PhD Life

The importance of setting boundaries & saying no during your PhD.

Setting boundaries and saying no during your PhD encourages others to take accountability for their work, provides you with better time management, and enables you to focus on the things that really matter.

Setting boundaries is an extremely important part of your life, not just in the context of your PhD, but often setting boundaries during your PhD can be extremely difficult and complex to manage – especially in the early days of your PhD when you’re still learning the ropes. Setting boundaries can be thought of that little world called ‘no’, in effect, it’s those moments where you draw an invisible line (a boundary) between what you want/should do and what someone or something else wants/needs you to do. In premise, this sounds simple and as if it should be obvious, but for most of us, understanding when or how to say no and setting clear boundaries can be a little hazy. In fact, a lot of the negatives that come with doing a PhD typically stem from poor boundaries.

The more obvious negatives centre around your workload (which inadvertently has a knock-on impact on your time management), your working hours, and managing your PhD supervisor. In fact, if you don’t get a grasp of your boundaries during your PhD it’s likely to increase the chances of you quitting your PhD. If you manage to persevere, you’re likely to take these poor boundaries with you into your next career or professional journey – without things ever improving. Given this, it’s important to begin setting boundaries that are healthy during your PhD and not a minute later.

Setting boundaries is a complex behaviour, so this post attempts to provide a very brief overview of boundaries and their importance. In short, setting boundaries is saying no. However, it’s not always easy to say no to things during your PhD. If you’ve spent a lot of your career or life people pleasing, or avoiding disappointing others being thrown into a PhD environment is likely to take advantage of the way you conduct yourself. Unusual requests, last minute deadlines, other people’s work and long work hours are likely to be a core component of your PhD. Sometimes you might even ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’. It happens a lot of the time, usually supervisors ask you to do ‘extra work’, write someone else’s paper, present on behalf of someone else – on material that isn’t even connected to your PhD at all. You struggle to say no, get swept up in the requests, try to avoid letting others down and want to appear competent to more senior members of staff.

Setting boundaries is difficult, if you say no to your supervisor, they might get upset or think you’re not capable enough (*cough cough* imposter syndrome). However, the funny thing is that the reason you’re being asked to do extra is not because you should be doing it, it’s usually because someone else down the line sucked at managing their own deadlines. If other people are asking you to do their work, it’s probably because they struggle setting boundaries themselves and have poor time manage skills! Of course, we don’t necessarily rationalise it this way, but if they were able to manage their own work, they wouldn’t need someone else to do it for them.

Red hand signifies setting boundaries and saying no.

This is where setting boundaries comes in. At first it’s hard, but ultimately if you’re good at setting firm boundaries and saying no to non-PhD related requests – especially the ones that are just thrown at you last minute without warning, you’ll slowly start forcing those around you to get better at managing their own work load. If by you saying no to this additional work means the work won’t get done, someone will have to face the music. Facing the consequences for missing a deadline is never pleasant. However, due to this unpleasantness we’ll be more determined to ensure this won’t happen again. By getting this important piece of feedback, where a consequence is experienced, we’re more likely to do what we can to prevent it from happening again.

If someone else asks you to do something, you say no, they face a consequence for missing a deadline, they’ll be less inclined to miss it again in the future. Setting boundaries and saying no creates a feedback loop for others so they know that they can’t get sloppy and rely on you to fix things. In doing so, they’re less likely to come to you again for unusual requests and therefore frees you up time to actually focus on the things that matter, like your friends and family, writing throughout your PhD, and polishing your thesis. If you have a habit of preventing bad things happening to others you’re likely to only perpetuate the problem as they’ll continue to rely on you to bail them out.

A similar feature that comes along with setting boundaries and having consequences is accountability/responsibility. Often people ask you to do things because they fail to acknowledge their responsibility in a given task. Using the examples mentioned previously, it could stem from a supervisor failing to acknowledge that they’re actually the primary investigator (PI) on a project and instead expect you to manage a lot of their duties. Having consequences is always useful here. The more important a task is might actually make it easier to set boundaries and say no. Think about it, if there’s an extremely important deliverable which you’re not accountable for (or shouldn’t be accountable for), and the deadline isn’t met – do you really think your supervisor or whoever it is will turn up to their senior manager and say ‘oh it’s because my PhD student didn’t do it?’ – of course not.

