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 (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

Photo by Martin Wessely (http://wesse.ly), sourced from unsplash.com

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?

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In praise of national networks

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

Photo by Noel Lopez (http://digerata.net) from unsplash.com

I was listening to a wise old researcher the other day when she said:

International networks are lovely, but it is your national network that will get you funded.

I realised that she was right.

We talk a lot about the importance of building an international network, but we don’t often talk about the importance of building a local network.

We put a lot of time into going to international conferences, looking for opportunities to get out of our own countries, and there are very good reasons for that. International conferences, by their very nature, tend to provide a wider point of view, a better sense of what is going on in a field.

International links provide enormous opportunities for better research, whether it is comparative research across cultures or access to more specialised equipment and facilities. Also, getting outside your own country helps to widen your perspective.

However, my job is to get you funded, and so I’m going to tell you what she told me:

It is your national networks that will fund you.

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It’s not you, it’s me

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Prebake diversity (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Does like attract like?

I’ve had a majority of introverted friends in my life. My most enduring friendships are with those who are poster-children for Susan Cain’s book, Quiet.

As we now know, because internet checklists and Cain keep telling us, no-one is ever 100% introvert or extrovert – we have tendencies towards each type, and there are some of us who can move between them such that the category of ‘ambiverts’ has now entered the conversation.

William Pannapacker wrote an excellent piece about academic introversion in 2012, which discussed the rewarded behaviours of academia, as well as how students’ academic participation is valued (i.e. through visible, heard contributions). His sketch of ‘wallflower’ students and how they can shut down and disengage reflected aspects my university student experience all too well (my personal blog post “Once a wallflower” gives you the goods on this front).

I recently attended a conference with my new job hat on. It was a conference I’d never been to before: the biennial Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) conference in Adelaide.

This post gives you an insight into the contrasts between how an extrovert and an introvert approach the conferencing game. Many thanks to Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for playing along!

Now, to the conference! [Bonus: there's a quiz!]

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How to chair

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_tamer_(LOC_pga.03749).jpg)

Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_tamer_(LOC_pga.03749).jpg)

What’s worse than having to give a conference paper in front of my esteemed colleagues?

I’d say it’s chairing these esteemed colleagues!

Through my years of presenting at and convening conferences, I have always had one greater fear than being the paper-giver and that was being the chair. It feels pathetic to admit this, but the responsibility of chairing brought all my apprehensions about public speaking to the fore.

When giving a paper, I’m usually anxious about “question and answer” (Q&A) time – the Wild West of conference moments (right next to the conference dinner…). It was a time over which you had little control over what might be thrown at you. You couldn’t plan for it. My imagination (which is excellent, by the way), conceived of all manner of intellectual take-downs and derisive snorts about my conclusions.

These preoccupied me such that I wrote about my strategies for handling Q&A.

Chairing taps into all my existing anxieties: it was a whole session where you weren’t necessarily in control of what people might say or do, but this is specifically what you are tasked with as the chair.

I’ve written before about how to build your conference karma (aka ‘how to make convenors love you’) and, spurred on by a recent query from my colleague Warren Staples (@warrenstaples), here’s a list of strategies I’d suggest to get you through a chairing gig.

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Descending on Adelaide (ARMS 2013)

ARMS 2013 - AdelaideIf you happened to be travelling on flights to Adelaide over 10-13 September this year, you may have overheard some juicy academic gossip and, hopefully, many scandalous declarations about the higher education sector in Australia and elsewhere.

You may well have been sitting near a posse of professional research staff.

The conference we were flying to was ARMS 2013, the peak meet-up for people of our persuasion.

ARMS (Australasian Research Management Society) is the “professional society for specialists in management and administration of research”, and may need to change its title slightly given the organisation now has a Singapore chapter. Or this may be the beginning of a more pronounced ‘Asian’ in the ‘AustralAsian’ (given tantalising comments by former ARMS President, Ren Yi [@melbcollege], on Twitter about possible links with China – see below)?

I didn’t attend the pre-conference workshops this year, and arrived in Radelaide in time for the welcome reception on the evening of 11 September.

The reception was held in the same venue as the rest of the conference: the Adelaide Convention Centre. As anyone who has floated around convention centres knows, these spaces are often vast, echoing, and – really – socially sterile. Getting into the exhibition hall (where the reception was held), I warmed the space up with meeting colleagues, buddies from last year, and the fabulous opportunity to hang with an old friend who was ‘out-of-context’ at a research management conference.

The conference was very well organised (kudos to the conference committee), and afforded many opportunities to learn about the current state of our professional sector, research policy, and funding bodies in Australia and internationally.

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Hashing it over

Pink button with # symbol and blank line, held in an open palm

Hashtag button (Photo by Eclecticlibrarian)

Anyone who has converted to Twitter, and uses it with regularity will know about the prevalent use of hashtags to ‘stream’ tweet content.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a quick read of this official Twitter page, or check out the wittier, unofficial Guardian version.

In short:

A hashtag, for the non-Twitterati, is a word or smashed-together phrase preceded by the hash symbol (#), originally devised as a way to keep track of the flow of subject matter in the Twittersphere. (Ben Zimmer, Visual Thesaurus)

I recently saw someone on Facebook cramming hashtags into their status update. I must admit to rolling my eyes and muttering acidly, “It’s not Twitter, doofus” (oh, yes, fear my acidity).

Yes, I know Facebook is trying to get in on the hashtag action, but – in the very average ways I use Fb – it is largely absent and still an anomaly. Those who frequent Yammer have often used hashtags, and I know of tragics who have brought the hashtagging habit to their emails.

For the most part, though, hashtags live on Twitter.

When I first started on Twitter, I thought hashtags were silly. Yeah, that’s me: broadminded and noble embracer of change.

What I failed to realise was that getting value out of hashtags, and getting to a stage where I’m using and following them deliberately, requires a commitment to the medium that I didn’t have as a newbie. At that stage, all I saw was a soup of symbols and run-together text.

Since that time, I have come to love hashtags. Love them with an unnatural, nerdy love.

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Landing a big fish

A different kettle (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Conferences and symposiums live and die by the quality and wow-factor of their keynote speakers.

I’ve seen keynote line-ups that have me frantically searching for how to register, without caring how much it might cost. I felt I just had to be there to see that specific constellation of academic brains.

Securing keynote speakers is a process that isn’t particularly well covered in any career development material because it can be a niche concern.

For anyone who’s convened an event, though, it is the element that keeps you staring at ceilings until 4am in the morning, or has you tearing your hair out at your desk at 9pm at night.

Sometimes, securing keynotes can be ridiculously easy. One of the convening committee may know the perfect people – and I mean ‘know’ in the academic sense of having worked directly with them (e.g. as mentor/thesis examiner, co-editor, co-investigator).

This connected person just drops their high-flying buddies an email and – voila! – you have one or two stellar drawcards for your conference.

More often, however, you may have to take the more traditional and insecure route of a cold (occasionally tepid) approach, and invite Big Names with no ‘insider’ connections.

Here are my top five strategies for getting that Big Name to keynote at your event:

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