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


I wrote this post in response to a comment on a previous 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.