Rules of thumb for making decisions on requests for academic work

Last week I posted on my personal blog about the volume of requests I receive to undertake work beyond my allocated load as directed by university managers. Such work includes reviewing for journals and grant agencies, writing references and external examining, serving on advisory boards and working with local communities, and contributing papers to special issues or delivering invited talks.

While undertaking all these tasks are expected of academics as part of their normal load, constituting service work and an important part of the exchange economy of academia (Elden 2008), it is usually undertaken at their discretion. Key questions then are: what requests for labour to accept? What is an acceptable/sensible load? These questions become more pressing as the number of requests increases as an individual’s profile and academic network develop.

Most academics, I sense, find it quite difficult to evaluate and manage requests, and to say ‘no’ to many of them. In part this is because we are trying to balance a sense of obligation to participate in the exchange economy (especially if we know the person making the request), with a strategic approach to career development, and a need for personal well-being. Certainly, I struggle in deciding which requests to accept, and even though I do say ‘no’ to a lot of requests I still feel I take on too much and struggle to deliver on my promises (I typically receive about one new request a day beyond existing commitments).

On social media I was asked about how I go about making decisions on what requests to undertake and how I manage the workload. I didn’t have a ready answer because I’ve never formulated a strategy for decision-making or managing commitments. Instead, I have been using a rough set of unarticulated rules of thumb. It was also suggested that it might be useful for academics to be mentored with regards to dealing with requests.

In an effort to provide some mentoring advice, but also to try and formalise my own rules of thumb, I thought it might be useful to consider how best to deal with external requests for academic labour.

My thoughts below are not intended to be overly prescriptive and I am sure others would give alternative advice based on their own experiences; in this sense, I would see my suggestions as an opening gambit for a wider conversation on how to approach and manage such requests. Moreover, different strategies might suit different individuals depending on how they approach and manage their work.

Rather than deal with every type of request separately I have grouped them into five main types: reviewing, endorsing, evaluating, advising, and contributing. Before discussing how to deal with these five type of requests, it is important to note that deciding on a strategy needs to be contextualised by personal circumstance. For example, your institution might have certain expectations with respect to service work (perhaps as part of a tenure evaluation or promotion process), varying with level of seniority or by discipline. Or you might want to maintain a sensible home/work balance! In other words, you need to develop an individual strategy that reflects local and personal expectations.


Usual requests: article review; grant application review; book proposal review; review submitted book manuscript.

Reviewing is an essential part of the exchange economy of academia. When we submit an article or grant application it is evaluated by our peers. In exchange, we should expect to review other people’s papers/applications. As Elden (2008) notes, at the very least then we should expect to review three papers for every one submitted (since our own paper needs three reviews). Requests for peer review are, however, decidedly skewed (by gender, race, seniority, etc.) with some people being asked to review much more than they submit (and some less). For example, I was asked to review 75 papers last year and 27 grant applications. As an academic gains a profile as an expert in an area they can expect to be asked to review more often. In practice, as the number of requests increases it becomes impossible to do them all, so decisions about which ones to do need to be made. My rules of thumb for reviewing are:

  1. Is this a piece of work that I think I can pass reasonable judgement on (i.e., it is directly related to my expertise)? And will I potentially learn something useful from engaging with the work?
  2. Have I published with the journal/received funding from the agency/written a book for a publisher (paying-back on the exchange of review) or am I likely to want to submit a paper/application/book proposal to this journal/grant agency/publisher in the near future (paying forward on the exchange)? In both cases, it’s good practice and strategically sensible to engage in the exchange economy.
  3. Am I already committed to do a number of reviews and can I cope with taking on another one? My limit is generally five open reviews at any one time. I know from being a journal editor that some people set annual quotas (say, 20 per year) and once they have reached that quota refuse all other requests.

