A Lay Theory of the Successful Graduate Student/Academic

Just recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on what it takes to be successful in an academic career.  It was a pleasant essay, which emphasized some of the usual suspects like industriousness and the like, but it felt a little off to me.  The thing that seemed lacking was the disparate, often conflicting nature of the profile of qualities that I believe (read: I don’t have much data to back these opinions up) are found in successful academics.  To put it in psychometric jargon, the attributes necessary for success are orthogonal—they don’t all come neatly bundled in each person.  This makes finding the combination in any given individual, which is often necessary for success, a rare occurrence.

I thought it might be constructive to start a provisional list of qualities that appear to lead to success in academic careers from my idiosyncratic vantage point.  Keep in mind that this is a theory in search of data.  The list can be used in several ways.  First, it can be used in a study to see if I’m right.  Second, it can be used as an aid in selection—self or otherwise.  Or, if you are already in the career track the list can be used for development.  I do not possess all of these qualities—very few people ever do—but I have worked hard to develop them. Alternatively, if you don’t want to change, a brilliant option is to team up with someone who complements your strengths and weaknesses.  You can be the idea person and your colleague the quant jock or vis versa.

Here is the provisional list:

  1. Curiosity.  It is difficult to be creative (see below) if you aren’t curious about how things work in the first place.  Are you the kid who never grew out of the “why” stage? Good.  Come to the Academy.  One reason this is so important is that, more than most jobs, an academic career entails that you structure your own work.  You have to be engaged in the world to do so and being curious is the first step to being engaged.
  2. Creativity.  Our job is to create new knowledge.  Creating new knowledge can come about through several strategies (see below).  Being creative, by coming up with new ideas or new ways of thinking about things is one of the best and most constructive strategies.  It is also rare and difficult.  It is something to aspire to and be thankful for if you achieve it.
  3. Tolerance of Ambiguity or Ambiguity Tolerance (economists call it the latter).  The world of science has so many unstructured situations it is difficult to emphasize the importance of this quality enough.  At a most fundamental level, science is not about finding the answer, but in finding a provisional answer until a better one comes along.  Moreover, many of our ideas fail—and that is a good thing because failure tells us what ideas to ignore.  Also, the act of being engaged in the attempt to generate knowledge brings into stark relief the huge swath of things we don’t know.  Finally, as noted above, scientists structure their own world.  We seldom have supervisors setting our agendas.  We set our own.  That can be rather disconcerting if you like to have things well defined.  If you don’t need closure, you’ll probably do better or at least have a nicer time in the academic world.
  4. Analytical interest.  Science is often like solving puzzles.  Much of our work goes awry and it is critical that one have the ability to analyze the situation and figure out how to do things differently next time.
  5. Technological skill or obsession.  Science is often the blind application of technology—new statistical models (e.g., latent growth modeling), new methods (e.g., EMA), and new technologies (FMRI, genetics).  One can make a significant contribution to science by learning how to apply new techniques to old ideas.  Being a tech nerd is a good thing.
  6. Persistence or “Fire in the Belly”.  This isn’t just a willingness to work hard.  This is the willingness to persist and even redouble your efforts despite negative feedback, barriers, and failures.  One of my colleagues famously had a manuscript rejected 10 different times over a 3-year period before finally getting it published.  This doesn’t count the revisions he did along the way.  Another eminent scientist had his first 12 papers out of graduate school rejected before he got a hit.  There are several ways this attribute manifests itself:  1) Being interested in and/or passionate about what you are doing.  If you are passionate about your ideas, then it is easy to persist against the withering wind of contempt.  Find your passion and you may have found your scientific career.  2) Fear unemployment.  The stress of getting a job and then getting tenure is a psychological gift.  Harness the fear of impending unemployment to redouble your efforts. 3) Unresolved Oedipal complex.  Got a chip on your shoulder and still need to show “father” that you are worthy?  Good. Use that chip to your benefit by using it to respond to reviewers.  Respond to “no” with, “I will show you why you are wrong.” 4) Being obtuse.  If criticism washes over you like water off a ducks back, great.  When combined with passion, this is a formidable combination.
  7. The willingness to write.  You don’t have to enjoy it or be good at it, but you need to  write.  Of course, it helps if you enjoy it and are good at it.  An anecdote might help.  I had a very good writing teacher in high school.  He gave up on the career of writing because in order to practice the art of writing he had to lock himself in a room with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of scotch and smoke and drink the story out of himself.  After a few years of this, he was unwilling to write, for good reason.  He wasn’t going to last very long going about it that way.  Hopefully writing will come easier to you.  If not, there are many, many careers that do not rely so heavily on writing.
  8. To believe that you can improve your writing.  Fundamentally, we are all storytellers.  In scientific writing, we are simply telling the story of our research.  Writing well is key to being a good storyteller.  That said, the belief that you are a good writer can get in the way of good writing, as those who believe they are good writers often don’t take criticism well.  I’d rather have a student who is a poor writer and who is willing to work on his or her writing than a “good” writer who isn’t open to improving his or her writing.  The problem here is that “good” writing at the undergraduate level is not the same thing as writing for a scientific audience.  Moreover, students typically don’t get the opportunity to test and or demonstrate their scientific writing skills before arriving in grad school.  Writing for science and a scientific audience is much more than proper sentence structure.
  9. Adequate oral communication skills.  You need to teach and give presentations.  Doing this well is a reflection of many of the qualities listed above combined with a desire to transmit one’s ideas to others in a consumable fashion.  Your audiences, be they students or colleagues, will appreciate it.
  10. Rudimentary social skills.  We tolerate a huge diversity of quirky behavior in the Academy.  That said, if you have a choice between being a southbound side of a northbound mule and being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, choose the later.  We’d rather give a job or tenure to someone a bit odd than someone who is going to be a pain in the ass for our entire future—even if they are the next “big thing.”  I’ve seen more people derail because they think being an ass is the right way of doing things.  These individuals fail to understand the ecology of the academic career in which your colleagues make a concrete decision to embrace you in perpetuity with a tenure decision.  Or, to put it another way, if you are going to be an ass, you better be a really, really good one.
  11. Reliability.  When called upon to do a task, do it well.  This doesn’t mean that you have to be the paragon of conscientiousness.  What it means is that when you have to perform a task that has serious ramifications for yourself and others—analyzing data for a paper, making up a test for a class, organizing the materials for your research—you work hard enough to pull it off, no excuses.  Being a professor is one of the few careers in the labor market that does not require conventional levels of conscientiousness.  In fact, too much conscientiousness can undermine some of the other qualities on this list (e.g. curiosity and creativity).  That said, if you can’t get the details right on your work and therefore can’t be relied upon, you simply won’t succeed.
  12. Oh, and lest I forget, according to R. Chris Fraley the most important key to success is the obsessive and somewhat maladjusted love of coffee.

