Asking for Help

People starting academic careers, just like everyone else, can find themselves overwhelmed, writes Nate Kreuter. And they don't need to be afraid to seek assistance from colleagues.


October 1, 2014

Sometimes we are overwhelmed. The forces of life converge, place us in a bind, and restrict our ability to do our jobs. We’ve all watched it happen to a friend or colleague. Perhaps many of us have experienced it for ourselves. In these moments, our work life can become secondary, and probably should become secondary in many cases.

We need, during these moments, to ask for help.

It can be very uncomfortable to have to tell one’s colleagues about a personal, professional, or health problem that is or might affect your ability to do your job. I have found, though — both as someone who has had to ask for help and as someone sometimes asked by others for help — that our colleagues are most often empathetic to our plights and willing to help pick up short-term slack.

In my experience those who are most disinclined to ask for help, those who worry about burdening their colleagues, are actually the least likely people to abuse the generosity of others. Inversely, those — very few and far between — people who might take advantage of others from time to time are the least shy about shifting their burdens to others.

It naturally depends on your relationship with the person you’re reaching out to how much information you want to reveal when you ask for help. While it is likely to make you feel uncomfortably vulnerable, you may in some cases need to reveal more than you would prefer to about the work, personal, or health situation that you’re dealing with in order to enlist the help of others as you confront a difficult situation or time in your life.

If you are truly uncomfortable explaining why you need help with a particular one of your responsibilities, you might begin by being somewhat general, saying that you have a health issue, family issue, or the like, without being specific as to the precise nature of things. Giving a generalized explanation might help to show that you are not asking for help in order to shirk responsibilities. If your colleague declines, you have to decide whether or not you are willing to reveal additional details about your situation. If you’re willing to share more, being more specific about why you need help may be of benefit.

If you are in the position of asking a colleague or supervisor for an accommodation, you are probably already in a position to know whether or not that person is trustworthy and will keep confidences (some confidences, by law, must be kept, particularly by individuals with supervisory responsibilities over you). Generally speaking, people are more receptive to expanding their own responsibilities and carrying another’s burdens temporarily if they know why. Painful as it is, you may need to explain your situation in order to find the help you need. This is true whether you are seeking the help of a colleague, a supervisor, or a different office or unit within your university.

The timing of when you ask others for help matters as well. It is, in fact, essential. Consider this teaching scenario, which we all probably know well:

Student A comes to you after class one day, explains that she will be missing class the following week for an important family event, and proposes a reasonable accommodation that will prevent her from falling too far behind because of the missed time. Because the student has shown the responsibility and taken the initiative to propose reasonable accommodations in advance, I think that many of us would be inclined to work with the student if at all possible. Even if we couldn’t accommodate the student’s requests, we would likely respect the student for her initiative and forthrightness.

Alternatively, we’ve all probably also encountered student B, who simply misses the week of class for entirely foreseeable reasons, and then approaches us after the fact to inquire what he can do to “make up” what he missed. Despite his foreknowledge, the student has waited until after relevant events to approach us, and hasn’t proposed a constructive solution. Most often, as instructors we are not inclined toward charity in this situation. We are extremely unlikely to be receptive to his inquiries or proposals, because he waited until after the fact to address a foreseeable situation.

Working with our colleagues is more or less the same as the situations that the hypothetical students find themselves in. When we know a problem is on the horizon, acknowledge and anticipate it, and seek out help or accommodations from our colleagues, I think most of us will find that our colleagues are more than willing to provide that help. But when we avoid the upcoming problem, perhaps are unable to acknowledge it, and then fail to follow through on responsibilities that our colleagues were expecting us to complete, it is too late. We have missed the window for help and understanding, and likely created compounding problems for those we work with. Our colleagues, just as with instructors considering student B, are not as likely to look upon the situation charitably.

I suspect that it is pride, more often than anything else, that prevents us from asking for help when we need it. Nobody likes to falter, and acknowledging that we are not at our best, or unable to follow through, is painful, particularly for people who, as most teacher-scholars do, pride themselves on being competent and able. But if that pride prevents us from seeking out help during the times when we actually need it, we truly risk our pride. Unaware of what we are facing or balancing, colleagues may detect a slip in our performance, but, unaware of the slip’s origins, begin to dismiss our work, our commitment, our abilities. Our colleagues may begin to dismiss us.

Just as most of us would be willing to go out of our way to help the responsible student, most of us are willing to help the colleague who keeps us informed and brings our attention to problems before they cascade. We lose faith in the colleagues who, instead, allow the work around them to unravel, when, upon hearing a few timely words, we could have helped them to keep things together.


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