In the laboratory, reagents are often limitless. In fact, you’re bound only by your imagination and your stir-plate space. But what about time? It’s the most precious reagent of all, it seems. You can’t get more time, no matter how hard you try or how much money you’re willing to spend.
So how should you use your time, especially when you have time to spare? These lulls don’t happen just during the slow summer hours of one’s undergraduate years or after retirement. Every now and again, you will find yourself with spare time, and someone will ask you for some of that time, perhaps to take on a volunteer opportunity or to do some nonprofit work on the side. How do you determine whether to accept or decline?
Before you say no to anything, I suggest you determine what you want to say yes to. Instead of asking yourself, “Should I take on this volunteer activity that my friend asked me to do?” or “Should I spend more time in the lab and in the library?” it’s worthwhile to ponder the bigger questions: “What am I hoping to accomplish with my time?” and “What are my goals?” Asking these questions can help orient the use of your time in the directions that you want to take. For those who have just completed a big task like defending a PhD thesis or a large, challenging work project, these questions can serve as a check: “Do I want more of what I just did?” or “Do I want something else as well?”
If you have a professional goal to pursue, these are the simplest decisions to make. If you desire great responsibility at work (and the larger paycheck that often comes with it), find ways to excel and to stretch your abilities. Talk with your leadership, and ask them how they would suggest you improve. Offer to spend more time working on key projects, take time to read the relevant literature at home, and foster relationships with mentors, either inside or outside work. Saying yes to these activities may close the door to other activities for now, but it’s worth the sacrifice.
I have found unexpected joy in saying yes to volunteer activities. For a number of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with my local American Chemical Society section. It has been a joy to be a part of a group of chemists working together to craft a strong local community and to bring programming that is both useful and fun to chemists who live in our area. I’ve learned skills about networking, budget writing, and grant writing that have been useful to advancing my career. Most of all, I have found friends and compatriots outside my company and my home life. This has been worth the time that I might have spent resting or working more on my blog.
When should you say no? This may be a controversial opinion, but I believe that if you are a senior graduate student who is within a year or two of graduation, you should be much more selective and be willing to say no to volunteer activities that do not direct you toward what is next, whether that is a postdoctoral position, full-time position in industry, or academia. That is not to say that you would never do such activities, nor should you deny those activities that give you joy and fulfillment, but it’s such a crucial time and it’s important to focus on finishing.
I know that it can be difficult to say no to opportunities, especially when they seem fun. When you’re speaking with those who have asked for your help but you have decided otherwise, respond quickly. There is nothing worse for organizers than unanswered emails. Tell people that you have thought about it and that you’ve decided to pursue your own priorities. Be sincere and tell them about your thought process and why you’ve decided what’s important for you. I’ve found people to be respectful and appreciative of sincere decisions. These choices are difficult but will grant you the clarity to take your journey in the directions that you want to go.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.