How do I refrain from embarrassing myself at my prospective grad school?
February 15, 2012 10:02 AM   Subscribe

How can I overcome (or at least convincingly mask) my near-paralytic shyness and social awkwardness before my upcoming GradSchool visits? Help! I'm a very special snowflake...

I've been accepted into two top-tier English PhD programs (hooray!) and am waiting on the results of my other apps. I've been invited to visit both campuses for a recruitment weekend (school pays all expenses), and along with the rest of the admitted cohort, I will be traveling to these schools in the coming weeks. The purpose of the visits is NOT to conduct interviews (admissions process is complete, I'm in and they are essentially trying to woo me..awww, shucks!) so there is no real "pressure" for these visits......

HOWEVER: I am incredibly shy, and ridiculously awkward, especially in situations where I feel intimidated or have a tremendous amount of respect for the people I'm supposed to be interacting with (definitely the case here). I'd really like to make a good impression not only on the Profs who I will be working under, but also with the other students in whose company I will be wasting away for the better part of the next decade. I am practically incapable of carrying on a "normal"/"friendly" conversation without a bajillion super-awkward silences while I try to think of something appropriate to say, and I would rather DIE than initiate conversation with a stranger or (god forbid!) a superior.
So, beautiful and socially capable MeFites, what are some strategies I can employ during these visits? How can I make them into enjoyable/useful/informative experiences (which is what they are meant to be) instead of trips into the bowels of introvert hell?
posted by Dorinda to Human Relations (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A) Congratulations!

B) My top piece of advice to my fellow shy people is to learn how to smile encouragingly during (what you feel are) awkward silences. Generally, this will prompt your conversation partner to say something. If you're smiling, you look like an attentive listener, not a sulky dolt.

B') My second piece of advice to my fellow shys is to look people in the forehead. That way you don't have to have sometimes-discomfitting eye contact, but they feel like you are.

C) Having been to graduate school in English myself, I can firmly assure you that your not talking endlessly about yourself and your Amazing Ideas will endear you to pretty much all professors.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:06 AM on February 15, 2012

I'm shy and awkward too, but I've managed to get to the point where no-one believes it. There's lots of resources out there for how to improve your social comportment but I'll just pass along a couple of quick and dirties:

1) The practical reality is that most of the PhD-level students I've interacted with are introverts as well.

I spent a LOT of years in school, though not in your program, so speaking from some experience, I don't think its trite of me to suggest that there is a clear correlation between the shy "thinker" types - prototypical introverts - and higher levels of academia.

All of this is a short way of saying that you are most certainly not going to be the first socially awkward, shy or introverted English grad student these folks have ever encountered. Once you accept that as truth - and trust me, it is - you're already going to be more comfortable than half the people there.

2) In terms of practical advice, if you have the ability or means, go check out the venue before-hand. Once I realized that a big portion of my anxiety is social situations was the mere, terrifying fact of UNFAMILIARITY, I sought to eliminate as much of that as possible. It sounds silly, but if I go into a social situation knowing where the food is going to be or where it is likely to be too crowded for comfort or where the bathroom is, I'm instantly that much more at ease in the situation.
posted by neksys at 10:19 AM on February 15, 2012

Proper planning prevents poor performance. I would suggest looking over the public web pages of all the professors you might meet and coming up with questions for them. The questions should be an introduction for them to talk for a while about themselves. Example: "Professor X, I read about thing Y you did, and found it interesting. Can you tell me where that line of work came from and where it might take you?" "What is it like being a graduate student in this program?" "I am also considering program Z instead of here. What makes this program more attractive?" Have three or four of these at hand.

Same for the other students. Come up with open-ended questions that you have ready. "What do you think will be the fun thing about this program?" "Do you know anything about what it is like living in location Z, were we are visiting?" "How are you going to decide which program to attend?" People like the chance to talk about themselves and their work.

