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I am Ph.D student in computer science and mathematics. I have published a few research papers and working on some papers. I am an after mid-stage student and I spend almost 90 percent of my time in my study place. I do exercise for half an hour per day. Before joining the Ph.D I was shy and now I am not shy, but my collegues around me now find me a strange person. This is due to the following reasons:

  1. Many times I don't talk to the people whom I meet while going back to my room or some other place. This is because I am in a thinking mode, thinking about a research problem.
  2. I don't participate in group activities as the feedback given by my collegues.
  3. I don't congratulate (much) or wish people around me like on occasion like new year, birthday etc., but I congratulate people around me on their research or academic achievements. Let me elaborate more, I do congratulate my friends and family outside academia.

Although I know my behavior, when working I try to avoid distractions. Many people find my avoidance weird. I can't be perfect as I spend most of the time on research problems. How to tell them I am not avoiding them?

Note that I have many friends, but not like hundreds, but some. I usually talk with them every day.

Question: Is being weird okay for a graduate student?

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Richerby, user68958, Jon Custer, Bryan Krause, Richard Erickson Mar 8 at 16:42

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Which country? These norms are very culture-specific. Only point 2 sounds a bit strange to me, for example. (You can edit to add a country tag or just tell the country in a comment.) – Tommi Brander Mar 7 at 12:18
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    @ Tommi Brander South Asia – staff Mar 7 at 12:21
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    I edited the question and added tags. Please check I did not change its meaning. – Tommi Brander Mar 7 at 12:31
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    Please can you clarify your exact concern. In what way are you worried that being weird might not be "okay"? E.g. are you worried that it might have negative consequences for your career? – user2390246 Mar 7 at 15:33
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    Oh goodness, I've been at some institutions where it's basically a requirement! Trust me friend, you've got enough pressure and stress in your life, who you truly are doesn't have to be one of them :-) – corsiKa Mar 8 at 2:56
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In some places conformity is enforced. Sadly. Sadly. In reality everyone is different and some are a bit "more different" than others. Apple Computer once had an advertising campaign "Think Different", celebrating this idea.

On a universal scale, yes, it is fine to be weird so long as it doesn't impact negatively on others. On a universal scale it is fine, even, to celebrate weirdness. But you "gotta do what you gotta do" in the real world.

You say you have overcome shyness. That is an important skill in the academic world, which tends a bit toward introversion. We think deep (we hope) and that takes effort that we don't like to dissipate with relatively meaningless rituals, such as the Friday on the Cricket Pitch.

However, there are some things you can do to blend in a bit so that the question doesn't arise. The easy ones are to find a way to be reminded to give holiday/birthday greetings. This is pretty painless. It might give you a bit of "space" to be weird in more essential ways - spending time in deep thought without communicating, and seeking quiet times for reflection.

If you practice a few things a few times, then you will probably find that they become more natural and more likely to get done without effort. I suspect that you used something like that as a way to overcome shyness earlier.

But if uniformity is truly enforced, then you need to accommodate it just for your own self preservation.

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    My spouse is from a culture with high expectations of conformity. Luckily she was a bit of a wild child in this regard and was able to reap the benefits of aggressively bucking this expectation when she came to the US for grad school. Unfortunately, however, many other students from her country come to the US and behave like the OP, never building their networks, never experiencing the culture, never making friends, never really broadening their minds outside of some narrow discipline. The OP sounds like he/she is looking for validation rather than critique. – schadjo Mar 7 at 18:18
  • Politeness is not the same as uniformity or conformity. Not going to a non-academic social is unlikely to be an issue (although you're less likely be on the tip of the tongue for collaborations or discussions), but being actively and stubbornly rude will get you noticed for the wrong reasons. (Virtually) No one is good enough to be absorbed fully on their one true project and are almost certainly going around in previously trodden circles. – awjlogan Mar 8 at 15:08
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Is "OK" good enough?

