Science Careers Blog

September 14, 2012

Who Succeeds in Graduate School?

A cluster of personality traits predicts success in graduate school, according to an overview of research on the subject in the current issue of gradPSYCH, a magazine published by the American Psychological Association.  Topping the list of characteristics contributing to successful graduate work is intellectual curiosity.  Intelligence, both cognitive and emotional, is also crucial, but conscientiousness, "which includes self-discipline, future planning and the ability to work hard," ranks even higher, the article says.  Resilience and the ability to take criticism and use it to improve also play major roles.

The research cited all relates to graduate students in psychology, but it appears likely that the findings would also apply to students of other disciplines.  Emotional intelligence, for example, is particularly important for psychologists aiming to be therapists, but it also plays a big role in helping students of any discipline deal successfully with conflicts with advisers. 

But just because certain personality characteristics correlate with doing well in grad school doesn't mean that students are powerless to increase their chances of success.  Given the major role played by curiosity, for example, it's essential that students maintain their feeling of excitement about their field, the article advises, by guarding against trying to do too much.  "Students who are pressured to finish their theses as quickly as possible, to publish too many papers or to attend one conference after the other will lose their curiosity for research," says psychologist Sophie von Stumm, a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh who studies academic success and is quoted in the article.  "Students should make sure that they are looking forward to learning something new in each of those activities, rather than merely completing them because the supervisor or the school expects it."

This is only one of the suggestions for a successful graduate school career contained in the article, which you can find here.

(Full disclosure: this also reporter has an article of her own, on an unrelated subject, in the same issue of the magazine.)

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