Also, in the worst case, just don't go. You are accepted, and if you can decide which program you like without a visit you can say you have a conflict. I would not use this as a first line of action, as you will learn a lot during a visit - that is the point.
posted by procrastination at 10:20 AM on February 15, 2012

I feel your pain. Some thoughts from a fellow introvert:
- Make sure you have your own room, transportation, etc... Set aside time for yourself. Make up some reason "need to meditate for my spiritual practice" "must have lengthly call with elderly relative" "whatever"....
- Have some stock "getting to know you questions" -- where are you from originally? how did you come to live here? what do you like about living here? any good places around here to get books, movies, etc...? The more open-ended the better. Then, follow up with more detail -- e.g. wow, you came from Translyvania! this must be a big change for you -- how are you adjusting? etc... Many people like to talk about themselves :)...
- I find it helpful to think of myself playing a role in these types of situations -- think of someone you know who is kind of like you but would be comfortable -- and pretend you are them -- how would they respond, etc...
posted by elmay at 10:26 AM on February 15, 2012

Try to hang out in groups of students and other new recruits, rather than having individual meetings, for as much of the visit as possible — often current grad students love to come to these events (free food! plus an invitation to jaw about the program!), so if you get a few of them at once you can mostly observe the conversation and just ask a neutral, easy question every now and then. Obviously this won't work for your formal, scheduled meetings with faculty, but it will make the rest of your visit smoother and more enjoyable — don't imagine it all as a one-on-one interview. And don't be ashamed to ask for, or just take, a break to be by yourself; it's fine just to take a walk around campus, or sit and read in your host bedroom/hotel room before dinner, just to recharge your batteries. You can get a great sense of a department's culture and atmosphere during a visit without making yourself crazy 24 hours a day.

Also, alcohol.
posted by RogerB at 10:29 AM on February 15, 2012

Something I continue to struggle with as a shy person is that, hey, I'm introverted and shy. But, if you can work on accepting that about yourself, it might take some of the pressure off of you. I used to beat myself up about being shy and introverted, and I tried so hard not to appear shy or introverted. If people knew I was nervous, I would get so much more nervous!'s a new situation with new people and new professors. It's OKAY to be nervous. It's okay to be shy. Give yourself permission to feel nervous or shy in this situation, which is new and is kind of a Big Deal for you.

I like to tell people before a presentation or before I meet people that I'm a little nervous, if I am feeling that way. It kind of takes away the awkwardness and it makes my awkwardness/quietness understandable, so that people don't think I'm just moody or aloof.

Also, you probably FEEL a lot more awkward than you actually appear. The silences you experience probably feel a lot longer to you than to anyone else.

Lots of good advice up top about how being quiet can be seen as a positive, and how it's not uncommon among English majors, and that smiling helps. And oh yeah, CONGRATULATIONS!

I used to be the shyest person ever, and now I love talking about shyness! Good luck to you and memail me if you want to vent/freak out/talk to someone about how it went.
posted by shortyJBot at 10:30 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think having a planned conversation opener is a great idea. My suggestion for starting discussion with the current grad students is to ask: "So, what are you working on?" It's a pretty safe bet that your own work in grad school will end up bearing a distinct resemblance to the work of those around you, so this is an important question to actually hear the answers to. You'll look intelligent and engaged for asking it. And I personally find that a discussion of academic topics is easier to keep going than the dreaded small talk.

The only people this might not work for are first-year students, who are likely too shell-shocked and swamped with coursework to be working on anything.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:31 AM on February 15, 2012

I am not normally shy but did feel so at times during my recruiting visits, for all the reasons you mentioned. Over the years, I met a lot of recruits, and I came up with a guide that may help you fill the spaces and start conversations. Drop me a memail with your e-mail address if you'd like what amounts to a list of questions you can ask your hosts. I think it might help to have these in your (metaphorical) back pocket.
posted by knile at 10:38 AM on February 15, 2012

Shake when you meet someone, shake their hand, make eye contact, and say "nice to meet you." Ask them, "what are you working on?" Have a brief "elevator pitch" summary of what you want to work on.

This is also going to be an adventure for you, because graduate school is where you will learn to comport yourself as a polished professional academic comfortable with giving talks and interacting with the undergraduates.
posted by deanc at 10:53 AM on February 15, 2012

I'm shy and in an industry not unlike English academia (and have actually spent some time there as well). In social situations, I have found it enormously liberating and helpful just to admit that I'm shy or nervous right off the bat.

