Finding your inner extrovert

Dr Julie Preston (@julzpreston)Julie Preston coordinates NECTAR, an Early Career Academic/Researcher initiative at the Australian National University.

She is responsible for the delivery and evaluation of programs in which ECR share ideas, build confidence in leadership, develop cross-college networks, and acquire skills and knowledge required to establish a successful teaching and research career.

Julie promotes career development through ownership and self-empowerment. 

Julie’s academic background is in Immunology and Microbiology. Her PhD thesis and postdoctoral research investigated mechanisms of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections.

Julie tweets at @julzpreston.

Photo by Martin Wessely (, sourced from
Photo by Martin Wessely (, sourced from

The recent post by @tseenster “It’s not you, it’s me” compared the conference approaches of an introvert and an extrovert.

My experience of conference attendance has been influenced not only by my own personality, but also that critical first impression of conference attendance.

My contrasting perspectives come from when I was a budding young scientist, then when I was an older – but equally impressionable –  trainee career practitioner.

Personality tests, whether you believe them or not, have always labeled me an introvert. “Fantastic!” I thought. “That’ll get me through those long periods alone in the lab!”

The other end of the spectrum – extroversion – can be great for those short bursts of intense social interaction we call conferences. I attended a very small primary school where I was encouraged to find my voice and get involved, which, combined with other childhood pursuits, should leave me sufficiently confident in social situations like conferences.

So, what went wrong? Why were academic conferences such a challenge? And why did I feel more confident in my post-academic life?

I attended my first departmental seminar as an Honours student, at which a newly hired academic presented his research to the department for the first time. Another academic tore his research (subsequently well published) to shreds with a line of questioning that sounded too personal to my novice ears. This was my first, but by no means my last, encounter with the academic ego.

My first national conference did little to foster an atmosphere of open engagement with peers either. I presented my PhD research to a fairly small audience comprised primarily of student speakers and their supervisors. Through the entire session, all questions were directed to, and answered by, our supervisors. Student presenters weren’t given the opportunity to be involved. This experience taught me that while a student could give a carefully rehearsed presentation, that same student couldn’t be trusted to engage in intelligent, unstructured conversation about their research in a public forum.

I learned to keep quiet and allow those with titles higher than mine to take the limelight.

As I continued with my PhD and onto a postdoctoral appointment, I became more adept in the face of the academic ego, but those early experiences continued to shape my conference experiences. Through the latter stages of my postdoc, I made a decision to leave academia. The reasons and details of this story are for another day. When my research contract ended, I moved back to Australia and retrained for a career in Learning and Development.

My first job on this new career path is to coordinate NECTAR, a leadership and career development initiative for Early Career Academics (ECA, also ECR) at the Australian National University (ANU). I facilitate networking opportunities for ECRs, organise workshops, and support ECRs to develop their leadership potential.

Each of these tasks, in stark contrast to my academic life, requires regular interaction with other people.

I meet regularly with ECRs, university executives and other stakeholders. Each meeting requires a different approach and, in the past sixteen months in this role, I’ve built up quite a useful toolkit of ways to engage in conversations with everyone from my peers to my manager, and right through to the Vice Chancellor.

The most important influencers in my transition to a more extroverted conference attendee were my colleagues in the Centre for Career Development at ANU. I was still studying Learning and Development, and this was my first career development job but, from day one, I was part of the team and my contribution was just as valuable as that of the most senior members. My colleagues were honest, giving praise when praise was due and offering constructive criticism and support when I needed it. Pressure from the academic ego was beginning to fade.

The peak conference for my new field is the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA) National Conference, which I first attended in 2013. I was immediately struck by how friendly everyone was. Career practitioners teach others how to network, so it stands to reason that I wouldn’t be left alone. The second major difference from an academic conference was the feeling of equality, just as I had noted with my colleagues in Career Development at ANU. I attended as a student, but in contrast to my early academic conferences, I was encouraged to participate. That encouragement was incredibly influential.

A year later, with a completed degree and more experience in the field, I attended CDAA again. Having just been invited to write this post, I considered the conference both on the floor, as an attendee, and from the balcony, observing and recording my interactions with fellow delegates.

Chatting with the people around me before a session started wasn’t the chore it had been as an academic. I actually enjoyed getting to know other attendees by listening to their career stories. I reconnected with friends from the previous conference and made new connections at the welcome reception. The conference dinner was a hoot! My extrovert self went into overdrive, and I realised I could hold my own next to ‘true’ extroverts like my new friend, Jen (@nej_kralc).

