In my university, graduate students under scholarship have to perform certain tasks like tutoring and grading. I have no problem with that since it is part of the contract.

There are also some miscellaneous tasks like offering to help out for a departmental party (takes 10 hours over a few days), or volunteer to bring some visitors around the school, etc. These are theoretically on a voluntary basis, but when no one volunteers the admin staff starts to get very pushy and "hard sell" people to volunteer. To get a sense of how pushy the admin can get, I recently had to reject the same task thrice (via email), with the admin getting increasingly curt and rude in their email. (The administrators are not professors, they are in charge of departmental duties including paying our stipend.)

I plan to reject around 90% (edit: maybe 50-60% selectively, as there are some events that I am genuinely glad to help out) of such "voluntary tasks", and have already rejected a few, and accepted one. (I am a new graduate student) Will there be any negative repercussions if I do that (reject majority of the tasks)?

Most of the tasks require at most 10-20% of the students to help out (around 10 helpers out of 60 students). Some tasks just need a single or one or two volunteers.

(Edit: my personal background is that I used to be a "yes" person to the extent of burning out (previous experience not in school), hence I need to learn how to say no firmly to certain things. I have also discovered through the hard way that "yes" people get asked to volunteer more and more, few actually takes into account that I am already volunteering for another event and may need a rest. )

Also are there any tips on how to say no, with respect to Academia? I may try a new strategy of ignoring such emails, the emails do "require" us to respond whether we can make it or not, not sure if ignoring such emails may be a better policy since I think that is what some students do.

Edit: I have found a personal solution is to read up on more self help books on assertiveness. Thanks for all the help (including sarcastic comments, which confirms my new belief that I should not care about what others think). Especially thanks to Professor Romik for restoring my faith in humanity. Hope this thread can help students facing similar predicaments.

  • 33
    Please be nice to them. They can be very helpful when you need them. They are the ones who would know where your professors are when you truly need to see them. They are the last people in the world you want to mess with if you plan to stay in the department for a while.
    – Nobody
    Sep 5, 2015 at 11:46
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    Think about which requests you want to reject, rather than a blanket "90%". I don't think "helping to organize a departmental party", and "showing visitors around the school", are comparable tasks. For example one of them has a lot more potential for benefit to you than the other one. If you want to stick to the letter of your contract, check that it doesn't contain what is pretty much standard in any non-academic employment contract - a phrase similar to "any other duties, as assigned".
    – alephzero
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:23
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    @yoyostein It's pretty clear based on what answer you accepted that you didn't come here to get advice, you came because you wanted the internet to validate your preconceived notions. The inability to listen to others' wisdom and experience about how the world really works is not going to do you any good down the road...
    – user4512
    Sep 5, 2015 at 19:14
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    The first rule of surviving in an office environment is not to tick off the administrative staff, since they can make your life miserable if you're not careful (as Alexandros suggests). However, if you are seen as helping out on some tasks from time to time, you'll be able to get away with rejecting much more than if you reject everything at first.
    – aeismail
    Sep 5, 2015 at 19:50
  • 9
    To echo @aeismail and others, if you "work the rule" at the admins you are likely to find them working the rule right back at you. Learning to say no is a good thing. Learning when not to say no is also a good thing. Sep 5, 2015 at 21:48

5 Answers 5


yoyostein, let me start by reminding you (just in case you forgot - some of the other comments and answers certainly seem to be ignoring these facts) that you are a professional, serious person who came to graduate school to further your education and become a better person. Getting your PhD is a nontrivial task that requires a level of focus and dedication that most people are not capable of. It is a difficult and risky endeavor, and for some graduate students even a small misstep like misplacing one's priorities slightly by doing too much volunteer work, or too much of anything unrelated to their studies, can mean the difference between success and failure.

You are also an employee of the department. On top of all that you are a human being, and therefore deserving of being treated justly and respectfully.

It follows that, from an ethical point of view, the administrators at your department have no right -- I repeat, NO RIGHT; ZERO; NADA -- to require you to volunteer even a minute of your time, or to treat you disrespectfully (and certainly not to retaliate against you in any way) if you decline to do so. Conversely, you are 100% within your rights -- morally and ethically -- to refuse to volunteer. At the same time, refusing does carry some risks which you would be wise to evaluate and consider carefully before taking any action. I believe however, that if you resist the administrators' pressure in a respectful and classy manner, and if you are in the U.S. or a place with similar culture, then those risks would be largely mitigated, and you may even stand to gain newfound respect from your administrators and possibly the faculty and your fellow graduate students by asserting your rights.

In terms of what is the best way to respond to the pressure to volunteer, I can think of several possibilities which may be appropriate, depending on the nature of the situation, your personality and the personality of the administrators and other people in the department.

