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I'm a PhD student in a pretty large lab, and have come from a more theoretical background than the other members, so sometimes they ask me to help out with theoretical parts of projects. Generally I like this, but a postdoc recently asked me to help out with his project, and I tried to help but it has gone poorly. We've gotten nowhere, I find his problem ill-defined and don't actually understand what he wants from me, and he even seems to want me to take lead on the project. At this point, I'm not interested. Recently he emailed me asking for progress and I told him I hadn't had time to work on it, because I had 3+ other projects that I'm working on.

Then he suggested emailing my supervisor to ask if my supervisor could "give me more time to work on his project". I don't want this. Also, I briefly talked to my supervisor about this, and he agreed that it wasn't worth allocating time to if I wasn't interested. How do I communicate to this guy that my supervisor doesn't dictate what I spend time on, and I'm just not interested in following up at this point - politely? I literally just don't know what to say.

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    It's worth noting that in long run, in academia you'll pretty much always will have far more projects, research ideas and potential collaborations that you'll be able to execute even if you genuinely would be interested in them. – Peteris May 21 at 18:36
  • The question of how to give someone a rejection is culture dependent and in different countries there's a different best practice. Specifying where you are located would be helpful. – Christian May 23 at 8:41
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Your project is nice, but I now decided for myself that I can't invest more time in it. I'm too busy with other projects which have priority for my current research interests (so, talking to my advisor won't fix the issue).

And just repeat that same basic point when he tries to argue/discuss with you.

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    I mostly agree with this answer, except "your project is nice, but" sounds like a fake compliment. I would replace that with a genuine statement about the past (if you can say it honestly): "I really enjoyed working with you on this project earlier this year. However, going forward I am too busy with other projects..." – 6005 May 20 at 13:35
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    Alternatively: "Thanks for your interest in continuing to involve me." – 6005 May 20 at 13:36
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    "Thanks for your interest in continuing to involve me" is a bit icky. When you're rejecting someone, the only nice thing you mention shouldn't be the fact that they were interested in you. – lighthouse keeper May 20 at 15:24
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    @lighthousekeeper: I think "nice, but" sounds very negative -- worse than not even including a compliment. If you want to include a fake mild compliment, maybe structure the e-mail in the opposite order, with the fake mild compliment to the end? : "Talking to my advisor won't fix the issue: my other projects have priority for my current research interests, so I can't invest more time in yours (much as I'd like to)." – ruakh May 20 at 20:07
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    @ruakh "much as I'd like to" can easily be a venue to bring up the topic later again when OP seems to have more time again for some reason. I'd be careful with that. – Frank Hopkins May 20 at 23:06
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I think the issue you are facing is an important life lesson I had to learn (just an opinion). I think the real root of this issue is you feel bad. You don't like the idea of letting the other person down, and it makes you feel obligated. Maybe what I am stating is obvious, because if you weren't interested, and you felt comfortable saying no, then you would have by now.

The first thing I learned, is that when I pretend I am interested in something that somebody else is doing, they expect I truly am. I get their hopes up. They are starting to plan with me included in those plans. In other words, it's a waste of their time, and the sooner you say no, the better is is for them. So don't feel bad. You are helping them out and are helping them find somebody who actually is interested and will contribute sooner. And if you are friends with this person, you risk making the friendship/professional relationship go sour if you don't contribute like they expect you to. They might see you has phony or lazy which isn't true.

The second thing, is your time is important and it always will end up looking worse for you the more you try to cover things up. The more you lie or potentially act interested, the more he is going to push for ways to either keep you interested or communicate with people to keep you involved. He needs to know it's a firm no coming from you. You can say something like:

"Hey I really thought I had time to take on this project, but I don't. I have other things stressing me out that I need to take care of, and I apologize if I wasted any of your time".

Be firm. Don't act like you are thinking about it. If he asks what the problems are, just say it's personal. It's your life and he needs to respect that. You can also just straight up say:

"I thought I was interested, but I'm not I'm so sorry. I have a lot of other things going on and I would just be wasting your time".

Don't like either? That's fine, but realize if you try to say "my supervisor said it was a bad idea" he might reach out to your supervisor or ask you to reach out, then what do you say? Then it becomes obvious it's really you that just flat out does not want to work on it anyways and ends up looking worse for you. I would try to be as direct and honest as possible.

