Inspired by this tweet:
What 3 personal qualities do you think a person needs to be successful in graduate school? Not skills (writing, etc) but qualities.
— Sciencegurl (@sciencegurlz0) April 11, 2016
I had a think and decided that from my experience the following are important (but not all the) personal qualities which you really need to be successful in graduate school. Now these aren’t isolated traits, they definitely interrelate and support each other, but I’m going to outline here why I think they’re important and how they benefit you.
The first one is so obvious that it probably wouldn’t even be considered by most people: you need to be enthusiastic. Wrapped up in enthusiasm is a passion for learning and a fascination with your discipline/topic but you ultimately have to find what you are doing genuinely interesting. As a starting point this is a must. It’s no good trying to dedicate a significant proportion of your life to something you do not find intrinsically interesting because you won’t put the time in, you’ll be less determined, and ultimately less likely to be successful. It’s the interest in the first place which brings us to want to learn more. Now this interest could be in a ‘pure’ sense (just a basic interest in the way something works) or in an ‘applied’ one (looking to solve particular medical, economic, or technological issues) but the driver has to start with interest and enthusiasm for the subject. At this point I’ll say that this doesn’t mean that you’re up and ready to go to do your work and talk about your topic at any given moment. We all have hard days/weeks/months and sometimes that interest wains. But it’s important that it’s there in the first place to get you through. On the topic of getting you through…
Resilience is a life-lesson. You learn it by pushing further than you did before and using that to understand your limits next time. Resilience is a key aspect of any working environment and academia is no exception. Firstly, a lot of things don’t work. In fact, most things don’t work. There’s that quote out there about finding 99 ways to not make a lightbulb. Refining ideas and testing hypotheses is a lot like that. We test and test and test until eventually we’re left with the few results which tell a story. To push through that seemingly relentless series of obstacles or defeats you have to develop resilience. It enables you to take a set-back, work with it, and push on to find another way to achieve. It’s not something you have best refined before you start but it is certainly one you need to have developing and are willing to continue to during graduate school.
At first, humility may seem like a counter-intuitive quality to need. Think about it: you’re going to convince people to let you spend 3 or more years of your life egotistically studying something you find interesting which, in all honesty, probably won’t have any significant impact on most people bar those you tell the story to. That was a long sentence…That sounds like you certainly need a great sense of self-worth and great view of your own importance in the world. But I’d argue that in fact you need to develop a great sense of humility for exactly those reasons: you are seeking to study an immensely small part of a massive picture for which it will take a long time for anybody to appreciate. You cannot treat it and yourself as if they are the greatest and most important things in the world because they’re not. You are not the most capable or brilliant individual whose had the greatest ideas. You are one of a lot of very capable and determined individuals who are looking to add their own small piece to the puzzle of the world. Humility grants you the ability to be ok with failure and to look upon your colleagues not with envy but with understanding.
These traits work together, of course. Enthusiasm with resilience builds determination, whilst with humility enables you to be better at communication, and resilience with humility helps soften the blow of defeat as well as to learn from what’s past. Taken together, I would deem these the three pillars on which success in grad school lay.
Thanks for reading 🙂