I often identify my first year of graduate school as the year in which I began to understand that I was more of an introvert than an extrovert. This narrative of the development of my self-knowledge has often comforted me in times when I need to understand some of the big-picture ways that going to graduate school has benefited me personally, as a soul moving through the universe, maturing and growing.
So, considering that this topic of introversion vs extroversion has been something I’ve been thinking about for several years now in relation to myself, it was a pleasant surprise to see an article about introverts and extroverts in the April 20th edition of The Chronicle.
In the article, entitled "Screening out the Introverts," William Pannapacker reflects on the cultural bias towards the qualities of extroversion. He discusses the way that introversion is looked down upon and even pathologized in our culture, and wonders whether graduate school programs do enough to resist these kinds of biases, and to accommodate and even celebrate the qualities of an introverted personality.
To set up his reflection, Pannapacker points out that academia might seem to be a haven for an introverted type of personality: “Many people are drawn to academic life because they expect it will provide a refuge from the social demands of other careers: They believe one can be valued as a studious introvert, as many undergraduates are.” But then he also points out that a career as an academic is very different from life as a student; it requires a person to be comfortable both with solitary tasks as well as with very public engagements. As an academic, he points out, “Long periods of social isolation – research and writing – are punctuated by brief periods of intense social engagements: job interviews, teaching, conferences, and meetings.”
Reading this article made me revisit my own narrative of how I came to know myself as more introverted than extroverted, and how that story relates to my growth as a graduate student. All my life, while I was in school from basically kindergarten through most of my undergraduate years, I considered myself a “people person.” Also, I loved being on stage, performing and acting and singing. So, growing up, everyone, including myself, would consistently describe me as an outgoing, sociable, and friendly. I would say I “loved people.”
There was, of course, another side to me as well. I loved to get absorbed in a good book, a new CD, a great movie, or my own writing, and I loved the mental retreat of a beautiful view of the ocean, a distant city skyline, a mountain, or a valley. I liked having one or two special best friends who knew everything about me. I liked meaningful, long, one-on-one conversations.
When I first took the Myer’s Briggs test as a college freshmen, I came out an as extrovert. I now believe that my “extrovert” result was at least partly because of the very stigmas about introversion that Pannapacker points out. He says, “Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in the US culture, the test might as well have asked, “Would you prefer to be cool, popular and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?” I do believe that our cultural biases probably skewed the test results, at least in my case. Plus, I thought because I “loved people” and loved being on stage that it didn’t make sense to identify myself as introverted.
But the real point I want to make here is that I actually didn’t even know about my introversion until I entered the workforce in the corporate setting. I had always and forever been a student, and so always was in a social position in which acts of reflection and study were valuable and worthwhile ways to spend my time. But this notion of time well spent changed when I entered the work-force. When I graduated from college, I began working in the corporate world, in a consumer marketing position. No longer was I in a position in which acts of reflection or study were acceptable; now was the time to produce, not study. I believe it was this new social role that caused my discomfort. I missed the feeling that some personal reflection time was a worthwhile way to way my time. I felt drained and exhausted after interacting all day with people I didn’t care about or wouldn’t choose to be with if I wasn’t at work. After work I would crawl into bed, watch TV, and try to gear up for another day.
I remember when I first began graduate school a year later, a sense of balance was restored to my inner self. I had time built into my life to read, to be in solitude, to write, to study and reflect; I also engaged with people in meaningful ways that made me feel purposeful and connected. By the end of a day’s work in the graduate school life, I felt energized and wanted to socialize with my family and friends rather than crawling in a hole and watching TV.
With this sharp contrast to the way I had felt after a day of work as a consumer marketing assistant, I finally began to rethink my characterization as an extrovert. I began to realize that the solitude involved in writing and research actually helped recharge me and make me feel alive, and then my relationships with people could thrive and my interpersonal interactions were full of the energy and sociability I had always known throughout my life. I felt sure I had found a kind of job and life that harmonized with my personality.
Ultimately, I guess the point of this blog post is to continue the important conversation that Pannapacker began in The Chronicle – to think through how personalities can define and shape the system of education, even as the system of education can define and shape personalities. What has been your experience in graduate school in terms of your dominant personality traits? In what ways do you think your personality drew you to your field? Which personality traits do you think are more valued within the system of graduate education? Which traits are frowned upon? How have these biases affected you? Please share your thoughts and reflections! :)