Just like you wouldn’t blame your pet dog for not writing your thesis (well you might but that’s a post for another day), it sounds utterly ridiculous if you try and pass on responsibility which ultimately should be yours to own. The more you’re able to create these experiences in your PhD life the more likely those around you will take responsibility and accountability for their work, which again creates a feedback loop where they’re less likely to give you tasks to complete which lie outside your role and job description.

Here’s a dog trying to look the part as he writes a thesis.

Thinking about consequences and responsibility in the context of setting boundaries is a small part. However, the key reason why we should set boundaries is not to teach others a lesson, but it’s to improve our own quality of life. Setting boundaries on jobs will improve your time management skills, but it will also make you happier. Spending less hours at work and spending more time on projects you actually want to do will improve your productivity and also reduce the chances of burnout. The same is true for your personal life, saying no to concerts, late events, certain foods, whatever else that doesn’t add value to your life is important as it frees up time for you to focus on what makes you happy and enjoy the things you want to enjoy. Furthermore, the more you say no you actually, counterintuitively, build trust. Admittedly, saying no to thing’s isn’t always easy and it can upset people.

This is healthy and to be expected. Looking back to responsibility and accountability, if people get annoyed or upset with you saying no it’s usually because they’re projecting their own insecurity – aka it has absolutely nothing to do with you and they have their own stuff to figure out. But if you say no to the things you don’t want to do, or the ideas you don’t align yourself with, it enables you to build trust with others – even those who may not like your no. Saying no and serving your own needs is honesty in its purest form, as we know it can be hard to say and can elicit social disproval. However, being able to say no in a safe place, without it affecting your sense of self-worth or belonging means that on the times you do say yes, or do offer, it will be experienced more fully.

Those around you will be more appreciative, and you’ll be living a more authentic life. You won’t be doing things for the sake of it. You’ll be doing them out of genuine honesty and kindness. This is the place we should all strive for. This leads into respect, feeling valued and seen in the workplace, and in your life. Saying no and setting boundaries creates an environment to feed and nurture your self-worth and personal development.

This ties in nicely with the next point which is often overlooked when we speak about setting boundaries, that being that everything cannot be experienced. Sometimes the tendency to say yes to everything is because we don’t want to miss out on opportunities, the fear of missing out (FOMO) takes over. However, the caveat with this is that the more things you say yes to, the less time you have to nurture a few or one of them. Typically, the best experiences during your PhD and life more generally is not the breadth of your experiences, but the depth of them. If you spend less time juggling ten different things (because you’ve practiced setting boundaries), you have more time to invest in one or two core projects or opportunities. If publishing is a key goal for you, it makes more sense to put most things down and just focus on writing and publishing.

You’re more likely to reach your goal and have the sense of fulfilment you seek if you focus on one thing at a time. Your ability to complete your goals is significantly easier if you have less background noise and distractions. This is also a key strategy to adopt when trying to maximise the most out of your PhD. A nice and easy parallel to conceptualise this is the idea of travelling. You can try to experience every single country on the planet, but in order to do so you have to give up living in one place for an extended period of time. In doing so, you’ll never be able to fully experience and appreciates the intricacies of one city. Think about it, visiting London or New York is cool and a great tourist attraction, but you can’t fully appreciate what London or New York have to offer unless you live there for a while. Those unique, quirky, small, niche cafés or restaurants that are full of personality won’t be discovered if you’re only passing through. You have to practice setting boundaries and saying no to the other countries, to additional travelling (akin to additional PhD projects) in order to fully experience and appreciate one city (similar to that of your actual PhD or a publication). Put simply, less is more. Focus on quality of your work and your experiences over the quantity of them.

Setting boundaries and saying no is extremely important to enjoying and appreciating your life and particularly your PhD. It’s not easy, but this post hopefully provides you with a stronger justification to say no to all those extra tasks that fail to serve you.

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