The aim of these rules of thumb is to choose to undertake work that is intellectually productive and balances career strategy with an ability to deliver and trying to manage work/life balance. Also, bear in mind that not delivering on a promised review will potentially negatively impact on your reputation (and academia has a strong reputational economy as the work in the next section highlights).


Usual requests: reference/tenure review; book endorsement. 

Academics are reliant on other academics to endorse their reputation and the quality of their work. When applying for jobs or promotion we need our peers to support our applications. Undertaking endorsing work is very important service to our colleagues as it directly affects their career prospects, and of course, we hope that our peers will endorse us. My rules of thumb are:

  1. Agree to all reference/tenure reviews if I know the person well.
  2. Agree to reference/tenure reviews if I only know the person a little (as one’s own career develops one can be asked to provide evaluations of other academics that one does not know well personally), but if the request has come from the applicant then suggest that strategically they might want to ask someone who can write a more personalised endorsement (if they want to persist with me, then I do the best job I can based on my knowledge of them and their work).
  3. I generally agree to do all book endorsements so long as I feel the book is in my area of expertise and I know from the author’s other work that I am likely to like the book.


Usual requests: external examining programmes or PhD theses.

External evaluation of new proposed programmes, existing programmes and how they are internally assessed, and judging the merits of a doctoral thesis are all important forms of peer evaluation vital for the functioning of academic departments and institutions. Again, we are reliant on an exchange economy for evaluating programmes and students. However, unlike reviewing a paper or writing a reference letter there is significantly more labour involved. Being the external examiner for a degree programme might take 3-5 days per annum and involve travel to the other institution, plus requests for feedback throughout the year (e.g., signing off on exam questions). Usually, the appointment is for three or more years. Similarly, undertaking a detailed reading of a PhD thesis, writing a comprehensive report, and attending a viva takes a number of days. Agreeing to perform the role of examiner then involves a significant time commitment. My rules of thumb are:

  1. Do not be the external examiner for more than one degree programme at any one time.
  2. Ideally, do not examine more than three or four PhD thesis a year (and only accept to do those that you feel you can pass reasonable judgement on).


Usual requests: give an interview/advice/survey; appoint to advisory board

Requests for advice/interviews can come from a number of sources: students from other universities looking for advice or feedback or expert opinion; journalists looking for expert views; government bodies, companies, community groups seeking help. If a group is seeking a more consistent flow of advice then they might ask you to sit on an advisory board that meets a set intervals. It’s a sign of esteem that these individuals/groups are seeking your counsel and undertaking the requests can boost reputation and open up new networks and opportunities. They can also take up quite a bit of time, especially some advisory boards. For example, I’ve sat on boards that meet once a year, quarterly, six times a year, and monthly. In all cases, I’ve had to travel to the meetings, with EU-related boards taking up quite a lot of time in travel as well as in meetings.  My rules of thumb are:

  1. Agree to interviews and meetings that involve no travel (they will come to my office or it can be done via phone/skype) and where I feel I have sufficient expertise.
  2. Agree to interviews elsewhere (e.g., radio/TV studios) where I think I have expertise and doing the interview will be strategically/reputationally beneficial.
  3. Largely ignore circulars that lack a personal touch.
  4. Agree to advisory boards where I think I will get some value out of attending or it is strategically useful for my institution (e.g., serving on government boards).
  5. Do not serve on more than five boards at any one time.

I tend to break rules 4 and 5 by agreeing to help colleagues by serving on their project advisory boards – highlighting the problem of personal obligation in dealing with requests.


Usual requests: speak at workshop/conference; contribute paper/chapter; write a book; write a book review; be a partner in a grant application; work on project; be a journal editor; be a visiting professor.

