Doing a PhD that matches your personality

Are you introverted or extroverted? How understanding your own personality traits can make research and networking easier.
Tina Floersch via Unsplash

One of the most important differentiations in personality psychology is the line between introverted and extroverted. Once you know whether you are more introverted or extroverted, you have an important key that shapes your work, how you interact with others, and your living circumstances.

Introverted literally means “turned inward”, while extroverted means “turned outward”. Today, researchers are able to verify that these differences are rooted in our neuropsychology.

Introverts …

  • … find too much social activity stressful and prefer structure and predictability. They prefer to think and plan before acting.

  • … do their best work in a quiet setting and need time to reflect.

  • … appreciate security, caution, and dependability.

Extroverts ...

  • … love bustling settings and switching between different channels.

  • … are sensory-oriented.

  • … do their best work when they are being active and love to dig in to a new task energetically.

  • … appreciate rewards, risks, and having an attractive goal.

The most interesting thing is that part of your brain can be introverted, while another part is extroverted. Take this online test to find out what parts of your personality are introverted and extroverted. If you are more in the middle, you are called a centrovert or an ambivert—read more here.

No matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, in the world of academia, you will have an easy time handling some situations and a more difficult time confronting others. Let’s look at some typical tasks and challenges and ask ourselves the question: How can you, as an introvert or extrovert, get the best results? And how can you overcome some typical hurdles?

1. Communicating with your team

No matter where you go in the world, 30 to 50 per cent of the population will be introverts. This means chances are good that you will meet both introverts and extroverts in your PhD programme.

As an introvert ...

... you may be a more reserved team member than the extroverts and take a less active role in communications. However, when you do speak up your observations will generally be well thought-out and knowledgeable. Make it your goal to speak up during meetings, presentations, and discussions. Often, you can plan what you want to say in advance. You may notice lots of details—make sure to focus on the central topic at hand. You will easily be able to demonstrate your ability to go into depth if necessary.

As an extrovert ...

... you have many qualities that introverts envy: an infectious energy, the courage to set off in your own direction, and brilliant strategies for cultivating your own image. However, all of these traits can be counter-productive in academia, where rigour and caution are virtues. Make sure you have a solid foundation for the points you bring up in meetings, presentations, or discussions. It may take extra time, but will help others trust in your expertise.

2. Meeting with your academic adviser

As an introvert ...

... you can help your dissertation adviser by communicating frequently and in a targeted manner. Clarify how often your contacts want to hear from you. Offer interim updates and overviews, along with questions you need to answer. You are probably already writing these down for yourself anyway. Make sure your work helps make you more visible.

As an extrovert ...

... you may have an easier time “selling” your work than introverts. Make sure you can deliver the level of quality others expect of you. Provide reliable, regular reports on the progress of your project. Listen carefully to your quieter advisers—the way they package their critiques may make it difficult for extroverts to really hear what they are saying.

3. Working on your project

As an introvert ...

... you may be more comfortable writing than speaking. Perseverance is an understated, yet important strength—and great for a long dissertation! Make sure to communicate orally as well on a regular basis and to talk to people who can help you make progress. Present parts of your work at conferences or within your department. Talk to colleagues who are dealing with similar questions.

As an extrovert ...

... you may be more comfortable speaking than writing, and you may not love spending long hours in front of a computer. Divide your work into easy-to-manage content sections or time periods using the Pomodoro technique, for example. Vary your activities so that you have the right level of stimulation.

4. At conferences

As an introvert ...

... you may feel uncomfortable in the early phases of your PhD programme because you have to meet so many different people. Avoid the temptation to interact only with colleagues from your own institution. Try to meet new people in your own quiet way: Ask to be introduced, send greetings from someone else, or make an appointment in advance with a colleague whom you find interesting. If you don’t like small talk, then don’t engage in it. Talk about what you find most interesting in the person. Try to participate in the discussions following a presentation.

As an extrovert ...

... you probably will not have trouble networking. Your challenge is to turn your contacts into potential cooperative partners and supporters. Write down what you talked about and with whom. Stay in contact with people who are important to you after your conferences. You should also slow down during your talks to listen to others. You will learn amazing things—great for your brain’s reward system. Conference social events can be a little like a professional goldfish bowl. Adjust your communication style accordingly.

I wish all of you all the best for your dissertation projects. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, I hope you learn to utilise your strengths!