Saturday, November 10, 2012

Another Lay Theory of Success in Graduate School

My first semester as a member of the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (referred to affectionately as Chambana) is coming to an end. Arriving with the Winter, is an important time in my new job--the time for graduate school applications. As a new faculty member, this will be my first chance guide the academic future of a new research career, from admission to dissertation. That's heavy!

This event made me think: What the heck am I looking for in a graduate student? I'm glad you asked that question interwebs. I'll try to provide an answer in what follows.

Before I launch into the subjective things I think make a person successful in research, let me point out that there is bound to be disagreement across individuals about what makes an effective graduate student (see here and here). Also, this post isn't meant to be advice about how to get into graduate school. I've mentioned how good I am at giving advice in other posts (here). Rather, this post is more about what I hope my graduate students will be, or will become, by the end of their graduate career.

A second side point: You won't find "is smart" or "has research experience" on this list, because while those factors are important for being admitted into graduate school, when you get here, most everyone has intelligence and experience. What follows are the things I feel that can contribute to a person's success in research.

Don't get behind the eight-ball (source)
Make Research the #1 Priority
We're all human and we have a ton of things that compete for our time. That was true of me when I was a graduate student (basketball was my passion at the time), and it's still true today (PYM is an example). FACT: You can and should have a life outside of your academic work. Graduate school is a full-time job though, and those people who don't treat it as such are doomed to get further and further behind the eight-ball as time moves forward. Undergraduate students have months of vacation during the summer and winter, and free time after classes each day. When transitioning to graduate work, students may start with the expectation that grad life is simply a continuation of this trend.

It's not. While there is no time sheet, grad work is cumulative. So, if you're one of those students working 9 months out of the year from 11am-2pm daily, then well, that lack of commitment is going to show up on your Resume at some point down the line. That's a fact even for the brightest students.

Notice I said "Make Research the #1 Priority" and not "Coursework" or "Teaching." Graduate students find that they sometimes must take courses, teach, and conduct research as part of their PhD. That's true, but this doesn't mean that a grad student's effort should be split evenly between these pursuits. In fact, I'd try to put as much of my time toward Research as possible. No one ever landed an awesome job at a major research university because of the fun group activity they designed for their introductory psychology course. Didn't happen before and won't happen now. This also means that if you can get some funding as a graduate student to relieve yourself from teaching duties--the time spent applying for that funding is time-well-spent.

This actually happened to me! (source)
An Irrational, Bull-headed, and Fearless Attitude, Even in the Face of Failure
We all have anxiety about failing. I'm writing a grant proposal write now. All the Nate-Silver-esque statistical probabilities indicate that this grant proposal is not going to get funded. Last month I sent in a journal article for publication knowing fully that the likelihood of its eventual acceptance at that journal--statistically speaking--is about 20%.

My point is that success in this field is first about failing, failing, and failing again. Journals reject our articles for publication all the time--even our very best articles with what we think contain the coolest data. A rational person might be turned away by such constant and unrelenting failure. What you'll find is that successful researchers develop an immunity (or near immunity) to such failure feedback. I find the threat of failure to be the hardest part of my job, because it can have a crippling effect on the amount of effort I put into a project. Nobel prize worthy research suggests that focusing on losses makes people less risk-taking (Kahneman & Tversky, 1989). Graduate students who focus on the eventual failure of a research program are likely to be averse to risking more of their time on research, maybe even other projects likely to be more fruitful. Unfortunately, those students who divert their time to pursuits with more consistent rewards (e.g., teaching) are turning away from the work that matters most in graduate school.

Is Equal Parts Conscientious and Ethical
Like I mentioned above. In graduate school you are around the very best psychology students in the world--these people enjoyed school so much, they decided to stick around for another 5, 6, 7, 8? years. That means everyone is smart and has experience that would make them good at research. Beyond those factors, I think a researcher's best qualities arise from a steadfast attention to detail combined with an ethical consideration of research and data practices. My office neighbor has conducted a lot of research suggesting that being high in conscientiousness predicts enhanced performance across a variety of jobs, and I think it has similar effects on graduate outcomes (Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005). When I am sitting at my desk painstakingly double and triple checking my statistical analyses for errors, I am often reminded about how the detail-oriented part of my personality has assisted me in my career.

Ethical behavior is becoming increasingly important for research. Unfortunately, there are many contextual forces in our field that make unethical behavior more, rather than less, likely (see here and here). Thus, I think a person who is concerned about behaving in ethical ways before they enter graduate school is likely to be concerned about conducting ethically sound research. Now more than ever, I think prioritizing ethical concerns is an excellent recipe for shaping the future of the field in positive ways.

A**holes Need Not Apply
Graduate school is not the playground of pushovers and Pollyanna's but that doesn't mean you can just step on people throughout your graduate career and expect to get ahead (for long at least). Admittedly, I think agreeableness is orthogonal to publication success and job outcomes--meaning that even people low in agreeableness will have success in the academic world (remember, my personality test came up Slytherin). However, I sure don't want to work with someone whom I can't get along with and I imagine others feel the same way. Thus, while lower than average agreeableness won't get you tossed out of the academy, being nice every once in a while is probably good for your work environment, and thus, good for your success in graduate school. Frank Flynn of Stanford University's Business School has some research suggesting that a little bit of helping behavior can go a long way toward developing respect at work (Flynn, Reagans, Amantullah, & Ames, 2006), and that's true in the academic world as well.

I'd love to hear what other factors people think can contribute to success in graduate school. Looking forward to your comments! Also, check out Brent Roberts' lay theory of success in graduate school here. You'll see some overlap (e.g., persistence/fire in the belly = bullheaded attitude to failure) and some divergence.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk Econometrica, 47 (2) DOI: 10.2307/1914185


Flynn, F., Reagans, R., Amanatullah, E., & Ames, D. (2006). Helping one's way to the top: Self-monitors achieve status by helping others and knowing who helps whom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (6), 1123-1137 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.6.1123


  1. Superior post, I am going away to save the URL and will definitely visit again.

  2. You have made a well written article.I've been taking my online masters degree for a time now and your experience is very relatable.