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As far as I know, some research involves group-work.

If a PhD student is either introverted, bad at interpersonal communications or both.

What difficulties might they encounter?

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Most nerds of any type do have interpersonal communication problems, and are the ones doing PhDs. – vonbrand Mar 25 at 0:07
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The problem is not only group work, but communication with mentor/advisor, thesis committee members (who themselves may have "communication issues"). It's not "ok" to simply proceed without addressing the issue, because, if it's not addressed or consistently compensated-for, there will be various negative side-effects, misunderstandings, frustrations. – paul garrett Mar 25 at 0:20
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Being socially awkward and introverted is fine, and much more acceptable in academia than in other settings. But if you have a hard time communicating clearly about your subject, please try to improve! Even if it doesn't affect your research (I'm sure that depends on your field), almost all Ph.D. students teach in some form or another. It's very important to be able to teach well: that's what the university is paying you to do! – Dorebell Mar 25 at 1:47
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@vonbrand I hope your remarks were intended as a joke. Otherwise they seem at best a gross generalization and at worst abjectly ignorant of what PhD students are really like in many areas of the natural and physical sciences. – Corvus Mar 25 at 2:22
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@vonbrand PhDs are done by all sort of people, from those who have interpersonal communication problems to those who don't. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 25 at 9:49
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Suppose, a PhD student is either introvert or bad in interpersonal communications or both.

Would he find any trouble?

All of us, in academia and outside of it, are better at some things and less good at other things. People who are very poor at interpersonal relationships are often astonishingly good at many things. To be successful, one tries to exploit one's talents while at the same time overcoming or learning to work around one's deficiencies, or even turning one's worst liabilities into assets in some surprising way (e.g., a comedian making a career out of making fun of themselves for being a neurotic slob with bad habits). Some people have even become famous for completely overcoming a significant adversity in the form of a physical or mental disability that stood in their way of becoming successful at something. The case of Oscar Pistorius is one example from sports that comes to mind (notwithstanding his later downfall into infamy by being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend), and there are many other examples.

In the context of academia, unquestionably the most famous person who can be cited as an example in connection with your question is Temple Grandin. I saw her speak a few years ago when she came to my university, and she is a remarkable and awe-inspiring woman. I couldn't begin to give a good description of how amazing she is, so I recommend checking out her books, or watching the movie (starring Claire Danes) made about her. Suffice it to say that she grew up with autism, and having a fairly extreme case of being "either introvert or bad in interpersonal communications or both", and yet became a stunningly successful animal scientist (her main job is as a professor at Colorado State University). She is a great inspiration to many people who are either on the autism spectrum or are just extremely introverted or different from what is thought to be "normal" in some other way, and part of her advocacy is in convincing such people and their families that they are often capable of achieving a lot more than the society around them assumes.

Bottom line: if Temple Grandin could succeed, so can the PhD student you are asking about. And besides, many other less famous people in academia are both introverted and not especially good at interpersonal communications, and become very successful anyway. I'm not saying it's necessarily a good thing to be, and it may make sense for your friend to work on getting better at those things, but I absolutely wouldn't assume that it will be a career-killing problem.

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"if Temple Grandin could succeed, so can the PhD student you are asking about" - I don't think the second thing necessarily follows from the first. (Also see: faulty generalization) – ff524 Mar 25 at 4:21
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@ff524 you are free to disagree of course, but perhaps you shouldn't interpret the statement so literally. Imagine that I'm actually saying "if a person with such extreme introverted tendencies as Temple Grandin can succeed, then so can the PhD student you are asking about, whose introversion is likely less extreme, all other things being equal." (I could write that in the answer, but then I'd have a logically more precise but soul-crushingly boring answer, which doesn't sound like an improvement to me. I chose to go with a more inspirational tone here, sorry you disapprove.) – Dan Romik Mar 25 at 4:31
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@ff524 besides, it's a general principle in education that when you're trying to convince someone that they can achieve something they don't think they can achieve, you need to lie a little bit and say things like "yes, you can do it, look at that other person who succeeded despite facing worse obstacles". There is a magically motivating power to such statements, even if they are technically based on a faulty generalization. My answer is an informal text on the internet, not an academic paper, so I think it's reasonable to take mild liberties with logic to achieve a more effective message. – Dan Romik Mar 25 at 4:39
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If one wants to be logically pedantic about it, one can take Temple Grandin as a disproof by counterexample of the assertion that extreme introverted tendencies prevent a person from completing a PhD (or, from becoming a professor, or so on). – David Z Mar 25 at 11:48
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@user8001 thank you for your opinion. I try to write the best answers I can, and that is what I did here, and don't think there's anything unobjective about it. Since there are many readers here, invariably some of them will have a different vision from me of what an answer "should" be, or would prefer if some sentences were phrased differently. Clearly one cannot please everyone, but know that I did my best, and also I happen to think that if my answer motivates someone reading it then that is actually a worthy thing to strive for (though I might agree with you it's not "the main purpose"). – Dan Romik Mar 26 at 3:20

Of course interpersonal skills are important in completing a PhD. As you note, a PhD some fields involves working in small to very large teams, where interpersonal skills are essential. Even in the few fields were individuals typically work alone, interpersonal skills are necessary to navigate relationships with peers, graduate advisors, other members of the community, etc.

