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I have a little secret: I often wish I was an extrovert. I wish meeting new people filled me with insatiable joy. I wish I spoke my mind with intensity any time the situation warranted it. I wish I was the best networker, the best public speaker, and the best social butterfly.
But I, folks, am an introvert. None of these things come easily to me.
Notice I did not say I can’t do those things. In actuality, I can network with moderate success, I am a decent public speaker, and I am social enough to be satisfied with myself. It’s easy to fall into a black-and-white mentality when thinking about introversion and extroversion, but in reality, we are all somewhere on a spectrum. We tend to portray them as quiet, shy, anti-social, and submissive, but these words won’t describe every introvert (Cain, 2013).
That being said, introverts in graduate school often find themselves encountering difficulties that are somewhat (or completely) foreign to their extroverted colleagues. If you are in a lab full of extroverts, for example, you might quickly feel like the odd one out. Confession: that’s me.
But worry not, introverts! There are ways to embrace your inherent personality traits without sacrificing your ability to succeed in higher education.
How do I know if I'm an Introvert?
Some introverts feel like this sometimes. And turtles are awesome. Source: Bansil, S. (2013). The Dueling Duality. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://bucultureshock.com/dueling-duality/
While many people have heard of the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, it’s not always clear what someone means when they say, “Hey, I’m an introvert/extrovert!” Personality is complex, but many psychologists use a rubric called the Five-Factor Approach to categorize individual personalities (but see Block, 1995, for criticism). One of the five factors in this method is “extraversion” (with “introversion” as its opposite) (Digman, 1990; Parks-Leduc, Feldman, & Bardi, 2014). As Parks-Leduc, Feldman, & Bardi (2014) define it, introverts tend to be “shy, reserved, quiet, and unadventurous.” Meanwhile, they define extroverts as “sociable, talkative, optimistic, ambitious, assertive, reward-seeking, outgoing, and energetic.” Ouch. As an introvert, it’s hard for me not to read that without a twinge of judgment. Who wouldn’t rather be described as “ambitious” and “optimistic” rather than “shy” and “unadventurous”? Eysenck & Eysenck (1964), meanwhile, describe the typical introvert as quiet, introspective, reserved, retiring, and serious.
Subsequently, if this personality dichotomy does indeed have such a significant effect on certain skills, it is to our advantage to evaluate how we can make our introversion work. I’m advocating adaptation, not a lobotomy.
There are numerous studies suggesting that introverts and extroverts navigate their worlds in noticeably different ways. For example, there are indications that introverts and extroverts frequently use different language patterns in types of words used, content of speech, and amount of abstraction (Beukeboom, Tanis, & Vermeulen, 2012). Introverts may also be more detrimentally affected by certain types of noise when attempting to perform tasks that require concentration and recall (Cassidy & MacDonald, 2007). For graduate students, both speaking and concentration are skills that have a major impact on academic performance. Subsequently, if this personality dichotomy does indeed have such a significant effect on certain skills, it is to our advantage to evaluate how we can make our introversion work. I’m advocating adaptation, not a lobotomy.
Listening: You're Probably Already Good At It.
Perhaps it’s because we are often quiet, but introverts are frequently pretty great listeners. That’s not to say that extroverts aren’t, just that this is a place where introverts can shine. Anyone who has been in graduate school knows what can happen when a seminar class gets out of hand. So many people are busy thinking about how they want to contribute to the conversation that they end up not listening to their peers. Important points get ignored, things get repeated, and the conversation goes off the rails. Meanwhile, you (dear introvert!) are sitting back, pondering one of those important points that everyone else missed.
Your listening skills are a major contribution to class discussions, whether you are a student or the instructor. So try using it to your advantage. Think about what other people have said, and try synthesizing it. Maybe you’ll see connections that others haven’t, or glaring omissions. My suggestion is so simple you might be tempted to call it totally unnecessary. Fair enough. But it has long amazed me how many people consistently do not seem to listen in conversation, even though they should know better.
There is a caveat to this point: while listening is essential, speaking is also usually required in graduate courses. You have to be able to take your inherent strength of being a good listener and express your thoughts on occasion. It can be intimidating, but it will help you grow. This does take time; my participation in class is much stronger now as a doctoral student than it was years ago when I was working on my master’s degree. Speaking up doesn’t come naturally to me, and it used to make me very nervous. It can also be really difficult to come up with the words (particularly when anxious!), which Jenn Granneman (2018) links to the human tendency toward visual versus verbal thinking, as demonstrated in a recent neurological study (Amit, Hoeflin, Hamzah, & Fedorenko, 2017). This is particularly true if you rely more on long-term memory. Granneman (2018) suggests that this reliance can make finding your words even more difficult because it often takes longer to recall things. But if you challenge yourself to emphasize your listening skills, give yourself some time to formulate a thought, and then start out with just one verbal comment during class, you can work your way up and eventually feel more relaxed about contributing to the conversation.
