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Careers Café

Thinking strategically about your career


It is not uncommon for someone to state that whatever it is they are suggesting to you will be “good for your career”.

  • Teaching this course
  • Working with this professor
  • Attending this conference
  • Serving on this committee
  • Publishing in this journal
  • Developing networks that extend beyond academe
  • etc.

The trouble is that if you did everything anyone told you was “good for your career”, you would have trouble finding time to sleep, eat, play with your kids, or read the newspaper.

In fact, one of the things that is probably contributing to extended completion times for PhDs is all the “good for your career” things doctoral candidates are doing and the limits those place on finishing the dissertation.

This problem doesn’t go away once you get your PhD though. Nor when you get tenure. Or even when you are promoted to full professor.

Your career is unique to you

Most of the people telling you something will be good for your career are well intentioned. They are not deliberately trying to mislead you.

However, they are probably making assumptions about the kind of career you want. And those assumptions could be mistaken.

In addition, they may be basing their judgement on inaccurate knowledge of how things work.

Just because someone says that something will be good for your career doesn’t mean you have to do it. And it certainly doesn’t mean you have to do it now.

Identify your priorities

What direction do you want to be going in?

What kinds of experience, skills, and knowledge do you need to move in that direction?

Which of those will you prioritize now?

You can’t do anything well if you have too much on your plate. And nothing done half-heartedly and/or late is going to help your career in practice, even if it is something that could help your career in theory.

Strategies for responding to requests

If someone suggests you do something, the best response is to thank them for their suggestion and tell them you will think about it.

If it is something that has an impact on others (serving on a committee, teaching a class, contributing to a conference or book), suggest a date when you will get back to them with an answer. And then reply by then. If you are going to say no, it is better to do so quickly so they have lots of time to find someone else.

Ask for more details if you need them. Seek out other advice to help you make a good decision.

Don’t over-explain. No is a complete sentence. So is yes.

You get to decide what is good for your career.


Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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