It should also be pointed out that there are many qualities not on this list, such as:

1.  Good grades in your grad courses.  To a disconcerting degree, graduate students continue to obsess over classroom performance.  One of my colleagues actually goes so far as to give grad students with perfect A’s in their first year in grad school poor performance evaluations.  In her opinion, it is a sign that her students have the wrong values.  Whether you agree with her or not, the fact of the matter is that no one ever looks at your grad GPA and no one cares.  Get over it.

2.  Smarts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the conversation about failed grad students or colleagues that has started with the comment “but he was really smart.”  Guess what?  Everyone is smart at this level, even the failures.  This should come as no surprise as we select on GRE scores and GPA.  Some of my most brilliant friends and colleagues are failed academics[1].  Brilliance is only one ingredient of success and sometimes not the most important.  Really, really smart people often don’t get Ph.D.s.  They go off and create fields that other people get their Ph.D.s in.  Of course, if you don’t have the basic smarts to represent your field as an expert that is a problem, but a very rare problem given the way the system is structured.

3.  Psychological adjustment.  Depressed? Anxious? Insecure?  Don’t worry about it.  As long as you produce good science, you don’t have to be happy about it.  We’ll be happy for you.  Remember Freud, who said that the optimal level of adjustment was ambivalence.

There are two qualities that I personally value, that are clearly not systematically valued in the field.  In fact, we may be living in a time where we’ve inadvertently rewarded people for the inverse of these qualities.

1.  Skepticism.  For some reason, we have become a science of confirmation.  We tell stories with our data that corroborate our hypotheses rather than testing or confronting them.  Moreover, like most people, we tend to believe disproportionately in our own ideas.  Be skeptical, even of your own work.  While this may not make you famous, I do believe that it will make your contributions more lasting.

2.  Integrity.  Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or obfuscate your way to a scientific product.  Don’t accept the fact that others lie, cheat, steal and bullshit their way to fame and fortune.  Cheating your way to a publication may help you in the short run, but will undermine your reputation and the field in the long run.

I’m sure there are more qualities necessary and many more that are not.  That said, the list is rather heterogeneous.  That is, not many people will possess all of the qualities that contribute to success in graduate school and beyond.  That is okay.

Brent W. Roberts


[1] Some may take umbrage with the term “failed”.  Keep in mind that many of my friends who “failed” went on to spectacularly successful careers elsewhere because they were very talented people.  Failure is a good thing.  Embrace it.

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One Response to A Lay Theory of the Successful Graduate Student/Academic

  1. docshea says:

    I found your article a great read and one easy to agree with. As a “soon to be retired Military man” (And on my way to a new Academic Career) I have had plenty of experience in dealing with various persons and a wide variety of characteristics. One thing I would also like to share is there is no “Perfect Package” of traits that fits everybody or every situation. Thus finding those traits that work best for each individual and then placing those individual’s with others that help balance out each other seems to have favorable results.
    I’m sure this is also key in your group of professors, and graduate students. Although, I will be the first to admit that sometimes no matter how hard you try traits can clash with one another so besides those traits a balance has to exist within each individual.

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