I am a scientist, an ecologist, and an introvert. In this blog post, I would like to share some thoughts and personal experiences on what it means to be an introvert working in science and how it can be challenging at times in the academic world. This is merely my view but I hope it will initiate some discussion on the topic between extroverts, ambiverts and introverts within our community of scientists/ecologists. Now is your turn to share your thoughts and stories: contact the Blog Team or tweet it with #DiversityInEcology.
Why talk about introverts?
Popularized by Carl Jung in 1921 as a personality type (see also the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), the debate on introversion versus extroversion is still popular nowadays. The topic has recently regained interest after the publication of Susan Cain’s New York Times bestselling book ‘Quiet‘ and her accompanying TED talk ‘The Power of Introverts‘. In a world where extroversion seemed the norm, Cain’s book shed some light on introversion: what it is, what it means and how to live with it harmoniously. To me, this book was a great attempt to restore the balance on the worldwide extrovert-introvert scale. I can even say that it changed my life and I certainly would not be have written this article otherwise.
Behind the debate: Quick scientific facts!
It is important to note that there is a continuum of different personality types from introversion to extroversion, with ambiverts sitting in the middle. Most have an idea about the behavioural differences between introverts and extroverts (summarized here) but the science behind these personality types is something that is only recently studied (see here for more details). In brief, we are not different, our brains are just wired differently, and extroverts are not necessarily happier than introverts!
Scientists, what are you?
Earlier this year, we asked scientists on Twitter how they identify on the extrovert-introvert continuum by asking them to take a test provided by Quiet Revolution (Susan Cain’s website). Here are the results:
Despite being restricted to the Twitter community and with no means of verifying who were voting, the outcome was quite interesting. Over a week, 482 people voted and according to the results, the majority are introverts (51%) or ambiverts (31%).
What does this mean for scientists ?
To me, this raises the question: does a more introverted personality type fit with the academic system we created or are creating? Here are some of my views and some of my early career experiences as an introverted scientist.
When I started my PhD 10 years ago, I felt that the academic system was not best suited for the introverted me. My career in academia started with very scary situations where I was expected to express my scientific opinion in public, present my results at conferences in front of a (very) large audience, debate at lab meetings about scientific theories, all whilst figuring out how to do ‘good science’.
I quickly realized that these were essential skills, and despite being quite challenging, I ended up learning them. In turn, this allowed me to feel more included within the scientific community. Of course, being introverted, quiet (not shy) and calm, often left me on the fringes. I’ve worked with people who naturally valued more extroverted-attitude types and I often felt that I was not taken seriously as an introvert. But this just made me want to fight harder, alone and in silence! So, if you’re a PhD student, struggling with your introverted side, don’t worry, you can make the most of it (here are some tips) and it gets easier!
Becoming a postdoc was somewhat of a relief because I got more freedom to do what I wanted due to having my own fellowship to do research abroad. As a postdoc I am free to work with who I want and free to talk or not talk when I want. Moreover, as your career progresses, you have both less pressure from your boss (because you almost become your own boss) and more confidence in the research you are doing.
A few difficulties remain though, an important one being conferences. It seems unrealistic that in a world of introvert-ambivert scientists, conferences are still organized on the same template – small crowded rooms where there is just enough air for everyone to breathe and hundreds of posters next to each other with little space to move around. It would be nice if all conferences could provide space for people to take breaks – besides hiding in the restrooms!
Fortunately, some of us are already thinking about this issue, such as Stephen Heard, who provide some tips for attending conferences and some ideas for how to make conferences more introvert-friendly.
Overall, academia forced me to embrace my introverted-attitude type; it tested every single aspect of my introversion because I work with competitive extrovert scientists (or more often introverts/ambiverts forced to act as extroverts), express my opinions in public, and share my research through conference talks. Joining the academic world was for me very positive as it helped me to accept my introversion, but should this have to happen under so much pressure? Why do we have to work with the stress of showing off our achievements, the pressure to publish in top-ranked journals, and always yelling to be heard?
I guess that the competition for jobs plays an important role. However, in my opinion, the current academic system (e.g., publish or perish, the louder the better, etc.) are pushing us to lose part of ourselves, including our introverted-attitude type, diverting us from our inner interest and imagination, which is likely the core of our innovative mind as scientists and what brought us into science in the first place. As Albert Einstein said:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
As an introvert scientist, and probably as many scientists around the world, I am very attached to my imagination and my curiosity and do not want to lose it! Hopefully, as introvert/ambivert scientists, we can come together to find new ways to make our academic system better adapted to who we are (see Find Your Voice, 2016, Nature), which to me is an essential step to ensure advances in all domains of Science.
This post reflects my own views but I hope it encourages a debate within the community of ecologists/scientists. If you want to share your thoughts please add comments to this post, get in touch with the Blog Team or tweet it with #DiversityInEcology.
Pierre Mariotte, Blog Editor and Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology
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