will only accomplish a fraction of what you want to accomplish with the finite time you have available to you–both before tenure and after.
That’s why good time management isn’t about using your time more efficiently. It’s about using your time more wisely. Using your time more wisely means accepting that you have needs (for sleep, for relaxation, for interpersonal connection) that will take up some of the limited time you are trying to fill with everything you’d like to get done. It also means accepting that some of the things you want to do won’t get done and making intentional choices about which things those are.
Coming to terms with this reality is especially important for ambitious high-achievers on the tenure track. Advice about learning to say “no” is often about learning how to decline requests to perform tasks that you don’t want to. But many early-career faculty say “yes” to professional opportunities not because they are afraid of disappointing others, but because they are truly interested and excited by the possibilities those opportunities provide. They say “yes” because they want to do many of the things that are asked of them.
The problem is that there isn’t enough time in your entire life let alone in the five or six years before you submit your tenure file to pursue every exciting or inviting opportunity. You’ve got to choose. And choosing is about saying “no” to the vast majority of possibilities available to you. Confronting this fact is very difficult.
Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, puts the difficulty this way: “it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get” (30). But the pain of foreclosing possibilities is unavoidable, and the sooner you come to terms with this fact the sooner you will actually be able to enjoy your time as an assistant professor, rather than feeling exhausted, frenzied, and unfulfilled by trying in vain to do it all.
This is why you need to learn how to say “no” to yourself. “No” to some of the things that you want to do. “No” to some of your amazing research ideas. “No” to some of your professional ambitions. “No” to different versions of yourself (the Outstanding Teacher, the Prolific Researcher, the Public Intellectual, the DEI Advocate, etc.). “No” to some of the futures you imagine for yourself.
The most important thing you can ask yourself in your first year on the tenure track is this: which things really, really matter to me? Choose them; decline the rest.
In addition to the great many things that you want to do, you’re going to be asked to perform very many tasks that you don’t want to do. This is especially true when it comes to service like committee work or helping out with a special project.
There are two very important facts that pre-tenure women faculty must keep in mind when making decisions about which service tasks to accept, and which to decline.
First, service tasks are non-promotable. In The No Club: Putting an End to Women’s Dead-End Work, the authors define non-promotable tasks (NPTs) as tasks that matter to your organization, but won’t help you advance your career. For example, your university may care about having a faculty senate, or a faculty task force on diversity. Despite their institutional importance, serving in either of these roles won’t help you get tenure. At some institutions, this work is basically irrelevant to tenure and promotion.
Which leads me to the second important fact that women in tenure-track faculty roles should keep top of mind. Research shows that women faculty spend more time than their male colleagues on non-promotable work. The reasons for this disparity are complex, but can be summarized as follows: others expect women to say yes, and (therefore) ask women to perform NPTs more often. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, check out chapters 4 and 5 of The No Club).
Together, these facts give women faculty strong reasons to learn how and when to say “no” to requests to perform NPTs. Your colleagues will ask you to do this work more often, and they will expect you to say “yes.” At the same time, performing these tasks will not help you to achieve tenure; to the contrary, NPTs detract from your ability to do work that matters for tenure and promotion (because they take away time and energy that could be devoted to research).
If you don’t learn to say “no” to requests to perform NPTs, you’ll not only end up sacrificing work-life balance, putting you at higher risk for faculty burnout, you’re undermining your ability to achieve what you want most: crossing that magical bridge to being an associate professor.
I’m sorry if all of this sounds very grim. Sexism deeply sucks. But it is important for early-career women faculty (especially women of color) to understand that they face unique challenges on the tenure track; the unequal distribution of service work is one of them. Ultimately, the responsibility to mitigate structural inequalities facing pre-tenure women faculty lies with institutions, and those tasked with leading them. In the meantime, assistant professors can protect themselves by mastering the art of saying “no.”
Now you know why it is important to say “no,” but how do you know when saying “no” is appropriate? Here are six strategies.
Knowing when to say “no” means getting specific about what matters, both for tenure and promotion, and to you as a person with a finite amount of time. Once you know what really matters, you can use this knowledge to determine whether accepting a request is aligned with your priorities.
