Learning when to say no to yourself and others

Learning when to say ‘no’ is something of a fine art. It’s something that a lot of people struggle with in their daily lives in general, but I think the struggle is equally, if not more, applicable to PhD life. From personal experience, I know how hard it is to say no to both requests, as well as to myself while doing my research.

When doing a PhD saying no to yourself, and learning when to stop, are hugely important. I ended up thinking of the topic of this blog post for this very reason. I was doing research for a chapter about Beowulf, which is a hugely saturated topic. You could spend an entire PhD, and probably several more after that, just reading all of the secondary criticism about this one poem. I fell into a huge rabbit hole – the footnotes of every article that I read led me to five more. Instead of my pile of ‘to read’ papers getting smaller, it just kept increasing.

It’s really hard to stop yourself at this point. You think, ‘what if something crucial is in one of these papers?’, or ‘what if I miss something really important, and my examiners tear me to shreds for not reading this book, or that paper?’. You put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect. But at some point, you just have to let go. You’re never going to be able to read everything – it’s just not possible. Once you’ve gone through all of the key research papers and books in your immediate field (the most influential studies, or ones with a similar theme to yours), it’s either time to start writing, or to start skimming. The latter I have found useful for helping myself let go – it’s okay to skim an article after a few pages if it becomes clear it’s not relevant, or to read the abstract and decide against reading it in the first place. Time is precious when doing a PhD, so as long as you’re confident you haven’t missed any key reading, you can justify moving on. Chances are that the extra things aren’t going to be crucial – the amount of times I’ve read an article because it was cited in another, and it turns out to not be relevant at all, are countless.

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Believe it or not, this is my pile of ‘still to read’ for this chapter

The same pressure that we put on ourselves also affects the amount of responsibilities that we take on. It almost feels unnatural to say no to things asked of you during the PhD – there are such high expectations of all of us, and that we put on ourselves, that it feels like we have to agree to everything, seize every opportunity that comes our way, and buckle to the pressure to ‘do it all’. I have to admit that I’m prone to this, especially because my OCD manifests in perfectionism, so that I feel like if I don’t do everything that’s asked of me it becomes a failure, something I did wrong, and that I’m inadequate and not good enough. This is only exacerbated when you start comparing yourself to other PhD researchers who just seem to be perfect. It’s a slippery slope into imposter syndrome.

But we simply can’t do it all. Most of us are under time constraints due to funding, and have little option other than to finish within 3 years. Just doing a PhD alone in that amount of time is a challenge, and when you add onto that other commitments – writing articles, doing public engagement activities, going to conferences, teaching, working or doing work experience, and more – it becomes almost impossible to cram all of this into 3 years, even if you never take holidays or breaks. For your own sanity, mental health, and stress levels, not to mention stopping yourself from burning out, you have to prioritise, and this also means learning to say no.

Saying no because you’ve already got enough on your plate – both to yourself and others –  is okay. It’s not a sign of weakness or of failure. I actually think it’s a sign of strength – to be tuned into yourself and your limits, and to be assertive and uncompromising about them. Sometimes, you just have to put yourself first and turn down requests, or shut off that critical part of your brain. This is certainly a skill, and one that I’m still grappling with, but it’s an important one to master.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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