In my second year of grad school I attended a seminar on personality, offered by William and Mary’s counseling office. I think the idea was to allow us to understand some of the reasons we find different situations challenging, since let’s face it, grad school is one big challenge and it helps to understand why we feel stressed or inadequate in certain situations. We were all asked to take the Myers-Briggs personality test in advance, which classifies you into a four letter code based on your answer to a series of questions. My code was an INTJ, which I have to admit fits me pretty well- I am an introvert, drawing energy from alone time and benefiting from time to think. I am fairly intuitive, and grasp large theories and ideas much quicker than details. I am a thinker, and I like to think things through logically, and will rarely follow through only on a “gut feeling”. Lastly, I fit into the “Judging” category (very strongly, I might add), because I prefer to make and stick with plans. It stresses me out to leave things to chance.
While the test clearly can’t encompass the entirety of human behavior, it can be helpful to explain why we feel the way we do in certain situations. For instance, in graduate school I realized that I was almost never able to raise my hand and answer questions first. It made me anxious that I was starting to fall behind, that I was not able to think and to come up with answers as well as my classmates. However, I learned that introverts frequently need more time to think things through before answering a question, so I don’t really worry about this aspect of my personality any more.
One thing that became abundantly clear in this seminar was that most of the scientists in the room fell into one category- ISTJ. These types are very similar to me, but with more attention to detail. About half of the graduate students fell into this category, and the rest of the students were just variations on this theme: ESTJ (extroverts, always the ones with their hands in the air first ), ISTP (very similar to ISTJs in the science field), or even myself, INTJ, stringing together big-picture ideas on the spot and then going home to make notecards to remember the little things that come so easily to ISTJs, like the names of authors or mathematical equations. I think ISTJ fits with the traditional image of a scientist- a nerdy loner on the quest for answers, always up to their eyeballs in obscure data- but the more I learn of what it takes to be a scientist, the more I am amazed that so many scientists have these characteristics.
Starting with the first letter in the personality test: the spectrum of I to E, introverts to extroverts. I think it is safe to assume that most scientists are introverts. I can’t speak to what it will be like in the later stages of my career, but I know that being a graduate student in science involves a lot of alone time. You must forge ahead on your own research project, oftentimes with very little help. However, increasingly scientists are called upon or even expected to exhibit very extroverted behaviors in order to succeed in their fields. These include increasing activity in the social sphere, not only on the web (through blogs, which is probably not too hard for most introverts), but in public (*shudder*). Scientists, just like everybody else, find jobs through networking, but I think for us the networking is best done face-to-face, which really throws us out of our comfort zone. A resume does not impress a potential collaborator as much as a discussion of new ideas. This can be extremely nerve-wracking for graduate students, who feel as though they must study a prospective employer’s current body of work, come up with a novel idea or a new direction to build off what this distinguished individual has already done, and convince this professor that you can add to their work and that they need you in their already under-funded lab, usually while you are at a conference and are already feeling very drained from all of the social interaction. Talk about being out of your comfort zone! It is no wonder that at most conferences, when I am interacting with a group of graduate students, we repeat the same tired conversation about the best way to approach scientists in a social situation. None of us know how, we just know that somehow this is a skill we will have to learn to get a job. A cover letter would be so much easier.
This leads me to my current activities as an international fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney. International collaborations such as this one are fantastic for my career. I get to expand the scope of my research, meet new people, gain a new perspective on science and environmental issues, and hopefully forge new collaborations that will make myself and my new friends at Macquarie University more competitive in marine science. In addition, I am truly loving my time in Australia, and I am making so many memories that will stick with me. However, my work here is really fantastic at putting me out of my comfort zone. I have planned an international research project involving field work in a system I do not know, for completion in facilities I do not know, with people I have never met. As a person who loves order, and making plans that do not change, the logistics have been a nightmare. Tomorrow I am driving four hours on the opposite side of the road, with three undergraduate volunteers, to a system I have never visited, to collect a species I have never collected before. I have no idea what I will find when I get there. I do however, know a couple of things to be true. First, I have prepared to the point that I know I will be able to make tomorrow a meaningful part of my experience in Australia, even if things go wrong. Second, I am going to leave my comfort zone behind, and as I have done many times in my career path as a marine ecologist, I am going to have the time of my life, showing myself I can overcome challenges to do something I never thought I would be able to do. Take that, personality test.