How to be an introvert on campus

Biology lecturer Anne Osterrieder reflects on the importance of solitude for academics

February 15, 2016
Woman sits alone on a bench illustrating the isolating experience of transitioning from academia into industry
Source: istock

Many people are surprised when I mention that I am an introvert.

I enjoy giving talks in public. I love to connect with new people, and I have a huge network, offline and on social media.

However, I can only be talkative, social and outgoing for a limited amount of time. Then, my mood and my energy levels take a rapid turn downhill.

Sometimes I need to simply retreat into a quiet room, close the door and reflect, until it is time to socialise again.

When I started my role as new lecturer in September, I had prepared myself for the obvious challenges of taking on a new job, having to juggle even more things, and working long hours to prepare new teaching materials.

I had not expected the amount of input that I suddenly had to digest. So much to reflect on, so little time.

Every work day was filled with new experiences, meaningful teaching moments, meaningful learning moments, critical incidents, significant conversations and debut “performances” in front of new audiences.

But not every evening was enough to fully unpack the day’s events. I could feel my brain becoming slow and stuck, as it tried to grind its way through a particular issue, with a long queue of other things patiently waiting in line.

The most annoying part was that I knew that it would get better at the end of the first semester, having finished the full cycle of teaching a module for the very first time.

But still, I had to go through the slow process of experiencing, reflecting, rinse and repeat.

One of the funniest moments was teaching a small group tutorial and realising that all of the students were introverts.

Whenever I find myself in a group of three or more people, I go quiet. I smile and nod a lot, and I listen intensely. So were my students. Suddenly, I had to be the extrovert.

I had to make small-talk, and I had to keep the conversation going. An introverted friend broke into laughter when I told her about this, as she had experienced the same thing.

With my new role, I want to find new ways to build alone time into my day, and to reflect more quickly. I want myself to develop better filters for what is worth reflecting on, and what to simply put aside.

I am writing this post for introverted students or early career researchers, who might be pondering their future career options.

You can be an introvert and successfully take on extroverted tasks. You just might need different strategies to recharge.

Anne Osterrieder is a lecturer in biology and science communication at Oxford Brookes University. A longer version of this article appeared on her personal blog.

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