"Hi, nice to meet you!" Pause to shake hands. "I'm Dorinda. Sorry if I seem a bit nervous. I'm really shy."

In every case, the result has been either that the other party reassures me that it's fine, and we have a conversation, as usual, without the crushing weight of OMG I AM SHY AND WHAT IF THEY CAN TELL??!!! bearing down on me or, they tell me that they're nervous and/or shy too and we totally bond over our mutual awkwardness. Which happens a lot when you're talking to a bunch of book nerds.

I find this enormously more helpful than just ignoring it. When that happens, you always run the risk of someone thinking your lack of engagement/eye contact is a judgment of them. Own your shyness! It's a great way not to let it have any power over you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:08 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of visiting grad students are nervous during these visits. It's OK! And remember -- they've already admitted you. They are now recruiting you. I.e. they have to impress you, not vice versa! You have the upper hand -- for probably the only time in your grad school career. Enjoy it!
posted by kestrel251 at 12:01 PM on February 15, 2012

Small talk topics:
Of everybody, you can ask what they're working on. Be interested and they will talk for hours. Also - Know who the Super Famous people are in the department, so you don't ask them what they're working on (mistake I made!). (It's fine to ask them "what are you working on lately" you just don't want to be totally ignorant of their general area of specialty.) You can ask your undergrad advisor for tips about this.

Everybody will ask you what topics in English lit you're interested in (have a short list of like 2 or 3 topics) and where you did/are doing your undergrad degree. Be prepared for those questions, and have a one sentence answer and a slightly longer answer - eg I'm interested in the Victorians, especially in [subtopic].

Of grad students you can (and SHOULD) ask in private, what's the department culture like, how is Prof So-and-so to work with, where is good to live in town (since you'll be looking for an apartment), and other things that are relevant to the practical side of entering this program. How much teaching will you need to do, and when? Are there university-wide grad student social events? How is the gym? How is the town's music scene? What do people do during the summer? Are people who graduate from this program getting jobs? (the latter is a touchy subject, be delicate)

You do not need to get drawn into literary debates or contests over who knows more. You can participate if it seems interesting and fun, and you can gracefully rise above at other times - "I'm mainly trying to get a feel for the program this weekend; what do YOU think [about whatever the contentious topic was]?".
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:02 PM on February 15, 2012

Hi there! I'm at the other end of grad school in English. Here are some suggestions:

1) Lots of grad students are awkward. Like, really, there are some programs where having a basic set of social skills makes you into the grad school equivalent of high school quarterback. So the first thing you should do is relax. You will almost certainly not be the shyest one there. The grad students at the open house will see it as their job to sell the school to you, so they will come to you and engage you. They'll do most of the work.

2) Don't be an asshole. This doesn't sound like it's a concern - you seem very nice. Which is good, because when we host an open house at my school, we never really remember who was awkward, but we do remember people who were unpleasant. So don't go on and on about the other programs you were accepted to and how they might be better than the one you're visiting. And don't offer anyone poppers (it happens).

3) Don't get so caught up in impressing people that you forget to evaluate the school! Remember that the purpose of this visit is to help you make your decision. To that end, pay careful attention to how happy the grad students seem. If they're miserable, it doesn't matter how good the school is.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:02 PM on February 15, 2012


As a grad student in an English PhD program, let me add to the chorus of voices assuring you that you will probably not be the most awkward person there, and that not only will most of your fellow prospective students be nervous, the ones who seem overconfident are in reality probably the most nervous. Also, you're already in. And if you've gotten two top-tier admits, you're probably pretty good at what you do.

Do come up with a list of questions to ask people, and let the current grad students and professors sell the school (and the area! that matters too), to you. If you can, schedule some one-on-one time with current grad students. You should also be thinking about who you want to work with and why, as well as what your life will look like for the next five years; if the people you chat with aren't friendly and welcoming, that reflects more upon them than on you. And definitely ask about job placement. It's a touchy topic right now, but an important one.

