Full disclosure: this is an area of the doctoral process—nay, perhaps the life process—that I am still working on. However, that does place me in a particularly sympathetic mindset regarding the struggle of juggling far more things than is advisable for a human being to juggle (and, as a result, learning deliberately how to set some things down before they fall and break and spill all over the place).
This juggling process, of course, is also known as, being a doctoral researcher. It’s an unavoidable condition of our work.
Fact is, though: we spend a great deal of our time fretting about a hypothetical lack of opportunities that may or may not come our way, or worrying over pending applications for funding or training or travel or research—and all of this, at least partially, is rooted in an anxiety over the idea of what we won’t have.
In reality, however, we often (possibly more so than not) find ourselves facing just the opposite problem: a veritable glut of opportunities. This conference (whether you’re presenting or otherwise), that training module, some panel you might serve on, or internship you might elect to take, or a travel bursary you might make use of for research or language that might then involve a direct-flight-connection to another event, resulting in your flat in Scotland sitting empty for months at a time and then—
You see what I mean?
Regardless of whether this is a portrait of your life stroke-for-stroke, or an exaggeration of what is still a conflict of interests (in a very literal sense) in your daily life, such a state of affairs is often characterised as the “best” problem to have. Yet it is still a problem that needs solving: in the face of many excellent, how do you know which to take and which to pass up? How do you say ‘no’ when everything sounds like a great idea in one respect or another?
Again: I’m still working through this one myself, but I can offer some pointers based on the insights I’ve come to across my own grappling with this particular issue.
A Good Problem is Still a Problem
Trite though the sentiment is—I suspect we’ve all heard it more than once—but it’s important to remember that the idea of good stress having similar effects on body and mind to bad stress is not merely an excuse. Take the fact that you have a stressful situation—because decisions can often be stressful!—and address it with the same gravitas and sincerity that you would a more classic-styled negative problem. Don’t simply brush it aside, or repeat the mantra of “I’m so very lucky to have this problem, I should be overjoyed!” (unless that helps, then by all means!). Consider, instead, setting the “shoulds” aside and focusing on what you actually do feel, which may be any number of things, but likely includes uncertain and overwhelmed.
Those are real, concrete emotions with sometimes-negative side-effects, but they’re also ones that, once you break them down to those small component parts of the “good problem” are things you’re almost certainly familiar with. Knowing what you’re dealing with and what you’re “doing battle” of a sort alongside is half the challenge: once you’ve identified the players, you can start to access your toolkit of reactions to these sorts of situations: being overwhelmed, like perhaps when you had too many deadlines all at once, or feeling uncertain, perhaps as you may have in your school search before accepting an offer for you doctoral position. Odds are, this is not the first time you’ve dealt with these sorts of emotions—it just may be the first time they’ve come alongside things that are objectively seen by society as “good” things, and so they can masquerade for longer than normal as the unknown, and in so doing, only increase the associated stress involved. Identify them, give them a name, and then start using the same resources you’ve developed over many years and contexts to tackle the problem, regardless of it’s “kind”.
Weigh the Pros and Cons Holistically
Personally, I dislike pros-and-cons lists. For some very odd and unhelpful reason, I have a tendency to feel badly when the sides aren’t even, thereby largely invalidating the exercise. That said: while it doesn’t necessarily help me come to a quantitative “better” solution to any given conundrum, a) that doesn’t mean it won’t help you, and more importantly b) the quantitative listing, and the “winning” of one column over the other, isn’t the only—or necessarily the most useful—thing to come out of weighing your pros and cons.
We often highlight pros and cons logically—this thing will help me get better at this, will open opportunities for that—but the idea of using this process holistically, and therefore getting more insight for your decisions than just the numbers, is to really weigh how each choice will impact you. Do you absolutely hate the location that an event is taking place in? Does the miserable cast that may lend to your days outweigh the benefits of the programme? Do you want to be involved in a given project, or do you feel obligated? Think of the visceral, personal aspects of the opportunities offered to you, and let them be as real in the decision making process as any other aspect: because in your daily life? They will be just as real.
At first blush, this sounds as if I’m referencing the long-term impact/effects/benefits of a given decision for your future self and future goals, and while that’s an important factor, no doubt.
But in addition to that, I’m more interested in the questions of a) the timeliness of a given opportunity, and b) the rarity of said opportunity.
Is an event, or training, or conference taking place that is particularly timely to either world events or to your specific research? Think a cultural movement, or a momentous anniversary—something that won’t necessarily happen again, or if it does, may take quite a long time. If that’s the case, the urgency of doing something now is underscored, and sacrifices in other places and aspects of your life may be called for in order to avil yourself of what may be a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Keep that in mind, but also be realistic about it: is it woth the investment, even if the opportunity may never come again? Remember that “once in a lifetime” as a label boosts excitement and immediate need, but the actual value for oneself isn’t always matched in kind. Be critical, but keep this aspect close to mind.
Second, on the other side of this coin: will the event happen again? Can you schedule it, or something very similar, at a time when you don’t already have so much going on, or at least at a time when you’re better suited to taking part? This is usually true of research programmes and language study: they’re annual or better, in most cases, and maybe your summer is far too jam-packed to manage month in Paris learning French this year, so plan it into next year, when you’ll be able to better engage. Maybe summers aren’t your favourite time of year, and you want to look at cooler months to travel in—check and see if bursaries and funding might not be flexible. There’s never any harm in asking, and it helps you to not only juggle your options, but cross out those that just won’t work.
You Do You
At the end of the day, however, there’s something to be said about trusting your intuition; there’s some value in the idea that we don’t know what we really want until we take one thing off the table, and wait to see how to impacts us. As difficult as it sometimes is to see in foresight, hindsight usually proves true the adage that it’s just as important to know what we want, as it is to know what we don’t want; similarly, I’d propose that as much as we’re shaped and changed by what we chose to do and where we chose to place our energy, we are just as much shaped and changed by the thing we thoughtfully, intentionally chose to set aside.
And as much as we might like to kid ourselves, we cannot do everything. And so there will always be things we set aside, opportunities we don’t take. So the best we can do is be true to what really speaks to us, and to go with what lights the fire in us that led us toward doctoral work in the first place. Let that be the last, and perhaps most significance, gauge of when to say no: if you’re not alight with what an opportunity is, or at the very least what it could mean? Set it aside, at least for now, so that you can make the best choice for you, in the now, and enjoy it/take full advantage of it by allowing yourself the time and the space that comes with saying ‘no’ to the other possibilities. It may sound terrifying, but overall?
People say it’s a good thing, and my own so-far-limited-cut-slowly-growing experience with it has thus far been promising.
Good luck giving it a go on your own terms.