balance in academia

Saying “No.” and five more ways to find balance in academia


It’s fair to say academics are good with words. Words are their wheelhouse. Verbosity goes with the territory. But perhaps through busy lives, or assumptions about what it takes to succeed – or what “success” even means – the simple statements, the human questions, are sometimes overlooked. Here are a few things to say more often, to help you find balance in academia.


Many academics I’ve worked with already know they are people pleasers. I’m with them – we want to do a good job, we want credit for it, we care about what people think. The trouble is this trait can easily be taken advantage of. Tasks pile high. A week’s worth of extra toil might start with the boss saying something like “Have you got a sec?” or “Could you just…”. We need to get better at saying “I can’t”, “Unfortunately not” or even, the curve ball: “I’m trying to get better at saying ‘No’”.

It’s not rude, it’s not hurtful – any mild offense will evaporate the next time you produce an interesting result or win a grant. And that’s more likely if you’re focussed on what you planned to do with your day, and not distracted by book chapters, presentations or meandering conversations about lab politics.


“What I really want is…”

Academics are often highly driven – thrust towards goals like PhD certificates, papers, positions or letters after their names. The path upwards is well-trodden but narrow. The competition and prestige for tenure-tracked positions create an irresistible treasure. Those fortunate to work in “fashionable” areas of research may even get a head-start on the journey up the mountain. In this environment, few question what they want – why would you? You’ve been shown “the way”!

The problem with this might be a surprise stomach punch of emotions. Say you get the position: How does it feel? How about after a year? If it’s everything you hoped – brilliant, go forth. If it isn’t: guilt might be waiting for you, questioning your choices. It can rock you. Far better to ask the question “What do I really want?” while you’re still at the crossroads, before you commit to a fight you haven’t made sure you want to win.

Now (I suppose I would say this), coaching can help here – examining your values and whether they match the paths you are choosing. If they don’t, let’s find some new paths. Feeling comfortable and happy with a goal doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve it, but it will make you fight harder.


“I don’t know.”

It’s perhaps ironic that some academics shy away from broadcasting the limits of their knowledge, given how often they pitch their tents at the fringes of the unknown. “I don’t know” can feel like some sort of admission of guilt. Yet the statement is strong, not weak. Self-awareness is enviable. Try it in response to that awkward question at a seminar – watch how many shoulders sink in awe, watch how many academics leap up, ready to help.

You’ll get new theories, ideas, suggestions for experiments. “I don’t know” opens up a conversation. You don’t have to agree, you might want to do your own research. But that’s the point – it is an invitation for others to help, but it’s also a commitment to finding out. No-one knows everything – except, maybe, for the one Prof on the front row – and taking the pressure off yourself is one route to balance in academia.


“I need some help.”

Academic life has ups and downs. It’s a rollercoaster, and because it moves so quickly it can be hard to pause, to check things. A bit like “I don’t know”, “I need some help” can feel like an admission. Yes, your PhD, your research group, your project is your own, but everybody – EVERYBODY – has had some form of help or support to get where they are.

Whatever “help” means to you – emotional reassurance, resilience training, coaching (😊) or something more practical like keeping you on time, or proof-reading. Ask. Regardless of how competitive academia can seem, it’s made up of people who are where you are or can remember what it’s like. And they will help you. With so many academic projects being driven by ‘the first author’, looking after yourself is the number one priority.


“How are you?”

At all levels of academia, we could listen more and talk less. Mental health is tested by many of the stressors, heightened emotions and pressures inside academia, not to mention the balancing act with life outside. Asking a peer, one of your students, or even your boss if they’re OK, and then just listening, without interruption, can make all the difference. Your attention in that moment may not feel like much, but it’s a gift. Obviously, some will waste the opportunity talking gossip about colleagues. But with academics often stuck in offices away from communal areas, or putting their “game faces” on for seminars or faculty meetings, the opportunity to sit and talk, can be precious. It’s actually one of the simplest and most powerful rewards of coaching, and you can offer it for free.


“I am proud of…”

Some academics are repulsed by the idea of arrogance. Watching colleagues who are… more comfortable with the idea, they retreat in the opposite direction, assuming that to tell anyone about anything they’ve done somehow makes them unbearably pompous. Pride in your achievements is not the same as boastfulness but it is a balancing act.

It’s easy to hide yourself on an academic CV, resigning blood sweat and tears to bullet points – burying the challenges, the experiences, the development that each paper, grant, or appointment gave you. Spend some time looking through your CV when you’re not updating it. Think about what went in to every step. Celebrate your achievements, because they are more than bullet points – they tell your story. And at some point, when you can say “I am proud of…” without feeling guilty, you’ll be happier telling someone else.


Most of our traits in work and life involve striking a balance. If you’d like some help finding or adjusting yours, please do get in touch.



Dr John Ankers offers down-to-earth coaching for life and work. He specialises in working with academics and University teams.


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Posted in academia, Life coaching, resilience.