Is it a good thing to be an introvert when working as a teacher or professor in higher education?
It’s quite a common question, particularly when people think of school teachers needing to demonstrate their personality, engage their pupils and keep control in the classroom.
This question was originally asked on Quora, where I like to provide answers to interesting questions when I have time. I answered the question on introverts in teaching on Quora and this post is an edited and extended version of the answer I gave there.
If you prefer video, I’ve also provided a (different) answer on my YouTube account, which you can see embedded below.
Do Introverts Make Good University Lecturers?
(or good University Professors if you prefer the American terminology)
The short answer to this question is yes.
I’ve worked in a variety of higher education/university roles and they include teaching and lecturing. I enjoy speaking and helping students. And I, like many of my colleagues are very much an introvert.
If anything, I think that introverts have an easier time working in university lecturing roles than extroverts do. This can vary very slightly by subject, but generally introverts have the most natural set of skills for success.
Most lecturers are naturally introverts, myself included. It’s part and parcel of the type of person who enters the profession and is willing to make the sacrifices for study to reach that point. It also reflects the wider responsibilities of being a lecturer.
Lecturers typically get qualified as being able to teach by being educated up to PhD level. That’s gaining a doctorate, so the same number of years of study as a medical doctor (and often one year more, as many lecturers in the UK will have taken an additional years at Masters level).
There are short teaching courses that Lecturers often take too, but these are mostly done after having started teaching. It’s rather a “learn on the job” profession.
Gaining a PhD requires great immersion in a subject discipline. It means that you have to demonstrate that you can think and provide original knowledge in detail. As well as conducting research, as this is primarily intended as research training for a career, you have to document this in a formal thesis and pass a challenging viva examination.
You may be able to picture PhD students spending three or four years sharing a large office and not distracting the others. All deep in concentration and getting on with their unique studies. It’s an environment where extroverts really have to reign in their behaviour.
Throughout their career, those people who both get through their PhD and get one of the limited jobs as lecturers have had to work hard. Often, there’s a gap between completing a PhD and gaining a lectureship, where the individual continues to work on short-term research projects to build up their reputation. It’s not the most secure work. Some people don’t get their first lectureship until their 40s or 50s. Those people who make it have shown dedication.
The appointed lecturers then have to balance multiple responsibilities. Typically, these include teaching, research, administrative functions and external engagement, although the balance between those will vary between individuals. Teaching is, of course, very important. The ability to inspire students and communicate knowledge is essential, but you don’t need to be an extrovert to do this.
For most professors, large group teaching will only be part of the role and not where the majority of time is spent. After all, those years building up research ability and credibility have to count for something.
The requirements to conduct research continue. By this stage of their career professors are typically busy writing research grants and books. Many administrative aspects also require deep and private concentration.
There are some externally facing responsibilities, for instance in my case I work a lot with external companies, present research, deliver training and work in student recruitment, but these are all manageable and enjoyable. Being an introvert does not mean that you dislike these activities, just that you can’t do them continually without quieter reflective time. It is also very different being in a controlling position able to shape a class of people who are looking at you for guidance than being hostage to being a member of a large and noisy class.
And, even within teaching, there are opportunities for introverts to work with small groups. These include activities like supervising students on individual projects, which is very enjoyable work.
The Changing World Of The University Lecturer
I want to end this blog post with a world of caution.
The academic world has changed. Many people joined academia for the autonomy, but the profession is now much more target and metric driven, similar to a commercial organisation.
Like many jobs, academia doesn’t automatically offer lecturers tenure and job security any more. Many lecturers are employed on short-term contracts, which are only renewed if they meet their targets. Lecturers also have to move positions if they’re looking for promotion. So, lecturers changing universities every few years is common now.
That can be quite stressful and not everyone enjoys that, regardless of whether they’re an introvert or extrovert.
The moves can also be exciting, with the opportunity to meet new people, teach new subjects and get immersed in different university cultures. But this can also be distracting when you’re trying to complete research projects.
There are also some aspects of academia where it is beneficial to be an extrovert. For instance, these may include later career managerial roles or working in services like marketing. There are disciplines where lecturers are likely to join as a second career from an industry background too and these attract a higher percentage of extroverts. Nursing lecturers and journalism lecturers are examples.
Overall though, providing you have a plan of sustainable academic research, are good at multi-tasking, cope well with a changing profession and, most importantly, want to help students, then yes, aiming to be a university lecturer offers a good career choice for an introvert.