Welcome to LeafSpring, an anonymized advice blog by a group of scientists on the tenure track. Send your questions to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com

Jul 20, 2016

How do I choose what opportunities to say yes to?

Dear Leafspring,

As a new faculty member, I am being offered the chance to get involved with many things, ranging from new collaborative projects to workshops at conferences to editorial board memberships. How do I choose what to say yes to and what to say no to?

Besieged With Opportunities

Dear BWO,

Congratulations on your faculty position!

This problem doesn't get any smaller as you go further in your career. You'll probably feel this acutely as a new faculty member. You suddenly have more autonomy (and research money) than you've had before, but you may not have established rules for when to say yes or no. There's a lot of literature around this topic, that goes under the heading of "strategy."

We have a lot of advice, but it's all motivated by two bigger considerations -

  1. What do you want to accomplish?

  2. What activities will contribute to your career positively?

The former is up to you to define, but the latter is common across most research-intensive faculty positions.

Something else to bring into the mix is that you will have less research time than you did as a graduate student or postdoc. Almost every faculty member we've talked to is surprised at how much of their time is taken up by meetings and travel.

Developing a strategy

If you're at a research intensive institution, you will be evaluated almost completely on your research output. The first level of evaluation is grants and pubs, but even if you have these, you need to establish yourself as a leading expert in your area of research. This means being visible beyond merely publishing and will involve some mixture of giving talks, serving on grant panels, organizing workshops/conferences, and/or joining editorial boards.

This is where you can leverage practicing open science; if you blog or tweet, or post open reviews, you can gain visibility in less traditional ways. Some of us get more invitations to speak because we're active on social media, for example. As long as you have something to say when you get there, it doesn't matter how you get invited.

Back to your question - when should you say yes or no? For each activity you should decide whether or not the opportunity fits with your goals. Always do your best to accept invitations in your core scientific research areas, of course!

If you're being invited to speak on "open science" and that's something that is central to how your lab operates, you may want to say yes. If, on the other hand, you're open but it's not a primary mission of your lab, you may be better off declining the opportunity. Michael Porter has written that "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do". Every time you say "no" you're better defining your lab's strategy.

The most important consideration is that your strategy should make sense to you and help you make new discoveries, write clear grants, pubs, and achieve visibility -- especially within the community(s) you want to be identified with. At the end of the day, though, you won't be evaluated as much on how you became successful as on whether you are successful. A coherent strategy will help you do that.

How should you get there?

We can't give you a strategy. Your strategy will depend on the type of research you do and the other activities you're interested in. Instead, we can point you towards some resources that we've found particularly helpful:

Some of us have found it helpful to keep a "things I've said 'No' to" list. This can help to provide perspective on your visibility even at times when you feel invisible because you're declining opportunities to focus on other things (professional or personal). It can also counter the worry that "If I don't say yes now, I'll never get asked to do this again," which is almost never true.