It's "OK" to be strange and reclusive, but being socially reclusive will stunt your career long term. You will not be considered for projects, not be sought after for collaborations, students who go on to success will not be as likely to reference your papers or publications in informal situations, and you will be less likely to be considered for promotions/tenure/etc. Not maliciously perhaps, but the social recluse just doesn't come to mind as often as more gregarious colleagues do. It essentially closes doors unnecessarily. This isn't to say that you shouldn't be true to your personality, but the fact is that success in any field of endeavor, even academic ones, is as much affected by your social skills as your intellectual skills.

Look at the mid-nineteenth century physician Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, who identified that hand-washing and sterilization of instruments drastically reduced incidence of death from childbed fever. Because of his poor social skills (note that he was actively abrasive and confrontational rather than merely reclusive), he was unable to gain acceptance for his findings, and unsanitary medical practices continued despite his efforts.

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    From the article, I am not entirely sure if the rejection was because of Semelweis's lack of social skills. Do you have a better reference for that? – anewguest Mar 7 at 18:50
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    How about this one? It specifically calls out his disregard of the political side of research and his unwillingness to suffer fools. headstuff.org/culture/history/terrible-people-from-history/… – MarkTO Mar 7 at 19:20
  • Nice answer. The book Outliers talks about this point as well. Once a threshold is reached, IQ becomes less important and other skills and traits become more important. – Richard Erickson Mar 8 at 16:42
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There is no universal answer to this.

If "being weird" is okay varies among all places. In some places, you "being weird" would imply that other people would not give you information, not recommend you, avoid you etc., in other places "being weird" is totally okay. Definitely, I've seen weirder (and worse) behaviour between grad students and also higher ranked people.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you okay with being seen weird by your collegues? Do you face consequences which seem "bad" to you?

  • Is it possible for you to change some of your behaviour and would you feel okay doing this?

  • What do people "that matter most" think of you? This definitely includes your supervisor. Who else this involves, depends on your plans.

  • What is the norm in your place? If your behaviour is far from the norm (e.g. if whenever someone has a birthday, the whole week the person is celebrated and nobody works this week, then not gratulating would be very far from the norm), you might want to reconsider your behaviour.

A personal remark: I find it strange if one generally never congratulates people for birthdays or New Year. It is nice and does not cost you anything - why not do this?

Something I want to add: You might also want to think about what you want to do after your pHd: In my impression, in the non-academic world, social skills count far more than in the academic world. You might want to train your social skills, your abilities to interact etc

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    +1 for mentioning the world outside academia. I also find academia to much more tolerant of personal quirks than industry. – Dohn Joe Mar 7 at 14:36
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    @DohnJoe: Yes. And sometimes, even more than "quirks" are accepted - there is a famous professor I know who acts like all students are stupid and openly says that women should not study (and treats their female students accordingly) - this is dismissed as "it's a famous guy, he just has some quirks".. – anewguest Mar 7 at 17:01
  • Note that I am not that kind of person. To me researcher from each caste, gender and community are equal. The problem with me to me seems that i ignore people trying hard to focus on research and second thing is I am introvert. – staff Mar 7 at 17:37
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    @staff Being in a thinking process is alright, but you should come back to the colleague(s) you ignored earlier for that reason and tell them something along the lines of "Sorry I walked past without saying anything earlier. I was thinking so hard, I barely noticed anyone!". That might help others to understand that you were absent-minded but not oblivious. – Ian Mar 8 at 6:47
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Of the 3 points you describe, #2 seems like the most limiting, as you are missing out on academic and professional discussions that are not purely social. Thinking critically about other people's ideas and approaches, and learning to incorporate others' critiques of your own work are very important skills that should be developed during a PhD. If you do not engage your peers academically, you are missing out on an easily-accessible resource for your own development.

Group feedback sessions aren't meant to be social gatherings, so opting out because you don't like to socialize is missing the point of the session. By avoiding these sessions, you are effectively sending the message that "I don't care what you're working on, nor do I care what you think about what I'm working on". That will be widely regarded as a poor attitude for an academic, especially one so early in their career. Not wanting to socialize is acceptable, but be aware of such situations that could stifle your own development.

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Do you plan to stay in academia in the long term? If yes, then being socially reclusive is going to be a huge handicap. You really should work on your social skills to succeed.

