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As a young academic recently flown from the nest, I am starting to figure out my own research interests. I now feel like I have too many, though. During a postdoc where I struggled to fit in and produce papers, I started or agreed to take part in something like 8 projects, a couple of them well outside my field, requiring the acquisition of new skills. I've tried principal-component-like analysis to prioritize projects, splitting my week up into chunks of time devoted to particular projects, and various other methods to make meaningful progress. I think, though, I really just need to decommit myself from a couple projects or push them off by six months. What is the best way to do this without building up a bad reputation and alienating future collaborators? Or will most senior folk understand the situation as the mistakes of a young buck and not take it personally?

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    How "formally committed" to these projects (the ones you want to drop) are you? Allowing early-stage discussions to fizzle out is a bit different than underdelivering on formal, funded projects where you've been assigned real responsibilities. – cag51 May 7 at 18:06
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    Are you still in this post-doc? How much time do you have left? Adjusting your priorities to ensure you finish things before you run out of time is a very natural, easy-to-accept reason, if it applies to you. – cag51 May 7 at 18:08
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    Only one of the projects is a "must-finish"-- the rest are born out of e-mails I sent to people I thought were interesting, or visiting other universities. I'm moving on to another postdoc, and some of these projects I can take with me. – artificial_moonlet May 7 at 20:03
  • The more I think about it, I think an underlying problem is determining what commitment is... perhaps part of being an academic is accepting the tension of letting a project stew in an indeterminate phase, without currently investing in it or completely shutting it off. I think about half my projects are in that phase, in which case, maybe I don't need to take any action? – artificial_moonlet May 8 at 6:10
  • See this as well : academia.stackexchange.com/q/130266/72855 – Solar Mike May 8 at 12:31
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Better to withdraw explicitly rather than just disappear.

After you decide which are the projects that you can and must stick with, go to the leader(s) of the others - in person - and tell them you must withdraw. Tell them your "youthful enthusiasm" overcame your good sense and you are in danger of shortchanging everyone's expectations and that you value their work too much to get in the way at this time.

A good time to be a bit honest and humble.

But this sort of thing has to be done face to face. Email isn't going to be a good vehicle. If face to face is actually impossible it is much harder. In such cases you may want to offer, in email, say, to stay connected but to take a lesser role. That is the sort of thing that would likely come up in a personal meeting in any case.


Note that you don't have to be a youth to have "youthful enthusiasm". See, for example: Paul McCartney age 73

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    Hmm. I'm definitely enthusiastic, but "childish" sounds a bit unfair. From what I've observed in my field, many professors are way more over committed than I am and make zero apologies for the screw-ups they cause. Also, as I mentioned above, only one of the projects is actually connected to a grant, and I have no doubts about finishing that one. – artificial_moonlet May 7 at 20:06
  • Also, most of my collaborators don't live in the same country, so face-to-face is not at all reasonable. – artificial_moonlet May 7 at 20:08
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    Actually "boyish enthusiasm" is a US colloquism. That is all I meant. But trying to be a bit less sexist about it. Trying not to offend can wind up offensive, I guess. Sorry. – Buffy May 7 at 20:20
  • Much harder, of course if you can't actually see them. It is much harder to seem sincere. – Buffy May 7 at 20:21
  • Hahaha I deeply appreciate that. – artificial_moonlet May 7 at 20:32
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When I moved to my first faculty position, my advisor told me your time is your most valuable resource, be very careful how you commit it. It has proven to be very true, especially since I had my baby. As a young academic I drowned myself in commitments to a point I almost had a burnout.

I will advise you differently than the rest:

  • If you have committed explicitly to deliver something, then you have to deliver that. Your “street credit” is on the line. As a young academic, and still doing a postdoc, the last thing you need is for people to think you bail on your responsibilities.
  • If these are side projects, meaning just some group emails or initial discussions, then just “let them go”. If people actually need your input, they will ask you explicitly. If not, then your better not meddling.
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    I'd love to combine this with the first response. I don't actually think your advice is all that different-- it seems I have to first understand which things are promised deliverables, which things are whimsical side projects, and which things are in an amorphous middle phase. Without much explicit guidance from my PI this past year, it's been a real, tangible struggle figuring all of this out. – artificial_moonlet May 9 at 19:57

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