Struggling to socialise in the public side of PhD and academic life? Do you dread the lunch breaks at conferences, clueless as to what you should say to everyone? In this week’s post Jenny Mak offers a mindset shift for the introverted PhD student.
I am an introvert. But over the years, I have become better at functioning—even thriving—in an extroverted world. In fact, when two friends (who were psychology majors) took me for an extrovert, that was a milestone. Don’t get me wrong: I love being an introvert, and I’ll always be one. The PhD student cohort is also certainly populated with introverts, and introversion has its strengths for an academic career. But there is that other side to academic life where being more extroverted does help: presenting and socialising at conferences, public engagement, and teaching, amongst other examples. If you’re an introvert looking to learn how to be more at ease in such situations that would usually make you want to turn and run towards the nearest exit, maybe I can offer you a mindset shift.
Stop thinking of the socialising bit as something you have to do in order to have a successful career in academia. Instead, think of it as something you’re willing to do because you want to connect with other people in your field, to listen to their ideas and learn from them, to gain potential close colleagues that you can engage and collaborate with, maybe even have a chance to be friends with. This shift in mindset might not come naturally or easily, but it is a practice—and practice makes perfect. When you begin to think and act in this way, you’re making yourself ready and open to connect with other people. You’re creating a sense of familiarity with people who are not strangers anymore, but who are potential familiars. At the same time, it shifts the focus away from your discomfort, anxiety, and insecurities to what others can teach you or share with you.
Try practising this at the next conference or seminar gathering that you go to. For instance, if you’re finding it hard to participate in a discussion amongst a group of academics at the reception area, don’t focus on what ‘intelligent’ thing you need to say to gain their attention—which can be anxiety-inducing—but listen to what the others are saying. Be patient with yourself and your discomfort. If you can’t contribute anything in that very moment, it’s ok. Take your time to think about the ideas discussed and, if you have another conference break, you can talk then to the particular academic whom you felt was most relevant to you. Or else email that person later. Don’t be too hard on yourself regarding the outcome, or beat yourself up about what you ‘should’ have done. Also, don’t compare your ‘success rate’ to others. It’s an imperfect process, and you have your own unique way of connecting with others, which will be different from someone who is more extroverted, but is equally valuable and meaningful.
Are you an introverted or extroverted PhD student? How has this helped or hindered you in your academic career so far? Do you have any tips for introverted students who are finding it difficult to deal with situations that require more extroverted skills? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.