Say No to This?

May and June have been the busiest months of my PhD so far.

In May, I attended three conferences (Culture, Costume & Dress, The Faith of William Shakespeare, and the 2017 Midlands3Cities Research Festival) and had a fair few writing deadlines to contend with. I distilled three months’ worth of research into my first PhD conference paper, converted the contents into an academic poster for a separate event, wrote my first performance review for an academic journal, and completed my End-of-Year PhD progress report. Just to top it all off, we had to move out of our house for three weeks while the entire ground floor area was dug out and replaced with fresh concrete. No biggie.

June has been just as busy. This month kicked off with BritGrad – a wonderful (but exhausting) annual three-day conference held at the Shakespeare Institute – and has since involved multiple trips to London (to see shows at the Globe, and to Co-Chair the NRN’s fourth annual symposium). Last week was the most exciting one yet: I was lucky enough to give a talk about my research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on Wednesday, and on Thursday won a prize at the University of Birmingham’s 2017 Research Poster Conference. Throughout both months, I still had to factor in my monthly supervision, weekly palaeography class, and several days on placement at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It’s all been a little bit bonkers.

May June

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how many opportunities it’s sensible to say yes to.

Saying YES to pretty much everything that’s been thrown my way has resulted in some really cool experiences; I started taking up exciting extra-curricular opportunities during the first year of my BA at the University of Warwick and didn’t look back. I applied for funding to do summer research projects, volunteered to help in the running of conferences, and later took up a long-term placement with a London-based arts organisation (Dash Arts) as part of my dissertation project. Doing these things led to more awesome opportunities. I joined the New Researchers’ Network Committee right after I graduated from Warwick, and became Co-Chair of the Network after two wonderful years of organising academic events for PhD students and early career researchers. I Chaired BritGrad last year, and was then invited to conduct promptbook research on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m now (metaphorically speaking) acting as an enormous net trying to catch all of the cool things Midlands3Cities (my PhD funding body) is throwing at me. Training events? Conferences? Funding for international research trips? Yes please – I’ll take them all.

But I’m becoming increasingly aware that it’s not a good idea to say yes to everything. If I do, there’ll come a point when the fun side-projects will bring my PhD progress grinding to a halt. There’s a very fine balance between having extra experiences on the side of a research project and letting opportunities take priority. One of the challenges of doing a PhD is getting the balance right.

A few months ago, I decided to establish my own personal No Committee. My Committee is formed of four people that I trust, and who know me and my academic interests very well. Every time a new opportunity comes up, I run it past each of them individually and ask for their honest opinion on whether or not I should do it. This mostly works very well: getting this sort of advice before making a decision gives me confidence that I’m doing the right thing. It’s definitely not a watertight solution, though. Something came up last month that I felt I couldn’t/shouldn’t say no to, even though the consensus from my Committee was that I should leave it alone. It all worked out fine in the end this time, but it showed that my YES instincts still overpower everything else when it might not be in my best interests for them to do so. (My partner – a valued member of the aforementioned Committee – has since described the whole thing as a farce.)

How do you decide which opportunities to say yes to, and how do you know when you’re working at capacity?