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HenryJonesJr
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11 Nov 2018, 2:00 pm

I am currently in the second year of a PhD program. Before this I did a master's degree. Our school hosted a conference this weekend in my field. I met some cool people and learned a lot of interesting things. However, during the last few hours of the third day (only a half-day) I began to succumb to the dreaded "introvert overload". My motivation ran out, then my fake smile muscles reached complete fatigue, and apparently my face reverted to a sour expression. I completed my duties and escaped quickly.

My question is, can an introvert survive in today's academic world? I am introverted to the point that I think I must be neuro-atypical in some way (I was once offered an ASD diagnosis). I feel that there is so much pressure to be upbeat and optimistic and just "on" in the academic setting. This applies to teaching and working with students in general, as well as to networking and collaborating and attending service meetings of various types. I can do this for a few hours each day, but then I just start to run out of steam. I know this is an especially tough time, right after a conference, but I feel as though something is wrong with me. The message it seems to me that I receive from others is "why can't you just be happy and have a good time?" I feel as though I am incompetent in some way, and this is disappointing. When I feel this way I struggle to even appear friendly, though I certainly feel no ill will towards anyone; I am just drained and have no energy to offer.

I hear all of this career advice for future academics that is centered around being an excellent teacher and having a vast professional social network. This is in addition to the baseline expectation of doing excellent research. How can a person like me survive in this setting?



BTDT
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11 Nov 2018, 3:13 pm

A better fit may be a research position somewhere. R&D for the defense industry may be ideal for some Aspies, as you aren't allowed to talk about your work as it is classified.



HenryJonesJr
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11 Nov 2018, 4:43 pm

I actually worked in an R&D position before coming back to school. I came back to school to develop more expertise and get more credentials. Even if you have learned a lot on your own, having only a bachelor's degree in a research lab, some will view you as not having enough expertise, or at least that was my experience, unfortunately. Since I have been in grad school academia has seemed more appealing because of the freedom and constant immersion in your field of interest. But there is a very intense social component to academia, and nowadays academics have to be very socially sophisticated. I get the impression that the days of the "absent-minded professor" are largely over. Now you have to be as much a showperson and salesperson as good at some technical discipline, or at least that is the impression I am getting. Maybe my impression is exaggerated because of a few outstanding examples.

Thanks for your suggestion; an R&D lab may be the best place for me.

I wonder if there is a way to learn to become more adept at managing these situations, to become more skilled and equally more comfortable... maybe my expectations are too high...



BeaArthur
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13 Nov 2018, 10:50 pm

If an introvert can't fit in in academia, where can he fit in?

Maybe you should again explore that ASD diagnosis. Self-knowledge is the key to taking on challenges such as this.

I don't think there is anything wrong with imploding on Day 3 of a conference. I think most folks are winding down by then.


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BTDT
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13 Nov 2018, 10:57 pm

A fancy degree is nice, but can you deliver results? Something that is obviously better than what came before?

Surprisingly enough, you are better off delivering small but consistent improvements. Those are easy to sell.



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14 Nov 2018, 8:57 am

My Aspie husband baled on academia (physic), when he realized it was all SELL BABY SELL SELL SELL.

I did research chemistry for 4 years, and it's all about the hustle, the writing, more hustle, the smooze.

The days of the lone wolf, working in the lab and tapping out results are pretty much gone in division one university setting. (US)

To me, academia was like the Tudor court. (my perspective-chemisty). You had to be aware of what was going on in your section (physical chemistry). What was going on with your section's chair and then the department head. Your value was judged by how many grad students you pumped out, and the papers you published based on your research. Teaching classes was a necessary evil. And oh yeah, those student reviews really do matter. You get low marks on soft skills, the chair will not be happy.

The grind of getting data, publishing, presenting and rinse and repeat is draining even for an extrovert NT. My group had Friday meetings were one person had to present a topic. Every 8 weeks your turn came up. Then it was section meetings, with another topic (twice a year). Not to mention seminars and events where you presented a topic or had to man a poster session. You were suppose to network and figure out what everyone else was doing. Maybe steal and idea and run with it.

I was lucky. I only tutored students, not had to teach classes.

I have a BFA in fine art. My presentation skills and being able to *sell* made my life a zillion times easier in the research group.

You need the solid science, but the people who crawl to the top of the heap (the ones that get tenure, section chair or run the department) could all sell ice cubes to penguins in the Antarctic. Their soft skills are honed to a razor edge. They could poach the best grad students. They could strong arm money from the university for better equipment. They got published in the bigger deal journals.

Seminars are really tiring. I know for the ones I went to, you were on until you got back home. I remember saying to my prof about being tired on day 4 (!), and he told me that tired was a luxury I didn't have. I could fall apart on the flight home.

I don't know what non hard science is like, but we had a poster in our lab that said "Walk like it's for sale, and the rent's due tonight." Wasn't that far from the truth.



Needs_Anonymity
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20 Nov 2018, 1:18 pm

I'm finishing a PhD but already know that academia won't accommodate my autism. Besides all the flesh-pressing and selling that's already been mentioned, academic politics are a cesspit that put most office politics to shame. Also, I have ADHD as well, and many chronic pain/fatigue issues. My work is excellent...when it gets done...but I can't control my workflow on my truly creative and innovative work, so I'm not conventionally productive. Plus, I'm a woman, so the way the undergrads would savage me on evals would be final nail.

Academia would have been an amazing autistic career 50 or 100 years ago, but today, not nearly so much.



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23 Nov 2018, 10:59 am

I'm thinking of an academic career in criminal law but not sure if it fits me..



Darmok
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23 Nov 2018, 11:29 am

Needs_Anonymity wrote:
academic politics are a cesspit that put most office politics to shame

That's definitely one of the things that makes it hard for non-sociable and non-politically-skillful people, unfortunately.


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pineapplehead
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25 Nov 2018, 5:13 am

Most of the professors in my department were introverted. Even so, there's a lot of kissing ass and begging for money in academia, so you can't really avoid socializing as much as you would like to.



HenryJonesJr
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30 Nov 2018, 6:19 am

Thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful posts.

BeaArthur wrote:
If an introvert can't fit in in academia, where can he fit in?

Maybe you should again explore that ASD diagnosis. Self-knowledge is the key to taking on challenges such as this.

I don't think there is anything wrong with imploding on Day 3 of a conference. I think most folks are winding down by then.

Looking back after a few weeks, I definitely see the sense in your advice, especially the last part.

BTDT wrote:
A fancy degree is nice, but can you deliver results? Something that is obviously better than what came before

I definitely agree with this. I hope that my main motivation for pursuing my degree is not to have a fancy piece of paper, but so that I can learn more about my field that helps me do more useful work.