Grad School for Introverts

At Harvard, where the author got her law degree, she shows up on the business-school campus and asks random students if they know any introverts. The queries lead her to a Chinese-American man who "comes across as a typical HBS student, tall, with gracious manners, prominent cheekbones, a winsome smile and a fashionably choppy, surfer-dude haircut," except for the fact that he describes himself as a "bitter introvert." He is struggling with the demands to speak up in class and socialize in the evenings.

- "Avoiding the Limelight," Wall Street Journal (Feb. 8, 2012)

It's challenging enough being an introvert in American culture. Is it even harder in grad school? That's what I've been pondering as I read reviews of a new book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by former lawyer Susan Cain. (I've downloaded my Kindle copy but haven't finished it yet.)

The anecdote above, which comes from a review of the book by HBS alum Philip Delves Broughton (author of Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School), got me wondering whether introverts have to pass as extroverts to succeed — or even get into — graduate school. Why is extroversion considered all that and a bag of chips? From a recent NYT article by Cain called "The Rise of the New Groupthink":

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In my experience, the application processes for law school and business school do value different personality types, with the MBA application process much more biased in favor of extroverts. Law school applications focus more on academic performance and raw analytical horsepower, and in that regard the process tends to be more welcoming of introverts.

But while MBA programs can be famously chest-beating and in your face with their extroversion — most prominently in their emphasis on teamwork, which doesn't figure very prominently in law school — the law school experience and the legal professional also reward some extroverted tendencies. The case method, after all, originated in law school not business school, and it relies heavily on publicly chatty students. And as law firm associate should be able to tell you, not only do you need to be extroverted in job interviews, but to rise up the ranks and make partner you better know how to schmooze and network and develop business, and that means constant and thoughtful social interaction. Those are important skills for long-term success, even if the study of law (and a fair amount of legal work) is quite solitary. Analytical horsepower gets you only so far.

So what's an introvert to do? There are some great books and articles out there to help you manage and even leverage your introversion. Here, for example, is an article in Harvard Business Review called "An Introvert's Guide to Networking" by Lisa Petrilli. If the word "networking" sends shivers down your introvert spine, reframe the concept and become a master "connector" instead. Check out this article in Entrepreneur magazine called "Forget Networking. How to Be a Connector" by Alina Tugend.

And finally, here are some recharging and coping techniques from author John Scalzi, who has to shake a lot of hands and do a lot of schmoozing at book signings: "Portrait of a Closet Introvert."

If you can leverage the upside of your introversion, and learn how to fake certain elements of extroversion without killing your soul or losing your sanity, you may have the best of both worlds. Go forth and conquer.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. You can find more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. Join the conversation here in the blog comments and on Twitter and Facebook, or email us a new question for the blog.