One suggestion is to respond to your administrator's recent request, in writing or in person if you feel more comfortable, with something like the following:

"Dear [name of administrator],

You recently contacted me for a third time with a request to volunteer to [insert activity] after I had already declined the same request twice. While I'm sure your request is well-intentioned, and sympathize with your frustration at the difficulty of finding graduate students who can help with this, I found the tone of your request somewhat disagreeable and disrespectful. I would like to remind you that I am a serious and professional person who came to the program to work on my studies, gain experience in teaching, and get a PhD. These are difficult tasks and I feel that I must focus my energies on them while in graduate school. Furthermore, the task of [insert volunteer activity] that you asked me to do is not within my core interests or competency. That being the case, you should know that although I love to help when I can, in the future I may decline some of your and the other department staff's requests for volunteers. Please feel free to ask me to volunteer anytime, but I ask that you respect my wishes and not ask more than once if I decline.

Finally, I would like to raise a philosophical point. I assume that you are paid for your services and the department does not ask you to volunteer your time without compensation. However, myself and the other graduate students are often asked to volunteer our time. May I suggest that the department reconsider its approach on this matter? If you find a way to make the volunteer activities somehow profitable for us, whether it be by paying us directly or by other means (a small budget for pizza or for buying textbooks, etc.), I think you may find that you have a much easier time getting things done, and the culture and atmosphere of the department may improve. I'd be happy to meet with Chair [name of department chair] to raise these points with him if you think that would be appropriate, or you can mention it to [him/her].


[your name]"

Contacting the administrator in this way is the least aggressive, and as such, probably the preferable way of raising your concerns. I think you may find that despite being rude to you, the administrator may turn out to be a sensible person who, if approached in such a thoughtful manner, will see your point and back off, and may even end up liking you more for your honesty.

If you are reluctant to speak with the administrator, another possibility is to ask a faculty member whom you trust to speak to the administrator on your behalf and raise your concerns with them.

In the event that these options didn't work or you think they are not even worth trying since the administrator is a really seriously incompetent or inconsiderate person, the other possibility would be to go to the department chair with your concerns. The chair is in charge of the administrative staff, and if he/she is a sensible person he/she will absolutely not tolerate his staff treating graduate students disrespectfully, and will instruct them not to pressure students into doing volunteer activities. A really good chair might go even further and put some serious thought how to correct these systemic problems with his department by addressing the philosophical issues I raised in the draft email message above. (Note: I am currently a department chair myself. Fortunately I am not aware of such problems in my own department...)

Keep in mind that contacting the chair is a fairly drastic measure so I would try other options first. The staff members do not like being criticised by the chair and may develop a grudge against you for bringing a complaint against them. Of course, that does not mean you shouldn't do it when there is no alternative.

If the chair is him/herself incompetent or a jerk, you may be out of luck. While there may still be creative ways to fight the unjust expectations of your department (contacting the dean or the graduate student union, organizing a mass protest, etc.), it seems to me that at this point the chances of success are very low and the risks start seriously outweighing the possible rewards, and that in that case you are better off simply accepting that you will occasionally have to volunteer for uninteresting duties, and swearing that someday when you are in a professional environment and in a position of authority you will treat people better than that.

UPDATE: I see based on the votes that my advice is turning out to be extremely unpopular. Thank you all for the feedback. I concede that my suggestions are based on my fundamental belief that most people have a reasonably well-developed sense of fairness, and while this belief (and the general approach to dealing with conflicts that guided my answer) has worked very well for me personally, it may not necessarily be applicable to this situation, and carries some risks that the OP should consider carefully.

  • 45
    This advice is awful. Complaining to the admin staff in written? With smartass comments like "I would like to raise a philosophical point" or "pay us to do volunteer stuff". Have you even walked inside a university? All the professors have to do admin job (commitees) for free and you as a grad student want compensation? What if the admin staff escalates this to the dean (which he will)? You understand that the dean knows the admin for decades and you are the new guy? Who do you think is going to win?
    – Alexandros
    Sep 5, 2015 at 17:15
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    @Dan, the fact that you are a department chair that treats PhD students with respect and does his best to be fair in solving tricky question does not imply that all department chairs would behave accordingly. Your advice is very risky. Sep 5, 2015 at 18:14
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    I would like to agree with this post, but it is framed far too starkly. There is plenty of room between doing only what is explicitly stated in the contract and giving your whole life over to the office, and essentially every workplace has it customs and informal expectations, just as do non-work communities like churches and social clubs. Yoyostein needs to tackle the problem of balancing his needs against the expectations of his workplace with a sense of nuance. Making the organization respect his needs may take some doing, but framing the question as all or nothing isn't going to help. Sep 5, 2015 at 21:56
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    This is terrible advice.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 5, 2015 at 22:45
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    By suggesting that the OP write a letter, you are providing the administrators hard evidence that the OP refused to volunteer. Sep 5, 2015 at 22:57

Will there be any negative repercussions if I do that (reject majority of the tasks)?

Of course there is no way to say for sure whether there will be any negative repercussions if you keep rejecting those requests. However, frankly, it seems likely to me that:

  • You will come across as kind of an ass to the administrative staff, and that's not great at all. If your university is at all like mine, there will be a number of times when you need their support in, well, administrative matters, and you will be very low on their priorities list if you make it a point to never or rarely help them out.
  • You will come across as kind of an ass to the other students, who will surely notice that you never help out and they need to take on more of those duties as a consequence. You will invariably need their help at some point during your studies, and it's not unlikely that they will not be thrilled to help you out then either.
  • You may come across as kind of an ass to the faculty, which tends to notice if certain students are never volunteering for anything. The extent to which they care is another question, but it seems unlikely that they will consider this a positive attitude. In the worst case, somebody may remember this when the time for letters of recommendation comes up after graduation.

