Carl Jung, the influential Swiss psychiatrist, defined “introversion” as “inwardly directed psychic energy”. Modern psychology introduced the concept of the Big Five dimensions of personality, expanding the domain of personalities to include the aspects of neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and intellect/imagination, in addition to extroversion/introversion. The common perception of what is considered introversion is, in fact, a blend of introversion with some of these other personality traits.
With the turn of the century, introversion has come to be better understood and accepted, and almost celebrated. While the public opinion of introverts has tuned with time and the immediate cultural context, neuroscientists have delved into the science of human personalities with a more objective lens.
Neuroimaging studies employing PET scans have shown that introverts, as compared to extroverts, have a greater measure of cerebral blood flow in the brain areas associated with planning, problem-solving and personal recollections. On the other hand, brain areas involved in interpreting real-time sensory information showed greater blood flow in extroverts, reflecting on the outward focus that is characteristic of extroverted behaviour.
Brain circuits aside, another important part of the introvert-extrovert puzzle is the neurochemicals that drive these brain circuits. Dean Hamer and others have shown that low-novelty seekers are highly sensitive to dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with seeking external rewards, which can include making money, getting a promotion at work, or climbing the social ladder. An excess of such rewards, therefore, can risk overstimulating introverts. Extroverts or high-novelty seekers, on the other hand, are less sensitive to dopamine, which makes them actively seek these situations to derive a sense of reward, say, for example, socializing at length in a cocktail party after a conference.
The bottom line is that personalities come in many flavours, and most of us lie somewhere in the middle on the spectrum between extreme introversion and extroversion. Scientists have a peculiar reputation, however, of leaning more towards the introverted end. The image of a socially awkward, geeky scientist who’d rather be chalking equations in his den than be the life of a party, is difficult to scrub from the public psyche.
It is in the very nature of scientists to be contemplative and deep thinkers, personality traits to which introverts are perfectly aligned. Needless to say, the very concept of networking may put an introvert on the edge. However, science survives and thrives on collaborations, and networking is key. Very few aspects of science can be pursued in isolation, and more often than not, it is the chance encounters over high tea breaks or a stimulating conversation during a mid-conference lunch that sparks new ideas.
As a new entrant into the academia clan, I have come to realise that scientists tend to shed their introvert skin in the lab and interact openly when they gather for scientific discussions and meetings. Free exchange of ideas and understanding the depth and breadth of each other’s work take precedence above all else. Experience does matter here, as one strengthens and expands their scientific network.
As a first-year PhD student presenting a poster at a Scientific Advisory Committee meeting, I wondered whether I had evolved enough to pull this off. All apprehensions aside, I found myself gaining clarity by communicating my work to people across the board, from young science enthusiasts who needed me to get back to the very basics, to high profile scientists who stopped by my poster to provide valuable feedback and affirm the sense of direction of my project.
Not all the world’s a stage, as introverts may often feel. Easing into “safer environments” like group meetings with peers and departmental talks first before moving onto more challenging contexts like scientific meetings can help one find one’s voice and exercise it better in scientific interactions.
With communication styles varying from person to person, mastering communication is a highly personal endeavour. Here are some ideas that, in general, can help break the ice in a scientific milieu.
Though pretending to be a pseudo-extrovert may seem to be the right thing to do, it can come off as inauthentic. To overcome the initial qualms of approaching a stranger, it helps to see networking as a source of knowledge exchange and an opportunity for cultivating relationships rather than a platform for self-promotion.
Eyeing that bigshot scientist whose work you have been following up close? It helps to step away from your comfort zone and strike up a conversation. More often than not, they’re delighted to interact with young people. Expressing genuine interest and following up with thoughtful questions from their presentation is a good way to break the ice. Allowing the conversation to flow rather than relying on forced small talk requires being intuitive, and introverts know that best.
Flexing the social muscle just right
Like any other skill, socialising can be mastered with frequent exposure. Though formal networking can be draining for introverts, putting yourself and your work out there is an essential tool in any PhD scholar’s survival kit. As an ambivert playing a balancing act between introversion and extroversion, I interact with people whose work makes me tick, over a cup of coffee or lunch in scientific gatherings. At the same time, I don’t forget to re-energize in pockets of solitude. Flexing that social muscle is an art, too much or too less of which can be counterproductive.
Nurturing the network
A quick follow up email can help a person remember who they have talked to. Making a casual reference to what you talked about and what you gained from it can help build a good professional relationship. Follow-ups can often lead to correspondences that help you leverage a cocktail conversation into building a strong professional network.
Building an online presence
A classic nugget of wisdom about introverts that holds true in my experience is that they express themselves best in writing. An exercise in writing and connecting to people online can help introverts network more effectively, as compared to a buzzing conference hall.
Building a strong online presence is a good practice in one’s networking régime. It can be a good practice pad to engage with the right set of people in a succinct matter. A 140 character long tweet can be the equivalent of an elevator pitch about one’s work.
Besides the classic LinkedIn and ResearchGate, I find it rewarding to reach out to corresponding authors of research papers that I am particularly intrigued by via email, and frame questions about their research directions and methodology. Their response is usually spontaneous and welcoming, and this personal exercise has helped me establish one-on-one communication with several relevant people in my field of study.
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All said and done, it is about finding what works for you and expanding yourself as you work through the unwritten rules of effective communication in scientific circles. Happy navigating!
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