Can introverts survive in scientific research?
By Louise Harkness
Most scientists are introverted, right? You can picture them; those shy, reticent white coat researchers, focussed on their own thoughts; huddling over petri dishes, equations, and laboratory paraphernalia. However, you may be surprised, but the world of scientific research has actually become the realm of the extrovert. Louise Harkness delves into the realm of the scientist brain.
We all grew up with the impression that scientists are the weird, socially awkward guys (or girls) in white lab coats, untamed hair, and thick-rimmed glasses, muttering nonsense over a beaker of bubbling concoction in the dark and dingy basement laboratory. However, the truth is the paradigm of the scientist has been replaced with very confident, strong, and well-spoken individuals who are akin to business executives; or at least these are the ones who tend to succeed in the research world.
I believe the introverted scientist is dying out due to an evolution in the demands of scientific research. Research is primarily funded by grants from agencies and government departments. Assessment of grants is a long and thorough process conducted by a panel of experts who assesses the quality and validity of the proposed research, and also the quality and validity of the researchers who are making the proposal. Other sources of funding are private donors and fundraising (which is common in the medical field); and industrial partnerships (common in the engineering and pharmaceutical fields). These sources of funding require presentation skills and confidence from strong, well-polished salesmen and women who can sell a vision.
“We are this close to curing disease-x and with your money we will revolutionise the treatment of x!”
please insert your chosen disease in the x provided.
As researchers, we all know that the cure for ‘disease-x’ is out there; however, it takes time and there are many avenues of enlightenment and many dead-ends. However, one thing is clear, if you believed every researcher grant application or funding campaign, we would have no disease to speak of, have cell phone batteries that never died and have a fundamental understanding of the universe we live in.
Now, I am not saying that these researchers are making flat out lies. A more appropriate and accurate statement is likely to be:
“We have found clues which indicate the potential of protein y in disease-x. With your help we will be able to understand how y interacts with x. With this knowledge we may be able to develop a molecule that mimics y that can then potentially treat a subdivision of patients with condition x.”
please insert your chosen disease in the x provided and protein in y.
However, it doesn't seem so convincing, and when up against the first statement and sensationalism that regularly occurs in science journalism, funding is always likely to flow the easiest route. Thus, we tend to ‘round-up’ our research findings when it comes to grant writing and take the route that will most likely result in success.
Importantly, with the digital and media age, researchers are expected to have an outwardly facing image and be engaged with the wider global community (indeed, in academia this is a requirement for many promotion committees). Thus, we face the difficulty of making complex scientific findings understandable to the layman and need to ensure they are exciting and punchy. It’s no surprise therefore, that the traditional introverted scientist has to make way for the extrovert business-like research salesperson.
My supervisor always used to say that “there are two types of people: Splitters and Clumpers”. Splitters are perfectionists. With a great attention to detail; they become focused on a task and see it to the end. When explaining their research, Splitters find it difficult to convey complex findings in a simple manner. Clumpers jump in with both feet and are likely tend to take more risks. Clumpers also know how to present their work in a simple yet exciting way, by making broad statements and getting their message across effectively. I am not saying that Splitters are necessarily better scientists, they just have a different approach to tackling a problem.
I am a Splitter. I always have been! I want to be sure of my work, my opinions, and my ideas before I commit anything to the cosmos. This does not go down well in research as we are continuously pushed to present preliminary work to peers, superiors, the wider research community and the public with the aim to convince the audience that we have *almost* found our cure to disease x!
Most importantly, researchers need to be excited about their findings. This involves song-and-dance routine, similar to a sales pitch. It is obvious that this does not come naturally to an introvert, however it is interesting to learn that this is not only due to shyness. Introverts have a short ‘buzz life’. That is to say, that after a reward (i.e. awesome scientific discovery), brief excitement is always followed by caution and careful planning with respect to the next steps. Extroverts, in comparison actively seek reward and move on quickly to the next ‘biggest thing’.
Most researchers generate a niche of which they become an expert and continue to research within that niche field. The niche field grows and expands, but the underlying hypothesis which struck the initial curiosity, remains the same. This means same work is presented over and over again. That’s just the way it is. It is exciting when a new finding comes along, but it is difficult for some to continuously fake that excitement that the audience crave and expect.
This goes for grant writing too. Grants commonly last 1 to 3 years, 5 years if you’re lucky (or very, very good!). This means that researchers need to continuously mould their lifetime of work, in light of preliminary findings, into an exciting and stimulating story which suggests their research is successful and will soon lead to new treatments, new therapies, and well, make money. However, by the time a grant is successful, it is only a few more months before the next grant writing season commences. This means that preliminary findings are continuously required to fuel new applications. Since introverts are known to pay attention to detail, become highly focused on a task and spend more time reflecting on their findings and meaning, the generation of necessary data becomes for such a rapid cycle becomes problematic. In comparison, the extrovert, who is willing to take greater risks, and try a number of ideas simultaneously, may find a nugget of gold that can be used in this years application.
I am not saying that either approach or personality is the right one for a scientist. Many scientific discoveries have been made through a hunch, a blind leap or experimental error: likewise many discoveries have been made through thoughtful contemplation by introverts.
So can an introvert survive in scientific research? I guess we should begin by asking: What’s the best way to conduct scientific research? As an introvert and Splitter, I believe that both personality types are required. Introverts who spend time reflecting on findings and carefully planning the next steps and extroverts (or Clumpers) ready to jump in with both feet and a solid business-like case to secure funding.
Louise Harkness is a molecular biologist, PhD student and an introvert. Her article is a reflection of the lessons learnt from Susan Cain's novel ‘Quiet’. Louise quickly connected with this book and came to realise that some of the personal difficulties faced as a researcher were actually due to the characteristics of an introvert personality in an extrovert society. You can contact Louise via email
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