Another form of exchange is to contribute to and collaborate on an academic endeavour such as event, publication or project. While committing to some of these endeavours might be relatively short term, such as attending an event to present an invited talk, others might stretch out over years and significantly impact not only on workload but the direction of one’s research and the nature and location of one’s outputs. Agreeing to take part in contributory requests then need special attention, especially if they are going to impact on forms of evaluation such as tenure or promotions review or institutional assessments. My rules of thumb:

  1. With regards to invited talks – assuming I might be able to accommodate in my diary – pick the ones that I think I might get most from (e.g., potentially interesting audience for feedback, introduction to new network, visit a place I’ve not been before). I also want to make sure all my expenses for attending are going to be covered.
  2. With regards to contributing a paper or chapter, I pick those ones that fit with my publishing strategy. I don’t mind deviating a little if I think it’s an interesting special issue or book idea – publishing in a special issue is likely to lead to a wider readership. Do not take on more than a couple of such commitments a year as they are sizable obligations (it takes quite a bit of time to research and draft the material).
  3. With regards approaches to write a book, I only take on this task if I genuinely want to write a book on that topic – writing a book is a major commitment of time and effort.
  4. In terms of requests to work on project, I only agree to this if I am genuinely interested in both the topic and working with the other researchers. Projects are usually multi-annual commitments. I never agree to collaborate with people I have never met or where I have a sense we might not work well together.
  5. Being the editor of a journal can carry a high-esteem factor and is important disciplinary service, but it also a multi-annual commitment that involves a significant amount of work (as I know from editing three journals). I would only take on the role if I felt I was a good fit and I could commit the necessary time (others might consider the reputational effects are worth the effort). It is worth finding out whether your institution would give you a course or administrative buy-out to facilitate the role. I would never edit more than one journal at any one time.

The key question for all these types of contributions is whether the rewards (in terms of learning, personal development, outputs, reputation, etc.) for taking part are going to exceed the costs of participation (time, energy, re-orientation of work, etc). That requires careful consideration and the balance always needs to be positive before agreeing to contribute.

Balancing the load

One thing to keep in mind is the need to balance the workload across all five kinds of tasks. Cumulatively they can all add up to a lot (on top of the usual teaching, research and admin load). One useful thing to do is to keep a record of all requests, which ones you have agreed to do, and the associated work and deadlines. This will help in deciding whether new requests can be accommodated and also allow better time management.

Also keep in mind that it is very easy to slip into breaking rules of thumb if the request is from people that you know and you feel you have a personal obligation to agree, or the opportunity seems too good to pass up given its strategic value (such as serving on a prestigious advisory board). In effect, compensation for unanticipated decisions needs to be made going forward or risk becoming overloaded. This precisely where I become unstuck – saying no to colleagues or to high prestige invites is difficult!

How to say ‘no’

Saying ‘no’ is tough. It’s especially tough in the exchange and reputational economies of academia. But if sanity and health is to be maintained then saying no is vital. There are, of course, different ways of saying no. And saying no can also create opportunities for others.

Always say ‘no’ politely (e.g., Many thanks for thinking of me for undertaking X. I would really like to help but unfortunately I can’t due to existing commitments … Good luck with your endeavour …)

Always say ‘no’ while also trying to be helpful (e.g., Perhaps the following people might be able to help you … [and name some scholars who the requester might not have thought of, perhaps junior scholars who would benefit from starting to review and building their reputation as an expert]). If I get invited to give a talk, for example, and I cannot attend, I try to recommend more junior colleagues who would benefit from being invited to present.

In conclusion

Taking part in the exchange economy of academia is vital work. It is essential that all academics say ‘yes’ to all the kinds of tasks detailed above. At the same time, there needs to be balance across who is involved in the exchanges and personal workloads. While some of that balance needs to be provided by those making requests getting better at distributing work more evenly across academic, some also needs to be made by academics who receive those requests. Hopefully, the rules of thumb I’ve outlined might be helpful for selecting which tasks to take on and reject, and for managing the tasks to which one has committed. I’d welcome any feedback or alternative suggestions – please leave a comment.

Rob Kitchin

Elden, S. (2008) The exchange economy of peer review. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26: 951-953.

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