New Year: “No,” You

“It will look great on your CV!”

I think any graduate student or postdoc has heard this before…usually after a mentor or supervisor has asked for you to do some sort of activity without any (or much compensation). In reality, it sounds fairly innocent; after all, as a budding academic, a lengthy and diverse CV is supposed to be the ticket to a job. However, as the years go by, and no jobs arrive, these “freebies” don’t necessarily provide the “return” they once did.  For example, taking a weekend to volunteer for a departmental outing (e.g., field weekend) takes away from working on job applications, preparing conference presentations and manuscripts, family activities, and actually taking a break from a busy work week.  For young graduate students, I see how innocent commitments to boost your CV are helpful, but once you do a few of these, is a search committee going to assign you more points or alter your ranking in a list of phenomenal job candidates?  The answer, I believe, is a resounding NO! Particularly for senior postdocs.


As senior graduate students and postdocs, we have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience.  Departments should recognize this, and not request without compensation such things as, teaching a course, leading modules in departmental outings, participating on committees, covering tutorials or labs. Justifying to us that these activities “look great on your CV” is their way of justifying it to their inner consciousness or to minimize budget expense.  Certainly, doing these activities bolsters your CV, but in the past, students/postdocs only had to spend a year or two searching for the right positions before sacrificing time for these types of activities paid off.  In this day-and-age where a person’s job search can last many years, especially if you are searching for that “right fit,” at some point these little sacrifices might not provide payoff for a very long time. Really, at what point do these sacrifices put you at a disadvantage?

Well, trying to sort out where the asymptote is, is likely fairly hard to determine and varies by the person. However, the moment you start to feel like you have been taken advantage of, or feel as if you are being treated unfairly, you can rest assured that you have reached that asymptote.  For me, this was particularly obvious. Having been asked to teach a course for free so that the department could offer enough mandated courses for the year, then being asked to take a day to lead a module for an undergraduate field day (for the third time), and then being asked to teach a full course to cover for a sabbatical.  Sure, all of this sounds like fun (and it has been) … in all incidences I heard the phrase “it will look great on your CV.” However, you know what, I don’t think teaching another course on top of the three I’ve taught is going to change how a search committee ranks me. Helping out on my third freshman field day…again, is that really going to benefit me, or is the department reaping all of the reward? All these demands have (and will) take away from my downtime, my job application preparation time, and writing manuscripts for those high-impact journals that are supposed to be the “golden ticket.” However, because as an academic I’ve been trained to never say “no,” being busy means success, and having a REALLY long CV must be a really good thing, I’ve said “yes” to all of these requests; every single one.

Clearly, I’m being cynical. There are direct benefits to saying yes and helping out my department when they need me. Doing these activities makes me a good departmental citizen. If I do well, perhaps my reference letters reflect my willingness to help out (especially if I can rope in the department head to write me one) and, interacting with students is certainly rewarding and provides practice that will benefit me once (IF) I land a faculty position. For now, I’ll keep my head down, do the work, suffer through the crazy busy times, and I’ll sleep when I get tenure…. right? or is the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” the best way to describe the academic life style.

This article was an anonymous contribution to The Fisheries Blog.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Russell A Wright says:

    While I understand the point made by the anonymous author that post-docs and students should not be over-loaded with demands on their time with the excuse that builds their CV, it is also true that all faculty, students, and appropriate staff at a university (and many agencies) should contribute some service and outreach. I do think these activities can be learning experiences broadening the capabilities of those that participate. When I make an optional request for help, I try not to make the excuse that this will help your CV but that I need the person’s help because of their expertise or just I need the help and they were available. Sharing these demands on time and effort are part of collegiality and, frankly, allow the institution to operate. Certainly the post-doc or student needs to strike a balance in their efforts, first fulfilling the output needed to achieve the most important goal in these positions that is to get a job.

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