Previously, I was never sure how to approach the keynote at an academic conference. Their title and swarm of admirers always seemed to get in the way. At CDAA 2014, I initiated a conversation with Dr Peter McIlveen, CDAA Vice President and Conference Convenor. Peter had been my lecturer in L&D at the University of Southern Queensland, but we’d never met because it was an online course. We spoke for more than a few minutes, and I walked away confident that my new approach to engaging with as many people as possible, no matter who they are, was the right one.

My inner extrovert is starting to shine, but I still sit firmly within the introvert box. I enjoy what I do, but the intensity of so many real conversations with so many people in such a short time is draining. Taking time alone to recharge is essential for my conference survival.

What does this all mean, and what difference could it make for academics?

Changing the culture at academic conferences can only be done from the inside.

Don’t be afraid to approach other attendees, even if they are the luminaries in your field. They may brush you aside, but chances are they’ll be interested in your new idea. Ask a question during the session, and don’t be afraid to regain control over questions about your work. Kick up your heels (a little) at the conference dinner.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the new friends and research collaborators you’ll meet.


  1. Some extraverts are uncomfortable with silences, and feel the need to fill them, making it hard for the more thoughtful and quiet personalities to get a word in edgeways. I know that I am prone to do this, but admitting it is the first step right? I am getting better at giving space to allow others time to ruminate and then contribute. It was lovely meeting you Julie – sing out if you ever head to Adelaide 🙂


    • Thanks for the comment Jen. I must admit there are times I’m a little envious of the seemingly boundless energy of an extrovert.

      A colleague reminded me recently that there’s no right or wrong in whether we’re (usually) an introvert or extrovert. The important thing is recognising what works in so many aspects of our professional (and personal) lives.

      I will definitely look you up next time I’m over that way 🙂


  2. I’ve used dodgy online quiz forms of the MBTI in my facilitation work to help people appreciate their different ‘inquiry preferences’ (Wadsworth, 2011). But I’m conflicted about the recent cultural primacy of this introvert/extravert thing. For example, I recently saw a job advertisement for one of those new-fangled ‘co-working’ spaces that required applicants to be (or identify as) extraverts. There’s an emerging narrative in the psychometric literature questioning whether these categories really qualify as psychological ‘types’ or just express situation-dependent preferences. I’m kind of waiting for that to join up with a Foucaultian critique based on subjectification — i.e. to what extent are these identities we are invited to subscribe to, that enable some things (e.g. long hours in the lab) and constrain others (conference networking)? Does it help to see yourself as such-and-such ‘type’ with constraints automatically following, when it could be more helpful to thing about how attitude and skill feature in the practice of conference networking? These are the questions that keep me up at night, along with my bedside lamp sitting on the several copies of Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ friends have bought me…


    • Great observation badblood. Thanks.

      I sometimes wonder if my introversion is not only about the way I engage, but also where my energy comes from. I really enjoy the parts of my new role as a career practitioner that are all about talking to people. However, I need time alone to recharge. I know of others for whom recharge and ‘time out’ is best achieved in the company of others.

      Personality traits aren’t polar. As you suggested, while people will have preferences for particular approaches it is likely that we have the capacity to engage in a variety of ways depending on the circumstances.


    • Loved this comment, Daniel – thanks. I think the marked extremes of Inger’s and my social behaviours at that conference generated that initial post, and when I reflect on it, it’s because I’ve managed mostly to surround myself with people who know what I’m like (social cocoon) so I haven’t had to ‘explain’ why I might disappear from events or not turn up at all. The thinking around intro/extro has become a bit more sophisticated over time but I agree that the corporate/institutional testing that goes on (with resulting role positioning) does send up red flags. The world in general does still put traditionally extroverted traits on a pedestal, from the time that kids start formal education (e.g. ability to perform well at ‘show + tell’, making many friends). There’s a personal blogpost I’ve been meaning to write about that one.


      • There’s been a real explosion of interest in and cultural production around the idea of introversion ever since that lovely, wry Atlantic article by Jonathan Rauch titled ‘Caring for your Introvert’. Actually some of the memes get closer to my own experience of introversion than the bestselling books attempting to cash in (ahem, Quiet). I was nodding emphatically reading this comment and Julie’s reply as well — it’s less about ‘social-ness’ generically and more about what drains or refills your batteries. One of the memes about being an introvert described ‘cancelled plans’ as ‘better than crack cocaine’ and that is SO TRUE. One of the things I love most about reading RW and eavesdropping on tweets from its community of practice on twitter is hearing how different people manage the fluctuations in their energy levels around immovable objects like deadlines, conferences, etc.


      • Yes, I remember the cancelled plans = crack cocaine comparison – I was totally on side with it!

        You’ve reminded me that I have a back-burner post going about deadlines and good/bad habits around them. Might be time to move it along.


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