This post is written by Bridging the Gap Fellow Dr. Danielle Gilbert, Assistant Professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense. The author would like to thank the brilliant women of her yes and no committees for their time, feedback, permission, and encouragement to write this—you know who you are.
Six women approved the writing of this post: my “yes committee,” my “no committee,” and the editor—who happens to be a mentor as well. It’s fitting that these women would find themselves involved in this paragraph, because they have a say on nearly everything I write or do in my professional life. Outside of my classroom, I seldom make professional decisions without them. They are absolutely crucial to my success. I need them, and you need your own committees, too.
What are yes and no committees? While a “no committee” is the group of friends and mentors you turn to when you need help declining requests and opportunities, the “yes committee” is the designated hype squad that nudges you beyond your comfort zone. In short, the “no committee” reminds you that your time is valuable; the “yes committee” reminds you that your ideas are valuable.
The No Committee
At a basic level, the no committee has two functions. First, it can help you make decisions about how to spend your precious, limited time. Second, it can help you find a gracious way to turn down invitations or set productive boundaries, even when it seems hard to do so. (You are busy; you can’t do everything; and there are always others who would be grateful to participate in your stead and perhaps even be a better fit for the task.)
At a deeper level, the no committee helps protect scholars (particularly women, BIPOC, and early career researchers) from burdensome and disproportionate service that does not help their careers. Since existing research shows us that female and BIPOC scholars are asked to take on disproportionate service to help students, “fix” the very academic institutions that marginalize them in the first place, and complete the often unglamorous administrative tasks required to keep an academic department running, your no committee members can help put this burden in perspective. They can help contextualize the relentless pressure to bolster your CV. They can also help you overcome the FOMO—fear of missing out—that accompanies the decision to turn something down.
I am a person who likes to say yes. I am excited and flattered by new opportunities, and I tend to believe that I can accomplish more than is physically possible in a given amount of time. (I am a producer.) For me, a no committee is crucial to remind me that my time is limited and my energy finite: only some things can be priorities. While I see a full plate and want to pile it higher; others see a full plate and want to take things off. My no committee members are of this latter type—they are naturally more skeptical about busying their schedules. For them, our no committee helps adjudicate when a “no” is appropriate and justifies the decision. Knowing your type is crucial to determining what your no committee will do for you.
Whenever I receive a request or invitation of any sort—to give a talk, join a taskforce, review an article, teach a class, or write something new—I forward it immediately to the two members of my no committee. Since my inclination is to say yes to everything, I have to make the case for why they should give me permission to accept. I make a list of pros and cons and communicate my desire to say yes. It is easy to accept invitations when doing so would support my broader research agenda, promote my work, build new relationships, or pay forward the mentoring and help others have gifted me in the past.
If the committee says yes, I can then accept the invitation. (If you’ve ever asked me to do something, and I haven’t answered in the affirmative for 48–72 hours, this is why. I have to ask for permission first.) If the committee says no, they help me brainstorm polite and productive ways to decline. One piece of advice relevant for any no committee is what the leadership of the Bridging the Gap Project calls the “Naaz Barma Rule”—only say yes to something a month or more out in the future if you would also say yes to it for the present week.
This process would look different for someone without my yeah-saying tendencies. For example, if you were inclined to say no to most new things, your committee can help you differentiate between invitations that are important for your career versus those that are a drag on your time. The more you share with them, the more context they’ll have for your preferences, obligations, and pace. They can validate your decision to turn down a peer-review request after you’ve said yes to the last 10; they can adjudicate which talk would be a better use of your time. They can also help you branch out—turning down the familiar, and prioritizing what’s new.
The Yes Committee
While the no committee is an established form, the “yes committee” is more elusive. Mine started about a year ago, when I realized that my group text with three other female academics was a 24/7 hype session of one another’s work. We would check in when imposter syndrome was getting the best of us and we needed a boost from smart, supportive pals: Should I really pitch that op-ed? Do I belong on this panel? Would you nominate me for that award? The “yes committee” was born.
Unlike the no committee, activated when a specific opportunity comes your way, the yes committee springs to action when you have an idea you’d like to pursue. While a good no committee may be able to provide similar advice to any academic operating in any environment that rewards over-work, a yes committee’s role requires more individual tailoring. For some, the committee may serve as a way to celebrate accomplishments and propel your writing to the finish line. For others, particularly graduate students and junior faculty still getting their feet under them, a yes committee can offer the push needed to take on a new challenge. In either scenario, the committee members are your official, designated cheerleaders, whose role it is to encourage you to speak up, take a chance, lean in.
The yes committee’s process is informal. I text the group, “Should I send this tweet thread?” and they bolster my confidence, suggest crucial edits, and promise to retweet with wild abandon. They are the perfect aid for adventuring beyond your comfort zone. For junior scholars, the yes committee is particularly well suited to help with questions your advisor might not cover, like policy engagement, non-academic opportunities, and media outreach. I consider it crucial that this group is not only supportive—they are also savvy, and they urge caution when it’s needed.
Finding Yes & No
My own, reciprocal yes and no committees developed organically; the “no”s are also my writing group, and the “yes”s came from a group text. But both groups would be useful for most academics—especially junior scholars—to organize deliberately, right now. There are no hard and fast rules for yes/no committees, but a few principles can help you get started.
First, in choosing your committees: keep them small. Members can come from any part of your mentoring map. You can invite friends and advisors who know you well; or you could instead use the committee as an opportunity to strengthen a relationship with a potential mentor. Either way, you should think carefully about whose advice you trust. Find those who have your best interest at heart. Avoid forming committees with departmental colleagues or current coauthors, as many of the invitations are likely to come from them. Diverse perspectives are useful: my no committee spans career stages and institution types; my yes committee draws from multiple disciplines. It’s a great opportunity to learn about others’ priorities and crowd-source solutions to career problems. Note that a “yes committee” does not mean surrounding yourself with yes-people or enablers. They should recognize and complement your natural impulses—whether that is to overcommit, or to shy away from great opportunities.
Second, I recommend establishing decision rules. For example, does the “yes” or “no” have to be unanimous, or will a majority do? The committees—especially the no committee—should be used consistently. You will derive a greater benefit to your schedule if the gatekeepers see every request, and not only the ones you were already inclined to accept or decline. Will you share invitations as they come in, or set up an appointed time to discuss?
Last, your committees need norms. It’s crucial to establish clear and shared understanding of the privacy and confidentiality of your conversations. Respect your committee members’ time, lest this turn into more unpaid service. And make sure you come to the conversation with a clear sense of your own goals and priorities. Your committee members can help guide and protect you, but only if there is a shared understanding of what you want.
Beyond providing advice, yes and no committees can shatter the inherent isolation of academia and the potentially pernicious competition that pits us against our peers. With a new year getting started, it’s a great time to prop up the boundaries and bolsters that will help you thrive.