Also are there any tips on how to say no, with respect to Academia? I may try a new strategy of ignoring such emails, the emails do "require" us to respond whether we can make it or not, not sure if ignoring such emails may be a better policy since I think that is what some students do.

If you really think you should keep on saying "no" to those things, it seems fair to tell the administrators directly that you are not available for volunteer work. They will likely be annoyed, but they will also be annoyed if you keep turning them down. I don't think there is a way to turn them down without annoying them in any way.

(and please don't start stringing together increasingly less plausible excuses - that's just childish)

  • 1
    Well, I used to be a "yes" person, saying yes to everything, and got burnt out as a result. Hence, I am trying to learn how to say "no" to some things that are not 100% compulsory.
    – yoyostein
    Sep 5, 2015 at 11:57
  • 2
    @yoyostein I thought you are a new graduate student. Is the "burnt out" experience at the same department or somewhere else?
    – Nobody
    Sep 5, 2015 at 12:15
  • 17
    @yoyostein Don't be a "yes" person, but definitely also don't be a "no" person. Saying "no" 90% of the time is way too much, imho. There is such a thing as a middle ground - say yes if you have time, so no if it's really just a very bad time.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 5, 2015 at 12:37
  • Just pointing out a minor typo: extent instead of extend in bullet 3 sentence 2. A very good answer otherwise (+1).
    – 299792458
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:00
  • @scaaahu the previous burn out scenario was actually in church. I was asked to be the piano accompanist for an 11am service (among other timings), and also teach 11am Sunday school at the same time.(possible by rushing to and fro from the two places) I didn't know how to say no to the pastor. There were other available people but I was being asked probably because I didn't know how to reject people. I didn't like it and eventually burnt out and switched churches.
    – yoyostein
    Sep 5, 2015 at 23:55

I'd like you to look at the matter from another perspective.

The majority of these small requests are about communicating with people. If you are planning on a career in academia, that may come useful. You never know.

During my masters I helped organising a conference. One of the tasks for students was to meet foreign guests at the airport or the railway station.

I was asked to meet a really brilliant researcher, and we had plenty of time to communicate. Half a year later, he wrote a recommendation letter for me that helped me to enter a PhD track. So, you never really know what you are going to miss. And you'll definitely miss something if you keep rejecting these small requests.

Moreover, these tasks are usually small, they rarely take more than an hour or two. If you compare the time spent with the possible negative consequences, may be you'll find it better to participate, at least from time to time.

  • 2
    Thanks for your answer. I will take the middle ground as people have mentioned, definitely not back to the "yes" person I used to be, but also not to swing to the other extreme.
    – yoyostein
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:27
  • Thanks, I think your answer is very good. By the way, preparing for the departmental party takes 10 hours hence I was extremely reluctant to do it.
    – yoyostein
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:31
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    Yes, that's not always piece of cake)) but, in this case, as xLetrix points out, consider the feelings of your mates who have to do it. It's just one of those things where you need to find balance Sep 5, 2015 at 14:40
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    If you are asked to do a task that you think will take too long, why not offer to do part of the task? For example, if asked to prepare for the departmental party, you might offer to arrange the refreshments.
    – mhwombat
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:56

What you must consider is not just the total time the extra tasks take but also if your regular Ph.D. work is not interrupted too often. As a rule, it should be possible in general to start work and not have to do anything else for several hours. If this is not the case, then that's a problem. You have to consider how to organize the tasks that you are supposed to be doing in such a way that both the time and the quality of the time you are working on your Ph.D work is sufficient. If no reasonable planning can accommodate for some extra tasks, then you need to raise that with your advisor.

In this case, you may actually find that the irregular activities like organizing a party are not really a big deal. The more routine tasks like tutoring (that you must of course do) are actually more of a burden. You may not experience it that way, but that's exactly part of the problem. We tend to not notice that we didn't start rigorous time consuming work to explore something that had a small chance of yielding an interesting result. If you have to teach in 90 minutes and it takes a few hours of work to get started on something then you tend to take the decision to do something else instead. And, of course, you won't miss the results you never found.

  • 2
    This is a good exposition of why to say no and a guide as to what sorts of things should be turned down if possible (things that will interrupt repeatedly rather than things where the work is constrained to a limited time). But getting your work done is only one side of the equation. Office society is always there, and like other societies it has ways of punishing people who won't keep up their end. Sep 5, 2015 at 21:47

I would like to add a pragmatic note that applies to most international students in the US, and probably in some other countries in a similar fashion. If you are under F1 visa, and get paid through RA or TA (most common sources of income), they likely eat up your 20hrs/week on-campus employment quota, and subsequently you are not allow to work for anything other than your research/coursework. Organizing parties and working as a tour guide may not be viewed as part of your research/coursework by some immigration officers. So you can simply recall your F1 status, should you wish to decline such tasks.

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