Conference Networking: A Beacon of Terror (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)
Networking can be very exhausting. Meeting new people and trying to find common ground for conversation, particularly when they are people whose research you admire, takes considerable mental focus for anyone. On top of that, introverts tend to draw their energy from alone time. In contrast, extroverts tend to draw their energy from social situations. As a result, socializing can be a major energy drain for those with introverted tendencies (Cain, 2013). Your networking at conferences or institutional events, then, ought to be fairly pointed so you can get the most out of it without wanting to hide in bed or sleep for the weekend.
One of the easiest ways to network at a conference (especially large ones) is to use the network you already have. Those people you know from other institutions that you rarely see? Go find them. Introduce yourself to their friends and colleagues and find out what their research interests are. You might find a potential collaborator, learn something up-and-coming about your field, or meet someone with access to research materials you need. The reason I do this at conferences is it’s fairly low-stakes, so my social awkwardness radar isn’t screaming in my brain. If the new person doesn’t seem interested in talking, you can talk to the person you already know, or move on to another new acquaintance.
The reason I do this at conferences is it’s fairly low-stakes, so my social awkwardness radar isn’t screaming in my brain.
My Teacher is an Introvert? No Way!
Let’s get this out of the way right now: just because you are introverted doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective instructor. I love teaching. I have occasionally gotten comments of surprise from students when I mention that I consider myself introverted. A lot of that has to do with being in front of a classroom: in order to be effective, you’ve got to show some energy and enthusiasm. Some teachers consider it a performance.
Seemingly, most graduate students are passionate about their chosen field. That may not be the field of study you are called upon to teach, though. This makes finding a passion for the teaching itself crucial. Think about what your goals are: how do you want to impact your students’ learning environment? What do you want them to achieve? Your supervisor(s) may have their own answers to these questions, but try to think of your own. Even if you are one of several teaching assistants for the same course, you’ll usually have some opportunity for creativity. Expressing your passion for the subject matter or the teaching itself won’t make you less of an introvert, but it will help you to cope with any fear or discomfort that results from being the center of attention in a classroom.
We should remember another thing as instructors: many of our students are just as introverted as we are, if not more so. If you have freedom in establishing the course structure, it is good to keep this in mind. I try to vary activities so that everyone has times of total comfort, and then they have times of being challenged. For introverts, I make sure some of the work is solo, and some of it is in small groups. If these introverts are quiet or shy, small groups (2-3 people) help them feel more comfortable with talking through problems. However, we also do larger group activities that challenge them to come out of their shell and share their answers or ideas in front of the class. The variation keeps things interesting and helps to ensure that different personality types are being placed in a comfortable learning environment while also being challenged.
So What Now?
There has been a great deal of literature espousing the “extrovert ideal,” particularly in the United States (Cain, 2013). It can make any introvert feel uncomfortable with themselves, myself included. And in graduate school, when we are already susceptible to things like imposter syndrome, it’s easy to feel like you just don’t belong because you’re not gregarious, you are not comfortable with public speaking, or you cannot bear to socialize as frequently as others.
But here’s the thing: there are lots of graduate students like you. You do not have to be extroverted to succeed in graduate school. I have tried to view some of my introverted tendencies as strengths, rather than the weaknesses we’re often told they are. You don’t need to change the core of your being to be a successful graduate student; you just need to find out how to work with what you have.
Amit, E., Hoeflin, C., Hamzah, N., Fedorenko, E. (2017). An asymmetrical relationship between verbal and visual thinking: Converging evidence from behavior and fMRI. NeuroImage, 152, 619-627. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.03.029
Beukeboom, C.J., Tanis, M., Vermeulen, I.E. (2012). The Language of Extraversion: Extraverted People Talk More Abstractly, Introverts Are More Concrete. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 32(2), 191-201. doi:10.1177/0261927X12460844
Block, J. (1995). A Contrarian View of the Five-Factor Approach to Personality Description. Psychological Bulletin, 117(2), 187-215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.187
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Random House, Inc.
Cassidy, G., MacDonald, R.A.R. (2007). The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts. Psychology of Music, 35(3):517-537. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735607076444
Digman, J.M. (1990). Personality Structure: Emergence of the Five-Factor Model. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 417-440. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ps.41.020190.002221
Eysenck, H.J., & Eysenck, S.B.G. (1964). Manual of the Eysenck Personality Inventory. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Granneman, J. (2018, February 20). Why Are Words So Hard for Introverts? Here’s the Science [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://introvertdear.com/news/introverts-words-hard-science/
Parks-Leduc, L., Feldman, G., Bardi, A. (2014). Personality Traits and Personal Values: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(1), 3-29. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868314538548