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    ""I thought I was interested, but I'm not I'm so sorry" - this is the right direction. Perhaps making clear that this came out of a process is even better, e.g. "I thought I would be more interested in the direction, but as we worked on it, I got the feeling this not exactly down the route I'd like to go." – Captain Emacs May 20 at 21:55
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    Or you could split the difference: "When I first responded I was perhaps unrealistic about how much time your project would require." But yes, I think this response is on the right track. – Dave Kanter May 21 at 22:37
  • I don't think the OP wasted anyone's time. This sounds a bit too apologetic to me. Even though I agree with the overall sentiment that something is holding the OP back from just saying "I'm not interested anymore". – user2705196 May 22 at 13:10
  • @user2705196 I totally agree; it really depends on the person. I feel like saying sorry says I feel bad for initially saying yes and is more genuine. To each their own. – Adam Johnston May 22 at 16:15
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As PhD students, and in academia in general, we can take projects and their outcome very personally and empathically. This is good when it leads to excitement and motivation but can also lead to disappointment and guilt. I think it is good to learn to be more pragmatic and accept that

  • Eventually deciding that a problem is ill-defined,
  • Prioritizing time towards promising projects,
  • Working with the people whose research interest are most closely aligned to yours

are all natural aspects of research. Feelings don't have to play a major part in these decisions. Learning to manage your projects objectively and in a level-headed manner is difficult enough. I would advise you to try not to personally burden yourself of the additional emotional weight of this other person's research progress.

On the flip side, a more senior person in academia (post-doc / professor) also has to learn to compose with the interest of their collaborators. If the person has any sense, they will not try to involve you if they understand you have no interest. A collaborator's interest might come and go depending on the advancement or results of a project – this is normal.

That being said

  • Answering politely that you are busy with other projects, as recommended by other answers, is totally fine. Giving a realistic assessment of the time you can allocate to the project is the right thing to do, even if that time is null. This will allow the person to rethink the management of the project.

  • Optionally, you can develop further and explain the reasons why your interest has shifted, why you think the problem is ill-posed, and what troubles you in the direction that the project has taken. While requiring more work and reflection on your part, this is a very kind thing to do, and shouldn't be see as negative. Constructive criticism can help the person's thoughts on that project, and could also help them understand how to lead a more successful collaboration next time.

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    Your final point is a good one and is missing from the other answers (some of which seem to be suggesting to use a white lie as a cover). It could be that this colleague is not only wasting OP's time but is also wasting their own. Being maximally honest in a case like this could save their colleague a lot of wasted effort. Depending on the colleague and the dynamics of the lab, it might not be the smartest thing to do, but it is the most principled thing to do. – John Coleman May 21 at 11:43
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    The final point works with a person respecting boundaries. Some people will try to deflect from the reason given if they feel they need OP's support (and that might be the case here). So, handle with care, if you really are not going to be swayed concerning leaving the project. – Captain Emacs May 22 at 10:46
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Yeah the takeaway I'm getting from this ("I tried to help but it has gone poorly. We've gotten nowhere, I find his problem ill-defined and don't actually understand what he wants from me") - you're not impressed with his work. You don't want to lend more of your time because you've (reasonably) become convinced that you'd be carrying the weight in the relationship, there's not much in it for you, and you have plenty of your own fish to fry. Good for you! This happens a lot in life and now's a great time to practice the firm no.

One good tack is to tell him that you've become overwhelmingly interested in {something else; e.g. bitcoin, interstellar travel, whatever} and you have a huge passion for pushing forward with it because it's the future, and you're sorry but he should find someone else; your heart and mind have become 110% committed to {this another, vague thing} - doesn't need too much detail other than a statement of passion for new thing. It's a brush-off but people are really accepting of it; they get the message that you cannot be convinced otherwise, it doesn't rub their nose in you leaving their thing behind, and they remember you as this passionate, driven, smart person who's shooting for the stars. I'm sure you have several real things you are (more) passionate about than working with him, so just use one of those. This method doesn't require you to provide any negative commentary about his project or his progress on it. I kinda invented this by accident one time (I really was wildly passionate about 'new thing'), noticed how well it worked (even if 'new thing' is pretty far-fetched, people respect passion even if they quietly pity your foolishness; 'I'm inventing a new currency to replace bitcoin!') and it comes in pretty handy here and there.

Footnote: It's just about conceivable that he'll try to guilt-trip you, in which case F that guy frankly, you totally dodged a bullet.

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Why don't you simply say verbatim what you wrote in question: "I'm not interested"?

You won't make it better to anyone by sugarcoating it, trying to invent excuses or giving false hopes. It is not your project. You're not obliged to be interested in it. If other party is stubborn enough enough, this will only give them reasons to invest more into trying to get you on board and the more they invested, the more they will be dissatisfied in the end.

"I'm not interested. I don't want to take time from my other tasks. Sorry, I can't help you anymore."

You can explain project's problems to be extra nice, but make sure to stress that it isn't checklist for "fix that and then I'll agree" while doing so.

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    Cultural aspects looming large again. In the cultural spaces I'm familiar with, that would be perceived as very rude -- you would only say that in response to an absurd/overly bold request, or if the other person keeps insisting after you already said no. – lighthouse keeper May 22 at 14:54
  • Of course one can make it better by sugarcoating, if done in a right way. If you claim not, you should at least state your culture. – user111388 May 22 at 15:42
  • @lighthousekeeper According to question, that's exactly what's going on. Other person keeps insisting while issuing pretty bold requests to OP to drop his other projects in favor of this one. – Oleg V. Volkov May 25 at 9:06
  • @OlegV.Volkov Hmm, it appears that OP so far hasn't said "no" yet in any capacity. – lighthouse keeper May 25 at 9:18

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