An introvert's experience of academia for extroverts to read
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
What kind of academic are you? Introvert or extrovert? Confident in expressing your opinions or reluctant to speak out in group settings?
The standard advice to students and early career researchers for forging their careers is to make connections, put yourself out there, make sure people know who you are, network, network, network! This is sound advice unless you’re an introvert or lack the confidence which you see so clearly in those around you. If you’re an extrovert, it’s perhaps good to understand a little about what being an introvert means, because arguably it can be a disadvantage in many careers, especially academia. By understanding what it means you could make life a little easier for any introverts that you collaborate with or teach.
Being an introvert can manifest in different ways for different people. One definition is that you would be shy (nervous or timid in the company of others) or reticent (not readily revealing one's thoughts or feelings). Another apt description is...
“extroverts can be described as being energised by interacting with other people, and the more the better. The inverse is the general trait of introverts. They are drained of energy by interacting with people; for them, the fewer the better”.
For me, this depends on who those people are.
There is science to explain some of these traits. Research has found thicker prefrontal cortices in introverts compared to extroverts, which is associated with deeper thought and planning - suggesting that introverts are less impulsive than extroverts. Also, extroverts have more dopamine activation when they connect with other humans. There are even genetic studies showing certain genetic changes and alleles linked to particular traits associated with extroversion, such as being adventurous.
There are some excellent blogs (see here) by other introverts in academia summarising their reality. Here I want to just summarise some of the ways me being introverted and lacking confidence impacts my work life:
In places with lots of people and lots of voices I just shut-off; one example I remember clearly was in the first few months of my doctoral training programme where there were about 35 of us confined to a small classroom for training sessions and lunch; the cacophony of voices was so oppressive, coupled with the fact we were supposed to be ‘connecting’ often made me want to run away and quit the whole programme. Other people soon avoided talking to me because I was so awkward.
Social interactions within academia (excepting people I’ve worked with for a long time or am friends with) drain my mental and physical energy, often leaving me with a headache, probably because they induce all kinds of anxiety/stress responses in my body. After these interactions all I want to do is shut myself away from people.
In formal settings, when I know I should contribute to a discussion and have legitimate things to add, I get a visceral reaction which builds and builds and I can feel my heart beat faster, my face goes red and I sweat, waiting for a space to speak yet always hesitating just enough that someone else starts talking and missing the moment. Then I feel disappointed in myself for not speaking.
In social settings I find it impossibly awkward to break into conversations and because I have a quiet voice anyway I have often spoken but not been heard/acknowledged. Some people are kind and recognise you are struggling, others turn their backs or talk over you, reinforcing the notion that you should just not talk.
I overthink everything and assume everyone will think my opinion is worthless. So, when I am supposed to be reaching out and connecting with people, I automatically assume that they will find me a pest. Even when I’ve met people before I generally think they’re unlikely to remember me.
Networking face-to-face is extremely difficult for me so I’m forced to use other means of networking to establish relationships, usually online or via email, which is less effective at creating and strengthening collaborative relationships.
When I am anxious I often muddle words or do not communicate my thoughts with any clarity and as a result of this I have experienced people becoming impatient or annoyed. My best form of communication is written but other people do not wish to receive longwinded emails, which can impact how effective my overall communication within work is.
Conferences, symposia and scientific meetings are often dreaded by introverts as they require a combination of confidence, the ability to talk to people you don’t know but have huge respect for, a perceived need to sound intelligent and masses of people in small spaces. I have yet to enjoy or make the most of a conference for these reasons.
These are just a few examples of how everyday life and interactions are more difficult for those who are introverted and/or who lack self-confidence. But there are many other invisible issues that people are living and working with and it’s important for everyone to understand these. Other invisible potential disabilities that some students/staff face include neurodivergence, dyslexia, ADHD and autism (Check out this article for more about that).
My aim in writing this blog is simply to make people more aware of these issues within the academic setting and, if possible, actively make it easier for those around them to relate to and support them.
If you are a student, this could mean actively spending time recognising which of your peers might be less confident or introverted and where possible, especially in group social settings, just make an effort to make them feel welcome and part of the group. This could be by introducing them to people, actively helping the conversation flow and just being aware that they are probably feeling less comfortable than you are.
If you are a supervisor, you are probably already aware of which students or colleagues are less expressive in group sessions or even in one-on-one meetings. Ways you could create a more comfortable inclusive environment is by making sure everyone has a chance to speak up in meetings, be aware of and try and prevent people who talk over other people, be open to meeting in smaller groups, ensure people never devalue people or make judgements if they say little or are struggling to make themselves heard, and be aware of conscious and, if possible, unconscious bias against people who are introverted. A key one for me would be allowing people to communicate in different ways; for example before a meeting with my supervisor if I could send an email summarising my progress and thoughts, which they read before the meeting, this would make the in-person meeting more productive for both of us.
Please do share your thoughts on this below, or if anyone wishes to write about their own experience then contact any of the members on this site.