Saying “Yes” to “No”

in Dissertation Help

By the time graduate students have accomplished all the requirements of the degree (except the dissertation,) they are experts at saying “yes”. “Yes” to hard work, “yes” to putting their needs aside while they study for qualifying exams and “yes” to working as teaching or research assistants. With classes, assignments, and other prerequisites assigned to them, they don’t have much choice! If there is something they have to turn down, such as a ski trip right before a major exam, the decision is almost made for them. It is obvious to all concerned that the answer is “no.”

Much of this changes once it is time to work on the dissertation.  Long periods of time stretch out with no hard deadlines.  This is when it becomes most apparent that some people are “no”-impaired.

In working with ABD clients, I have found that one of the most difficult words to utter is “no”.  Often these people are the most well-liked people on campus!  They have lots of friends, are always willing to lend a hand, teach a class, be on a committee, and help wine and dine the latest visiting professor.

Granted, each one of these activities is in itself positive.  Being liked by professors, dissertation advisors and colleagues is certainly important, both from a quality-of-life standpoint and from a future networking standpoint.  I do believe that in life you get back what you give.

But let’s look at some of the advantages of saying “no.”  By letting people know that your time is important, you can gain their respect.  One of my clients was able to put that into effect by setting mini-deadlines throughout the day.  When friends stopped by to chat, she could truthfully say, “I can’t talk right now; I have a deadline for finishing this.”  She found that her friends actually respected these boundaries, and were willing to take a rain check.

This example illustrates another point about saying “no.”   Sometimes you are just saying “no, not right now” and not “no, never.”  When you have a conversation with a friend that is not an interruption of an important thought process you were writing out, you enjoy the conversation more.  You are free from the sense of guilt and the self recriminations that lurk under the surface, saying “you let yourself get side-tracked again.” 

“No” is actually a word that gives you power.  It means that you feel you have the right to determine what works for you, and when.  It means that your time is important, and that your priorities matter.

“No” does not have to be all-or-none.  Perhaps you can’t go out to dinner with the visiting professor, after picking her up at the airport and showing her around your department.  But you might be able to introduce her to some people, or just attend the dinner.

Here are some suggestions to get started, if you are a “no”-impaired person:

1) Set yourself a goal.  Try to say “no” at least once this week, in a situation where you normally would have said yes.  Notice how you feel while you say it, and notice how you feel later.

2) How do you say “no?”  This might sound like a silly question, but many people get stuck on this.  Here are some examples:

  • “No, I won’t be able to do that”
  • “No, I can’t substitute teach that class, but I will make a couple of calls to help you find someone”
  • No, I can’t talk right now, but I was going to take a break for coffee in two hour can you meet me then?

3) Notice how other people say “no.”  How do you feel about them?


I’m sure that if you start saying “no” more often, you will start to feel a sense of self respect and power that you hadn’t felt before.  Furthermore, you will have taken an important step towards freeing up time to work on your dissertation!


by Gina J. Hiatt, Ph.D.


This article first appeared in the “All But Dissertation Survival Guide” in May, 2004.

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