When you receive a request, estimate the time it will actually take you to complete it (NB: we usually underestimate how much time a task will take–see Hofstadter’s Law). With this estimate in hand, ask yourself whether the benefit of doing something else with that time is greater or less than the benefit of completing the request.
Because your time is limited, every “yes” means saying “no” to something else. But sometimes the “Nos” are hiding in plain sight: “No” to adequate sleep. “No” to time with family and friends. “No” to hobbies. “No” to exercise. “No” to manageable levels of stress. “No” to long-term health and well being, etc. What are you implicitly saying “no” to when you accept (yet another) a request?
When you receive a request, look at your calendar and determine exactly which days and times you’re available to complete it. If you can’t fit it into your schedule, you don’t actually have time to say “yes.”
Save yourself some mental energy by establishing personal quotas for NPTs. For example, you could establish a quota of accepting no more than one referee request per month. When you receive a second referee request within a month, you can say “no” without a second thought.
A “no” committee is a small group of friends or mentors who can help you to decide when to say “no” to a request. The committee should be composed of people who care about you, understand your profession or discipline, and are likely to return your texts or emails promptly. When you are unsure about whether to say “no” to a request, ask your committee and respect their decision: if the committee says “no,” your answer is “no.”
Pre-tenure faculty often worry that they must say “yes” to every request because of potential negative repercussions from saying “no.” This fear is often exaggerated but is not unfounded (especially for members of historically excluded groups). Remember that people are usually much more interested in getting the help they need than they are in getting help from you in particular. Use the strategies below to craft an effective “no” that protects your reputation and your relationship with the requestor.
The so-called positive no has a “yes, no, yes” structure. The first “yes” is to yourself: acknowledge and express your needs.
The middle of this “yes” sandwich is the “no”: decline the request clearly and directly, and provide a brief explanation (be careful not to overshare). For example, “Thanks so much for the invitation! I am unable to contribute a chapter to your edited collection because I need to focus on finishing my book over the next two semesters.”
The second “yes” cultivates your relationship with the requestor by finding something to say “yes” to (e.g., by providing the name of someone else who could contribute).
When you receive a request to perform a service task, politely ask the requestor to explain why they are asking you to do it. For example: “Thanks for reaching out, Howard. It would help me to make a decision if you could say a little more about why you’d like me to join the hiring committee.” Their answer will remind you that there often isn’t a strong reason why you are being asked to perform this task rather than someone else, and provide you with resources for saying “no.” For example, if they just want someone from your department on the hiring committee, use the “yes, no, yes” strategy described above to suggest a more-senior colleague who has fewer NPTs.
When I started my first job as an assistant professor, I was very fortunate that the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences told me (explicitly and repeatedly) that I ought to use him to say “no” to institutional service requests that I did not want to accept. For instance, if someone was pressuring me to join a committee, I could respond that I am unable to join because the Dean had already approved my three-year plan, which includes other service responsibilities. In one instance, when the requestor wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, the Dean actually stepped in and redirected them. Not everyone can find such a willing and powerful ally, but if you have one, rely on them to protect your time.
Chapter 7 of The No Club has even more resources for saying “no.”
Given the various demands on your time as an assistant professor, it is vital to learn when and how to say “no.” Advice about learning to say “no” is often about learning to decline requests to perform undesirable tasks. But many early-career faculty accept professional opportunities not because they are afraid of disappointing others, but because they want to do many of the things that are asked of them. That’s why it is important for pre-tenure faculty to learn to say “no” to others and themselves.
When thinking about saying “no,” faculty should (1) Remember what matters (What do you care about? What is important for tenure?), (2) Calculate the opportunity cost of the request (What else could you be doing with that time?), (3) Consider their implicit “no” (When you accept a request, what are you implicitly saying “no” to?), (4) Consult their calendar (Do you actually have time to complete the request?), (5) Create personal quotas for service work, and (6) Convene a “no” committee to support you in saying “no.”
These strategies will help assistant professors make progress toward tenure while maintaining greater work-life balance.