Electrical and Computer Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

The Power of Saying No in Grad School

When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to do everything I could. There were tons of courses I wanted to take, extracurriculars I wanted to participate in, and events I wanted to attend. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to try new things, so I tend not to say “no” to many opportunities that come my way.

As a result, I ended up taking the maximum course load (or more) for six straight semesters and participated in around four extracurriculars each semester (which totaled to an extra 10-15 hours per week). To be honest, I went to a school where taking a maximum course load was not that unusual, but as I later learned, “it’s like being a kid in a candy store. Even though you might want to try everything, that doesn’t mean you should.”

I loved my college years, but I won’t deny that they were pretty rough at times. In my first year I was in Army ROTC, which required me to show up for physical training three times a week at 6:30 am. I’m not a morning person – you can imagine how that went. Even in my senior year when I reduced my course load to just about the minimum that I could, I decided to apply for pretty much every study abroad scholarship and graduate fellowship I could, as well as take the GREs and apply to 9 graduate schools. I wrote applications for almost the entire semester, 16 in total, of which 5 were successful. I slept very little at night, and very frequently in class.

When I started grad school, I planned to do something similar – get involved in as many projects as I could and narrow my focus to something that interested me. Fortunately for me, this backfired fairly quickly when I realized that the standard for publishing research in my field was much higher and much more competitive than I thought. I really didn’t know a thing about how to write a good research paper, but I was trying to take on a full load of projects anyway.

Then my advisor told me one day, “Saying no is an important skill you need to learn in grad school.” It’s stuck with me ever since.

Grad school can be an especially stressful time, and the pressure to do as much as possible is quite strong at some universities. But it’s also a very common time for students to burn out. Saying no to activities, be they academic or extracurricular, is important. The Ph.D. is about depth, not breadth, and while it’s certainly important to keep in mind how your field and your specialty fits into the big picture, it’s good to focus on the important task: making contributions to open problems at the edge of human knowledge. Don’t be afraid to say no to something that might sidetrack you from that goal.

However, I will conclude by saying that it’s important to have a life too. Get involved in an extracurricular or two, whether it’s a student organization or just a weekly game night with friends. On the days when you’re really stressed, having some sort of activity where you can unwind a bit can work wonders for your well-being and your productivity.

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