How to be the ‘star PhD student’ – when you are an introvert

Do you identify as ‘introvert’? Many PhD students do. If you are less comfortable with social spaces, the networking part of academia might be painful. To tell you the truth, I don’t really buy the ‘introvert/extrovert’ spectrum as I don’t identify as either. I’m always uncomfortable with such absolute descriptions as people are very complex, but I accept that some people find the label of introvert helpful in describing their experience of the world. I am comfortable in large social gatherings that are a persistent feature of academia, so I’m grateful when someone comes forward to write from a different point of view.

Sharon is preparing to submit her PhD Thesis in Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales this year. Her research investigates some of the future effects of distributed generation on the electricity industry as more homes start to generate their own power using solar power and batteries. You can find out more about Sharon on LinkedIn

I wrote this post in response to a comment on a previous Thesiswhisperer post called Why you are not the star student (and how to become one). The gist of the article was that to be a ‘star’, you needed to extend yourself beyond your research and make connections. A comment was made that ‘academia: just another field where extroverts have the upper hand’.  Inger suggested that that may not be accurate and perhaps an introvert could respond.  I describe myself as an introvert, and I asked to write a response post.

It is perhaps best to start by stating how I see introverts/extroverts. I am an engineer, I am not going to be perfect on this by any means and can only speak from my experience as a self-defined introvert. The general trait of extroverts can be described as that they are 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 the rest of this article, I will speak as an introvert with strategies on how to be a ‘star student’.

The first thing to be aware of is that none of the traits or actions suggested in the article have anything to do with whether or not you’re an introvert.

  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee you will make good connections
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you’re a good networker
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you’re great at time management.
  • Extroversion doesn’t mean you do high quality work, or publish more papers
  • Extroversion doesn’t guarantee that you are especially responsible or reliable

These are all personal traits, and any of them can be improved on if you choose to invest the time and energy.

This post is partially influenced by “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research”, which I read the first chapters of very early in my PhD. On reflection, it’s surprising how much this book has shaped my actions in the two and half years since then. The single greatest takeaway I took from that book was that a PhD is a short term contract, with a known end in sight. As such, from the beginning of your PhD, you need to be planning for the end.

How does this relate to introverts?

As an introvert, I know that I have a finite amount of energy for face-to-face interactions.  After a while, no matter what I’m doing, who I’m talking to or how good and useful it is, I’m going to have to recharge by finding a quiet place.  Every day, every week, every month, there is a limit on how much I can handle.

When you have a finite resource, what do you do?  Learn to spend it well.

So what have I done?  I’ve tried to keep the end in mind – when my PhD finishes, I don’t know what opportunities I will have, so I have tried to maximise my options.  I’d like to stay in academia, and keep researching.  But such a role may also have a teaching requirement.  I may not be able to get a research position, so I may need to shift to industry.

In the process of preparing myself for the end of my PhD, I’ve ended up doing a whole lot of the things that Inger insists a ‘star’ student does:

  • I tutor one subject per semester.  Because I need teaching experience to maximise my post-PhD options.
  • I attend a weekly lunchtime discussion group.  Because I need to connect with my peers and become familiar with their research.
  • I organise that weekly group.  Because it proves my reliability and because it connects me with people I would otherwise not meet.
  • I attend regular seminars on research in my field.  Because I want to hear from and connect to other people working in my area.
  • I try to present at a minimum of one conference per year.  Because I need to both connect with others and present my own work.
  • I enter 3MT.  Because I need to get good at communicating clearly and concisely.
  • I meet newer students for coffee to mentor them.  Because I need to be able to lead and manage people who have less experience than myself, but also because I can learn from them – their thinking is not yet stuck in a rut.
  • I even get my morning cuppa at 8:45am, to maximise the number of people I am likely to see when I have the most energy.
  • I’ve written submissions to parliamentary inquiries.  Because genuine expertise needs to be heard where decisions are being made.
  • I put my hand up to write a post for ThesisWhisperer. (:D) Because I need to learn to communicate to people beyond my sphere of research.

And more.

Every single one of those things has a time and energy cost, some of them larger than others.  But I’m still on track to complete in a timely manner. And when I finish, I will have options, because I have built connections.  Not because I am an extrovert (HA. I am nothing of the sort), but because I worked out what was needed, and used my (physical, temporal, emotional) resources strategically.

When it comes to emotional energy – the best way to manage it is to plan ahead for any events that are going to be draining, and give yourself time to recuperate.

