PhD: How to be a successful extroverted nerd

What does a PhD mean? 

A door I should probably not open, or that I should have opened way before I actually applied for one and came to do one. My first motivation when I decided I wanted to go for a PhD was simply and purely, my love of studying. Yes, I know it sounds extremely nerdy, even for a phd student, or too vague, but the simplest answer is often the most obvious. There is nothing more exciting and invigorating than reading a paper about a topic of your interest, or discovering new areas of potential research, or comparing different countries/cultures/populations/systems.

Like many others I guess, my idea of a phd program was spending most of my time in my special spot and reading on my own, taking notes, going to classes, engaging in debates that made me feel smart and stupid at the same time with other fellow students and brilliant professors.

But a PhD program, just like any “Job” (yes, no matter how much others don’t want to buy it or accept it, it IS a ‘real‘ job), involves more than just yourself and your own, personal work. Worse, you have to spend as much time ‘networking‘ and ‘out in the real world‘ as any other ‘real job‘ and still manage to find time on your own to come up with your creative idea that apparently generations of much smarter people and scholars before you somehow managed to miss. Considering it’s mostly nerds that go on studying for years and years, it is quite surprising how much of extroversion is needed from the academia.

Don’t mistake me, I do enjoy going out, meeting new people (to a certain extent) and ‘having fun’ in general. But when it comes to ‘selling/marketing myself‘, engaging into small talk with people to whom I feel obligated to look and sound smart, all the while looking and sounding totally confident, outgoing and easygoing, pretending to be genuinely interested in someone’s area of research I just have no fucking clue about, it’s just… EXHAUSTING.

Discussing topics outside my field  (source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

Discussing topics outside my field
(source: http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/page/10)

The idea of finding myself alone at a reception, even for the few seconds you ‘shift from one group to another’, or of having nothing to talk about with the one person I somehow found myself with from the beginning, even for seconds, is daunting. Have you ever stopped yourself from going to get some food at the buffet when your stomach is clearly sending you signals and when the cheese and dip have never looked more inviting, just because you were genuinely scared of finding ‘your’ group scattered to different places when you came back with your food? And then, god forbid, you would have to eat by yourself while appearing completely at ease with yourself, when you’re simply dying inside, wishing somebody would come and talk to you and save you from misery.

Even though I may be all smiles (which I usually am), these are the thoughts and fears going through my head all the time in these situations. Two hours end up feeling like an eternity and I’m emotionally and physically exhausted until the next day.

But I know that’s what I have to do. I have to let my petty existence on this earth and at this university be known to other students and professors. I somehow have to come up with a clear research idea I am forced to ‘pitch‘ every time I’m in such a setting. One positive side of that is that I end up saying aloud my very vague research idea to so many people with as much ‘smart bullshit’ as I can muster that I actually start believing in it, and above all, in its feasibility. I have to go to professors and ‘talk’ to them, tell them the kind of research I would like to do in an intelligent manner when really, all I want to tell them is how awesome I think they are, and that’s about it, so could they please allow me to do any work for them, pretty please?

Engaging a professor (source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

Engaging a professor
(source: http://academicats.tumblr.com)

And these are the good ones. Most of the time, they’re just professors I am plainly scared of, but that I have to talk to because they’re ‘important’ and to let them know I’m still here, hello, and yes, I’m dead serious about this whole thing (which I am), so please tell me how to live my life.

I mean, yes, it all makes sense in a way. I study because in some weird narcissistic and egomaniac way, I believe my ‘research’ and my thesis, which only a handful of people on this earth will end up reading, will contribute to making this world a bit better. So although I would like to spend most of my time being inspired on my own, I have to tell other people, especially those who will buy into the lie I tell myself and tell them, so that they can fund me to save the world.  And this is all before I actually write my dissertation and go into the job market, which is apparently worse than the Hunger Games.

And of course, this has to be done all the while I convince myself and others that really, when I have humanity’s stake in my hand, how could I possibly think about getting married and having a family of my own? That would be so selfish, psht.

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