By Sarita Jackson
As a former tenure track professor, I was often inundated by numerous service requests and invitations to participate in various activities just within the first year alone. However, I realized that I had the power to politely decline many of those requests to avoid burnout and an unproductive year. Therefore, only those requests that aligned with my research agenda, added value to my courses and enhanced my research productivity, while also contributing to the enhancement of the university, were accepted.
Time, while on the tenure track, meant research productivity. Research productivity to me meant seeing the final results of my research and conference proceedings published in some of the top journals in my field. I emphasized research productivity, because my goal was to be marketable beyond the tenure requirements of my institution at the time. The prestige of publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals, contributing to important debates in the area of international trade and sharing my findings with students brought about great satisfaction. That satisfaction outweighed the interest in getting a monetary return on the additional time and money spent outside of the office to produce. Nevertheless, producing on a consistent basis to limit any chance that I would be denied tenure in the area of research required guarding how I spent my time both inside and outside of the office. As a result, last year I successfully earned tenure and was promoted to associate professor.
In my current role as the founder of a think-tank and consulting firm, the same approach applies, but my focus has expanded. My time now means my money now! In addition to emphasizing prestige, I also focus on getting the true value of my expertise and work. This goal determines the activities and meetings that I participate in. In other words, with extremely limited time, I spend much of my work time on revenue generating activities (RGAs).
This past year and a half has been similar to the early part of my tenure track process. There are still requests for meetings, service and assistance. This time, business owners, non-profit organizations, and other individuals become solicitors of my time. I find myself politely declining some requests. For example, I have been asked to give a series of workshops on international trade, review economic development proposals, develop international trade strategies, conduct cost-assessments for exporters, and advise on setting up an import/export business. For some reason, some portion of the population feels that this level of work and expertise should just be handed over for free.
Furthermore, I have learned to detect those meetings with individuals who “just want to pick your brain” and/or push their product or service on me, which costs time with little to nothing in return. While it is flattering that there is interest in what I do, I have had to push the passion-motive to the side, since passion alone will not sustain a company or pay the bills. Again, time now means my money now!
So here are three key tips to help those academics who venture into the territory of entrepreneurship to get the true value of their worth:
1. Define your RGAs
An RGA includes those activities that will have a direct or indirect impact on your ability to get paid for your time, financial investment and expertise. Assess each meeting and activity in terms of whether or not it will lead to a paying customer or client; increased exposure to the appropriate audience; paid workshops, seminars and keynote speeches; and/or sponsorships, contracts or grants.
2. Create RGAs
When you create your RGAs, you are placing a value on your time and thus, focusing on getting paid what you are worth. You can begin by using tools such as Google Calendar to track your time. Tracking your time allows you to see clearly the amount of effort and resources to fulfill a request such as the completion of research for someone. Knowing this information will help you to make sure that you are compensated adequately for the time and resources that you have used to satisfy someone else’s need.
Additionally, you will have to research the rates of your competitor and collaborators in the field to know how much you should charge for your time on any work completed. Once these rates have been set, stick to them. This shows that you value your work and that others should too.
Finally, set a clear payment policy so that you will have control over your own value and attain the type of customer or client who will appreciate your worth.
3. Know your value within those RGAs
Having a clear understanding of your value and being able to communicate that effectively becomes important when trying to get paid for the value of what you offer. Know and clearly communicate what you bring to the table besides just a Ph.D. such as the impact of your research in the practical world, your networks, your team and/or specific results of any given project.
There are a number of other tips that can be added to this list. Nevertheless, these three have been key for me in terms of getting my first client, receiving exposure through the media and public speaking, and developing a team. Time does not just mean being organized to complete everything, rather being organized enough to cut out some things, as I learned as an academic focused on research productivity. The transition toward entrepreneurship requires broadening one’s mindset to focus on getting paid his/her true value, because your time now is your money now!
So how do you politely turn down the ‘Let me pick your brain’ types. I get requests all the time of ‘Can you take a quick look at this for me’ or ‘I’d love to get together to chat’ from people all the time where I want to reply ‘People pay me to do what you are asking for’ or even ‘Yes, I would love to waste an hour of my time to give you lots of information and get absolutely nothing from it’ . So how to tell someone they are just a time suck and moocher and my time is not over-abundant and free?
Dr. Jackson says
Hi Laney! Thank you for your question. The way that I turn down the “Let me pick your brain types” is by not committing to meet anywhere or talk at length on the phone in the first place. I often state that I am unable to meet due to a number of other commitments, i.e. RGAs, which is true. For phone conversations, I communicate my time limit up front. Other cases require a flat out “no” and being firm. I had one case where someone outright demanded that I conduct extensive research for him/her to assist three different clients. I firmly responded that the individual’s request was a part of the paid services that my company offers and that he/she should contact me when ready to discuss both the project and payment. In sum, do not commit, state your time limits up front and stick to them, and say no without feeling guilty.
Thank you for this post. On the academic side, do you (or the readers) have any suggestions for how to turn down service work?
I am now a postdoctoral researcher, and my PI is trying to get me to handle our group website. Luckily we have a web designer, but someone needs to liaise with her and the group, and set deadlines for everyone to submit content. It would most likely also involve teaching the others how to upload to the site and doing fixes whenever the site is down. I feel the PI really underestimates how much time these activities can take.
The PI is usually very helpful, and I hope to work and co-author with him for a long time. Still I’m under enormous publishing pressure, and am quite tired of service after doing a ton of it on the long road through graduate school. At my current institution I don’t have seniority, however–but due to budget cuts, there are no opportunities for me to stay on after the postdoc either.
When can we know what’s in the purview of our job description, and when it’s ok to say no? I’m hired for research but am also teaching some (a manageable amount), although it’s not really in my contract. Thank you for any advice you might provide.