With a bit more spare time on my hands, I now finally have the opportunity to catch up with my to-read-list. This week, I finished Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I’m by no means the first to discover this book, it has been on international bestseller lists ever since it was first published in 2012, and my copy is covered with hysterical quotes from people who declare it the Next Big Thing.
All the praise, I soon discovered, was well-deserved. Cain writes about introverts, not using the word as a synonym for shyness, but to describe people who like to be alone, who do not like small talk, who tend to be serious, and who tend to freak out when forced to attend a networking event, or a party where they only know the host. The realization that I met many of these criteria was not news to me. I found Cain’s book hugely comforting and entertaining: I am not alone in enjoying solitude, I now understand how our culture has come to value extravert people, and I have learned some useful skills to navigate a world that is not always supportive to people like me.
Being a researcher, I immediately connected Cain’s argument to academia. It won’t surprise anybody (particularly anybody currently trying to build an academic career) when I say that the field is competitive. Jobs are few and far between, and advancing on the career ladder is downright difficult. Speaking to countless colleagues, friends, careers advisors and random people I met at parties I did not want to go to, I have learned one important thing over the past few years. Networking is key. It is not about what you do, people keep telling me, but about who you know.
For someone who, on a bad day, can’t face the awkwardness of ordering a latte from a shouty barista in a crowded coffee shop, this is bad news. Networking is not something I enjoy, it is something I do because I know it needs to be done, like brushing my teeth and cleaning the toilet. I know I am not alone in this: I have never met anyone who told me they love networking. No doubt those people do exist, but they are a rare breed. For most of us, especially the ones that self-identify as introvert, networking is a chore.
However, we do it anyway. We update our LinkedIn pages (I still don’t have one), we are on Twitter (I am, reluctantly), we talk to people at conferences (but need a few glasses of wine before we feel up to it). I sometimes think I spend so much time presenting myself as an academic, that it affects the time I actually spend being one. Recently a concern has reared its ugly head in my mind, and it won’t go away. Are we creating a generation of academics who care more about surface than substance? Is the future of academia one in which the flashier people get all the jobs, at the cost of those with good ideas who are less capable of promoting their “brand”?
Probably not. I am an optimist and believe there will always be room for good ideas. After all, no matter how well you present yourself, you still need your work to back it up. Even the bubbliest personalities still need a PhD and publications to get ahead. This requires old-fashioned work in libraries and labs, alone or in small teams. Yes, we then need to emerge from our caves and present our work to the world. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I like the increasing emphasis on outreach and public engagement and I would like to see more of it. I despair when I see someone at a conference read from a piece of paper without looking at their audience. Communication and presentation are not my enemies. But I do think we need to balance it out. Is it really all about who you know? In that case, let me ask a different question: who will listen to you if you have nothing interesting to say?