For example, I love teaching my students in tutorials.  I love seeing them start to understand things. But after I walk out of a 2 hour lesson it can be up to an hour before I’m much use to anyone. I usually run tutorials just before lunch, so I can have big break afterward.

At conferences, I set a goal of at least two good conversations (with business card exchanged) per day, which gives me both connection and break time. I write agendas for my supervisor meetings to make sure they’re productive, and schedule a break immediately afterward.

These are my management strategies but you need to work out what works for you.

If you are an introvert, you are recharged by quiet time, quiet spaces and not interacting with people. Social interaction is often a major drain on your energy levels. Giving a presentation, teaching a class, attending a conference or social drinks are all things that can leave you drained, possibly even exhausted.

Don’t avoid it – you need to do this stuff to maximise your future options. But work out how you can manage yourself so that you can do these things. Being an introvert doesn’t disqualify you from doing well in academia.

Thanks Sharon! Even as a person more on the extrovert end of the spectrum, I found some useful tips there, what about you? If you identify as introvert, what do you do to cope with the social demands of academia?

Related posts

Why you are not the star student (and how to become one).

How to win academic friends and influence people

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13 thoughts on “How to be the ‘star PhD student’ – when you are an introvert

  1. Hi Sharon!
    Really excellent post. Could you expand a little about the “weekly lunchtime discussion group”? I liked the idea, and was thinking of starting something similar. I wanted to know who are the people involved and what you do in these meetings

    Thanks!
    Chahat

    • Our lunchtime discussion group is a gathering once a week of the people in our research group – it’s about a dozen people at various stages in their research. Sometimes someone will present some of their recent work, practice for a conference, or just raise a topic. Other times, we just talk about news and developments in our field. Anyone is welcome to join us.

    • I disagree. Sharon suggests managing an introvert trait by being aware of your energy levels, and the time you need to recharge after social sessions. I see that as working with your natural state, not against or in denial of it.

      I would also consider that if someone is experiencing particularly heightened levels of anxiety about conferences, teaching, etc. where they need more than a balanced mix of alone and contact time, then it’s possibly beyond an ‘introvert’ trait and is something worth discussing with a counsellor/psych.

      • Thanks Amy!
        As you say, it’s not about ‘how to be an introvert’, it’s about how to manage yourself and being strategic in that – to an extrovert, this kind of stuff is (usually) automatic. To me, it’s something that I have had to work hard to learn.
        Also, you make a very good point about getting help to manage anxiety etc. If someone is really struggling to interact with others socially, it’s a great idea to get help to deal with any underlying issues.

  2. Fantastic post. Being an extrovert does not necessarily mean that you are a great communicator or enjoy networking. Introverts have amazing strengths, e.g., listening, in depth discussions and learning to work with these strengths sets you up for success. Also feeling comfortable setting limits helps. For instance, I am happy if I meet 2 people at a conference as it is within my introvert comfort zone.

    I recommend all introverts read Quiet by Susan Cain. It really helped me understand my introversion and how to appreciate it.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this piece on introverts. Your list of constructive and productive strategies actively raising your visibility and credibility as an emerging scholar are very good. If I were a student today I would consciously choose to do these things, but only did a 1/4 of them and struggled with myself to do those. By the way, what is the name of the book you are referring to in your piece? Thanks again!!!

    • Hi Marlene,
      The book I referred to was ‘the Unwritten Rules of PhD Research’, by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg. I think Inger has now included a link to it in the article.
      Thanks,
      Sharon

  4. Hi Sharon,
    I enjoyed your comment “I usually run tutorials just before lunch, so I can have big break afterward.” I have observed that many professors do exactly that. 🙂 Except for my own supervisor, who goes on a “walk-about” after his lectures. He’s an extrovert.

  5. I agree with all of these things! Being an introvert doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy connecting with people, in fact much introvert research shows that we value deep and significant connection with others. Introverts find large amounts of small talk or meeting lots of new people very draining—and will probably not enjoy two hours of conference drinks chit chat. However, I have made deep and significant academic connections at conferences, and I’ve also always taken at least one session to run away and walk/read/window shop to recharge. I typically save my lunch break for a quiet time, but will plan one to two coffee meetings a week—more if they are with people I know well like long term mentees. Knowing people also helps reduce the strain of social anxiety (which is present for some introverts).
    This is an excellent list and full of good advice!

  6. If it is that hard for an on-campus introvert, spare a thought for those who are introverts, part-time and distance students – barely any contact, no on-campus activities, no groups or get-togethers.

  7. Pingback: 5 ways to Poster = Fail | The Thesis Whisperer

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