One thing that I found helpful when I was doing campus visits was that there was one guy who kept showing up at the same weekends; by the second time we ran into each other, we felt like old friends. Having a semi-familiar face around made a huge difference-- it might be helpful to try to befriend another prospective student early, so that you have someone who you can chat with who is less intimidating. Since you're all already admitted, you're not in competition with each other. You might want to scan the list of people attending (if they send you one), and see if you can find someone whose interests match up with yours, or just see if anyone looks interesting when you arrive. And remember that you can (and should) talk with these people about non-school related stuff, too.

Oh, and watch out if you're drinking-- don't let the combination of nervousness and too many tiny glasses of wine end in uncomfortable tipsiness.

Good luck!
posted by dizziest at 2:13 PM on February 15, 2012

Yeah, I have been there. Same thing happens at smaller conferences and workshops. The one nice thing about weekends like this is that no one knows anyone. You don't have to worry about interjecting yourself into the conversation between old friends or anything like that, the social norm is precisely that you go up to new people and ask them things. Or you go up to people already chatting and join their conversation. It's okay! Everyone is asking the same seemingly dumb questions about academic interest and undergrad university and hometown as everyone else, and it's perfectly okay. The most important thing is to stick around, even if you are just listening in, and to not flee back to the quiet safety of your hotel room. Force yourself to do that, and force yourself to be proximate to conversations. Ask questions as you think of them, and conversation will follow. Maybe try to remember questions that other people ask you and recycle them in other conversations. It's totally normal for the first few days of being around new people to be somewhat awkward, don't worry about it.

In short, be present (for me, this is the hardest part) and ask questions. Everything else is gravy.

As to alcohol, it's a tricky question. Absolutely, conversing over a few beers or glasses of wine smooths over a lot of the early pauses. The people I've gotten to know best at conferences, I did via some drinks. But professional situations absolutely aren't the time to push your limits, so keep your head about you and stay within your comfort zone.
posted by Schismatic at 3:05 PM on February 15, 2012

Hearty Congrats!

There's nothing wrong with having a few go-to thoughts prepared before hand. When the conversation goes blue, a good "So I've been reading more about this SOPA issue, did you hear what's going on with that?" can help fill those gaps. With practice it'll become a habit and that, I think is what a great conversationalist is.

Also, when you're talking to someone just think of anything they're talking about as somthing you have been dying to learn about. For example, I have no interest in bugs, but talking to an entomologist was easy: "I study the classification of annoyingus getitoffmenowieae" "Really? How do you classify them? Does DNA make a difference? Have you ever found a new species? What does a bug look like on the inside? Why are they so annoying? What got you interested?" So theres a million different ways you can go, you just have to be brave enough to do it.

Which brings me to my last and most important point, confidence. THEY are wooing YOU, THEY want YOU. Don't be so concerned about making an impression, just talk to whomever you want to talk to however you want to talk to them, within limits, you'll have plenty of time to make "an impression" in your years of PhD. Make this a fun event, not something to fear. Also I think the best way to make an impression is by being confident and unafraid to ask even the stupid questions.

Anyway, good luck, you'll do fine!
posted by nondescript at 8:12 PM on February 15, 2012

Instead of memorizing a bunch of questions, just bring a written list. I'm absolutely serious. If anyone wants to know why you have a list with you, tell them that "I want to make the most out of this visit and I definitely didn't want to forget to ask these."

I have, no joke, done this on job interviews in the private sector. The feedback I've gotten was that I was really prepared, not that there was something wrong with me.
posted by mornie_alantie at 11:29 PM on February 15, 2012

MetaFilter, you're the best.

Seriously, this is incredibly practical, useful, and implementable advice. I actually feel a little less panicky, and your reassurances that I'm not the only one who feels this way are much appreciated. Don't know how long I'll be able to sustain the positivity, but it's a good place to start from!

Thanks, virtual friends!

P.S. the advice re: alcohol consumption is well taken. ;)
posted by Dorinda at 12:29 PM on February 16, 2012

When I started graduate school I was so tightly-wound I went to a student health center's therapist to see if she could help. I told her that I felt like I didn't belong there. "Everyone feels that way," she told me, "It's called the Imposter Syndrome."

I found that highly reassuring.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:59 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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