Take a look around you (wherever you are), and it probably won’t take you long to find an extrovert flourishing. Think of your most successful bosses, colleagues, friends or family members–what are their personalities like? Extroverts have no problem speaking their mind; they participate more and they think out-loud. Extroverts thrive in positions of power; they know how to work a room and their presentations almost seem effortless. Extroverts are in their element when surrounded by others; they love being around people and they certainly have no problem befriending them. TLDR: extroverts get noticed. But what about the introverts?
It today’s scholarly society, shy has gone out of fashion. Entire courses are graded on participation and presentations with little emphasis on the what goes on behind-the-scenes. Teachers and professors focus on active learning lesson-plans; they push for more participation and more discussion. In graduate school, your superiors expect even more. Course participation still matters, but now it’s time to spread your wings into the global academic world. Be heard. Be assertive. Be confident. Shout your science from the mountain-top. Discuss all the things with [gasp] other people. Being shy in academia doesn’t do you any favors. So let’s be totally honest, extroverts don’t just flourish in academia, they shine.
So, is there really no place for introverts in academia?
As a self-described introvert who’s been [I think] rather successful in the scholarly world, I would have to whole heartedly disagree. Sure, we introverts have to work harder to have our voices heard in a typical academic discussion and to get up in front of a large audience to give a presentation, and we may need some probing from above to speak our minds, but
there’s something to be said about those of us who prefer to sit back and digest information internally. You may not hear our voices as much, but we certainly don’t shy
away from problem solving… we just do it differently (and probably more often).
Introverts don’t like being the center of attention. We stay silent when we want to think things through, and we talk when we have something important to say. Extroverts may always dominate the conversation, but introverts are always there listening and learning. And introverts really don’t mind working behind the scenes; in fact, we thrive there. We care immensely about the work behind the final product, and despite our reservations about having to present those findings in front of a large group of people, we do it because the work matters so much to us. We may never be admired for a public-speaking skills, but that doesn’t make our science any less important.
Despite our constant inward attentiveness and outward attention to detail, there are always those times when others find introverts not well prepared for the academic world. Our quiet demeanor can come off as a lack of trying or, worse, complete disinterest. I can’t even begin to tell you how many course evaluations I’ve got back that have said something along the lines of “fantastic student, but wish she would discuss things in class more…doesn’t actively participate…” I know these teachers and professors meant well (and I truly took most of their advice to heart), but these kind of statements are a harsh reminder that I strive to work in a profession not designed for an introvert like me. My personality is better suited to lab work, writing, and internal problem-solving; so to get where I want to be in academia, I will have to work a little harder than my extroverted academic neighbor.
Can introverts shine in academia?
Definitely. The thing about academia is that ultimately, the science is what matters. Yes, scientists need to be able to communicate and present their science, but scientists also have to be able to write and think about their science. Everyone has different strengths. Academia is [SURPRISE!] about learning, and we all have to use it as an opportunity to push ourselves outside our extroverted/introverted bounds. If your science is smart, unique, and interesting (…world-changing), people will listen regardless of your personality class. So go ahead and get your __________ (insert introvert or extrovert here) on.