This is not to say that with poor interpersonal skills one is doomed. Such skills can be learned, and one can improve substantially with effort. It may even be true that in some areas of science, interpersonal skills are less important than in other jobs. But to say that they are not needed would be a gross misrepresentation of what it is like to get a PhD or work in academic science at any level.

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The answer is simple: Yes, someone who is heavily introverted, has bad interpersonal skills or both will have trouble doing his PhD. Someone who has these social issues will have trouble doing anything in life. Even the simple act of existing in modern society requires at least some modicum of interpersonal skills.

This doesn't mean it's impossible at all! In fact, although I have no data to support my claim, I would estimate that the chances come out about equal for such a student to complete their PhD compared to the average student. It will simply require more effort from them. Every student has their weak points and strong points, most weak points can be strengthened and some can be partially or even entirely covered for with their strengths. The most important thing is to have the will to succeed.

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I'm 28 and in my early twenties I was quite introverted and bad at communicating a lot of the time, even though that was much less so than it had been at certain times in my teens. I'm now right at the end of my 4.5 years as a PhD student and I would definitely say my communication skills have improved.

I've had to discuss/explain/question plenty of things both in person with my supervisor and over the internet in group skype calls with powerpoint slides, as well as countless emails and and the occasional presentation, poster or formal write-up. And I've been to conferences, summer schools, extended stays at labs etc. across the world that have involved plenty of interaction. Then there's the fellow students and other staff that you see often and get to know and be friendly with.

So yeah, I definitely have an introverted side to me but being comfortably communicative feels a lot more natural to me now, not something I feel apprehensive about anymore. And I'll bet it's been the gentler option compared to working a job in the 'real world' (even though it felt like a normal job anyway at times). Looking back the entire undergraduate & postgraduate experience has felt like a comfortable way to develop. My own narrow experience is no guarantee it'd be a good place for you, but what I can now say is this would have been an unjustified reason for me not to go for the PhD. And it's quite possibly a thought that did cross my mind at the time.

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First of all, being an introvert is not a problem, except when dealing with some people with poor interpersonal skills. People in the academia are used to dealing with people with vastly different personalities and cultural backgrounds. They generally don't assume that everyone should behave according to the social norms in where they grew up.

Working in the academia requires some interpersonal skills, but less than in most other fields. Researchers in particular interact with less people than those working in most other fields. The interactions are often long-term, and the other people tend to assume that you have something worthwhile to say, reducing the need for interpersonal skills. Even people with relatively poor interpersonal skills get along just fine, as long as they make an honest effort and respect the others.

It's important to realize that successful working relationships are everyone's responsibility. In particular, having good interpersonal skills implies that you can work effectively with people with less good skills. As long as everyone makes an honest effort, the differences in degrees of interpersonal skills aren't such a big deal.

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I am now in the final few months of my 7 year PhD adventure. My five cents are that a) interpersonal skills are helpful but will not get you your phd...only working your a** off will. And b) academic excellence alone will not get you a tenure track job, and interpersonal skills DO seem to play a large role further up the ladder (past your phd).

When you're a grad student schmoozing won't really help you much, since your task is to get from undergrad level to being able to analyze data and produce journal papers. However, past that, you do see a noticeable group of people that are good schmoozers/politicians/collaborators, etc, who end up excelling....sometimes ahead of those with better 'hard' technical skills.

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Frankly, don't overexaggerate the problems or importance of "interpersonal skills", neither underestimate the complexity of life itself. Ie, whether it is taking PhD, or working on the job, or just staying at home - almost everything involved "interpersonal skills" in life. There is hardly any difference on its importance, or unimportance - in PhD vs working.

Identifying the sources

Areas where potentially interpersonal problems can arise are usually competition-related: whether it be ideas, resources, job promotions, social hierarchies or classes, financial gains etc. A good boss will always ensure there is minimal competiton among the team - establishing a good, cordial culture where everyone feel welcome.

Identifying the mitigating factors

Well, once you know the sources of problems, the solutions are endless.

Build up your own personal character: "thou shall not do unto others what thou don't want others to do unto you". This is good for you whether you are taking PhD or else. Essentially just do the right thing - you don't have to say nice praise or hi to others all the time, but others will respect you for who you are.

A lot of "interpersonal skill" in fact, is just a simple word: "HI".

Any criticism only do it constructively, and sensitively.

And saying something nice is sometime not welcome either (but hard to tell) - as I remember some nasty person kick all my books in my hand onto the floor after I had said something nice, possibly he is thinking something else instead. But I just kept quiet and left him - not knowing what is the reason for his action.

And yes, that is another "interpersonal skill" - which is avoiding any confrontation, or any "interpersonal interaction" at all.

And the possibilities are endless - just don't worry and focus on your work or study. Unless you are doing a PhD related to "interperson skills" :-).

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