Lessons for the Academic Introvert

December 14, 2005

As readers of these pages are well aware, breaking into the nonacademic job market with a humanities Ph.D. can be a daunting task -- perhaps especially when that Ph.D.-holder is also 50-something years old, with a 25-year career as a college professor, dean, and academic vice president behind him.

Having spent my entire adult life making my way within the confines of academic culture, I have found myself surprisingly ill-prepared for the challenge of finding appropriate employment in the Real World.

It's not that I lack confidence. Like many academics (I suspect it's like most, but let's be conservative) I believe I can do, or certainly can learn to do, practically anything. As a teacher and scholar, I've built a respectable record, and as an administrator I've developed a working knowledge of disciplines far removed from my own, along with such practical skills as budget management, public speaking, planning, and evaluation.

Surely, I assumed, that suite of skills and experience would position me well to compete in the nonacademic job market. All I would have to do is keep my eyes open for jobs that sounded interesting and submit my application. I figured any hiring manager would readily see that I could do the job exceptionally well. Acting on those assumptions, I responded to each nonacademic opening that interested me with one of my elegantly crafted application letters, outlining my experience and interest in the position advertised.

To my repeated surprise and growing disappointment, the companies to whose ads I responded often didn't bother even to acknowledge my application, let alone interview me. My nonacademic search began to feel eerily like my first academic one in the late 70s. After several months of this, I finally had to admit I needed professional help -- not (yet) of the psychological kind, but help to make the leap from higher education to . . . whatever is next.

After doing a little research on the career-counseling business, I settled on a company that offered me a custom-designed program of career assessment, "brand development," and "marketing." (I use quotation marks to make clear my dawning sense that I was entering a strange, new world. Me, a brand? Marketing myself? Is that like selling myself?)

I knew for sure that I had entered a different world when I first met with both the CEO of the career-counseling office and the person who was to be my career coach. The CEO began by noting that his company had never before worked with someone with my background; then he and his colleague spent the next hour explaining their program. At the end of the meeting, the CEO warned me sternly that he didn't take every potential client who approached him and asked if I was serious about the search. Nonplussed by the question, I blurted out my assurance that I was more enthusiastic about the process than I might seem.

I puzzled over that exchange until I met two weeks later with Jim, the office's specialist in assessment, to go over the results of my Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. For those unfamiliar with that assessment, the instrument sorts people into one of 16 personality types based on four indicators. My personality type turned out to be INTP (Introvert, Intuitor, Thinker, Perceiver). Most academics, it turns out, are introverts. An introvert isn't necessarily shy; he or she simply prefers to direct energy inward rather than outward, to think before speaking, and to make sense of the world conceptually.

As Jim pointed out to me, my preferred approach to confronting new people and ideas was to listen intently and quietly, taking in and processing the information presented without offering much feedback. That is a great approach for an academic career. Teaching, advising students, running committee meetings, and a whole range of administrative functions all benefit from listening and thinking before talking.

But being an introvert presents problems for a Real-World job seeker. To the two extroverted career coaches who were making their pitch and evaluating my response, I appeared to be unenthusiastic, even uninterested, in the process. In a job interview, a misunderstanding like that would be fatal to my prospects.

With my profile in hand, I was able to take a lesson from that initial encounter: No matter how unnatural it feels, I'm going to have to project my energy outward during the job search.

"Lean forward, nod your head, offer a comment, gesture!" Jim urged. "Make sure they see that you're excited and energetic."

I'm working on it.

A second lesson emerged from taking the Strong Interest Inventory, a standard career assessment instrument that compares the test-taker's interests to those of a sample of people happily employed in a variety of occupations. By matching interests, the theory goes, the test-taker can focus on occupations that might be a good match.

My closest match was law and politics. No surprise there: I would have gone to law school had I not chosen to go on to a Ph.D. in English. However, I'm not about to go to law school at this point in my life. Entering my 60s with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans doesn't sound very appealing.

No. 3 on my list was college professor. While it's gratifying to have confirmation that my youth was not completely misspent, I've known from the outset that my decision to return to my native state all but rules out a return to higher education.

Behind door No. 2 and No. 4 were computer programmer/systems analyst and engineer, respectively. Never had I considered either profession -- though perhaps I can now better understand why one of my staff assistants once asked me if I had been an engineer in a past life. Neither seems a promising direction for the future.

Having hoped to gain clarity and focus in my career search through a scientific approach, I found myself disappointed by the results. But I did learn my second lesson about the job search: No instrument is going to be a sure and foolproof guide to what I should do next. There will be no epiphanies, no career burning bushes.

Similarly, I can't expect someone who lives and works in the real world to look at résumé and see in it my potential to contribute to his or her firm or business. After all, if I can't tell potential employers what I want to do with the rest of my working life, I can hardly expect them to figure it out for me. Making the leap is up to me.

Fortunately, the process of figuring out what I want to do with the remainder of my working life parallels the process of convincing potential employers that my academic skills and experience will bring value to their organizations. Guided only in a very loose sense by the results of my assessments, I must "extrovert" myself, that is, project myself into the world I want to enter. I must make a sustained effort to meet new people with whom I have little or nothing obvious in common, learn about what they do, and find common ground. In that way, I'll be expanding my market knowledge, developing my brand, and marketing myself. At the same time, I'll be zeroing in on what, exactly, I want to do.

All of that will take this introvert pretty far outside his comfort zone. So I'm going to tell myself that what I'm really doing is my favorite activity -- learning something new.

Ben Tryon is the pseudonym of a former vice president for academic affairs at a small college in New England. He is now exploring nonacademic careers in the West.