If you stay in academia, then there is basically one path forward: end up in a position where you are responsible for students and postdocs, and contribute to running your department or institution. People skills are critical.

To make it in academia, collaboration is essential. You must be able to find collaborators and be able to work efficiently with them. You must be able to talk to people at conferences and get them interested in your work. Again, people skills are critical.

The higher the position you apply for, the more you will be judged based on your social skills. It probably won't be hard to find a postdoc position, but when you interview for faculty positions, you will likely meet the entire department and you must appear likeable to a majority of your potential future colleagues to get hired.


Personally, I am a socially reclusive "older" postdoc with people skills that are not excellent. At this point in my career I am finding this to be a significant problem to the point that sometimes I am considering whether academia is suitable for me at all ...

The good news is that with willingness, one can improve. I certainly got much better at this since I started my PhD. However, you can't go in with the attitude that "in academia it's okay to be weird".


I'd also like to comment on this remark by @anewguest:

You might also want to think about what you want to do after your pHd: In my impression, in the non-academic world, social skills count far more than in the academic world.

This might be true, but in the long term, it is going to be very hard to find stable employment in academia that does not require good people skills. You will finish your PhD at some point, and you cannot be a postdoc forever. What then?

Lack of sociability is definitely a handicap in industry as well, but not necessarily a deal-breaker.

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    While you are right that even in academia you should (!) need social skills (although many don't), I do think in industry it's more extreme. For what it's worth, I never encountered the strange "I won't congratulate you for your birthday even though you would like it, because I think my communication style is superiour than yours and you are only worthy of my praise if you did yome big achievement"-attitude in industry. – anewguest Mar 7 at 18:46
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It depends on what you want to achieve. If your interest in working on your CS/maths topics for the rest of your life, and deeply inside are fine being a recluse; if you only consider the social aspect as a means to further your ability to think about CS/maths, then you might just get away with it. Yes, more open people are more easily visible, but it certainly is possible to create a reputation through skill/achievement, generally speaking.

I'm not in academia myself, but have a lot of experience with knowledge sharing, networking, virtual teams, extro/introversion topics etc. in the workplace. My strong experience is that being visible, agreeable and likeable on a purely human level is incredibly strongly correlated with long-term success/placement in a company. Being visible, aggressive and strong-willed leads to short/mid-term success and also of course helps to make money. Being invisible, reclusive, known only in your immediate surroundings is... well... leading to not so much. And I assume it's pretty much the same in academia. If you don't intend to get much anywhere else, if that doesn't clash with your deeply ingrained life goals, then that is perfectly fine.

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What do you mean OK? You are who you are. Don't worry so much.

There is plenty of different personalities in academia.

If you are a graduate student you would supposedly already have had at least one such professor or two, no?

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Caveat: I'm writing this answer as someone who identifies somewhat with the autism spectrum, so I'm also socially weird and thus may not be fully qualified to answer, though perhaps this perspective can help. To your question "How to tell them I am not avoiding them?", my experience has been that this is not really possible. Social rituals are part of human interaction, as you've identified, and if you don't partake in the rituals or inadvertently send confusing signals during those rituals, it can be interpreted as being standoffish. Not participating is itself sending a signal.

It sounds like you already have a reasonable model for this, so it's a matter of prioritizing. That said, you've focused on relatively small things like birthdays, holidays, etc, but what I've found to be even more effective at building connections is to express an interest in their interests and listen to how they describe them. In any case, as others here have pointed out, social interactions (and, by extension, politics) are an important part of a career in academia. So, if your goal is to further your research opportunities, it's a good idea to devote some energy to this social aspect. This comes up in most career paths, by the way, though politics might be more acutely present in academia than other technical disciplines (though, I'm only aware of this anecdotally from friends in research, as I'm in industry, personally.)

As an addendum, you've probably found that your friends become more accepting of your quirks as they get to know you, as they are less likely to misinterpret confusing signals or reticence to participate socially at times. As such, aim to cultivate some friends within the context of your research (which you're likely already doing) and those friends may help open doors for you.

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