A Single Factor Model for Success in Graduate School

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus. It was originally published on Psych Your Mind on September 15, 2013.

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Graduate School: The Playground of the Mind

If you’ve come to the internet more than once, then you know that blogs often discuss the difficulties of coming out of graduate school with a tenure track faculty appointment in psychology or other fields (here and here). For those of you out there considering a research career at a major university–keep in mind that it’s not for everyone. PYM has also tried its hand at one or two lists of traits needed to succeed in graduate school. These lists have been inspired by others. Together, success lists make it seem like graduate success is a product of a number of personality factors and situational variables that people have very little control over.

But, what if I told you that success in graduate school is much simpler than considering all these complex person X situation interactions? What if whether you sink or swim is really just about one key ingredient? Today I present a single factor model for success in graduate school!

As you can see if you dig in to the links listed above, most lists of graduate school success have personality requirements (is conscientious), aptitude requirements (not dumb), and contextual wildcards (adviser not crazy?). I think that these features can all be very important for making someone a good researcher and academic. But I also think that there is something that supersedes all these: INTEREST.

That’s right, just plain old doughy-eyed interest: In my view, finding enjoyment, fascination, and joy in doing all the activities of research and its related components is the key to success in graduate school. Being interested can help a graduate student read through a whole stack of research articles, can keep a student focused and precise even in the face of tedious repetitive tasks (e.g., scoring of physiological data), and can allow a student to write, write, and revise a manuscript that they have been working on for days/weeks/months/years.

The idea that interest is a key to success is one that is supported by research in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology. Specifically, researchers find that vocational interests predict job performance even when already accounting for personality factors and aptitude assessments (e.g., Su, Rounds, & Armstrong, 2009; van Iddekinge, Putka, & Campbell, 2011). The reasoning for this association is clear–being interested in one’s work facilitates the application of maximum effort, whereas boredom might easily sap one’s attention and focus.

I haven’t tested this model in graduate school, but I might contend that interest is even more important there than in other fields. This is because most graduate student work is self-paced and independent of other individuals. Thus, an interested graduate student is likely to stay on task and complete projects, whereas an uninterested one is likely to stall or abandon a project in favor of a new one.

Interest is what makes me remember graduate school so fondly: Catch me in the right mood and I might regale you with tales of my love of coffee-shop writing, going out for a burrito with my adviser on a whim, my dissertation-induced coffee addiction, the absolute thrill of having my first paper accepted (finally) for publication, my first interview with the school newspaper (totes adorbs!), the times I reminded myself to pass our department chair the ball during pick-up basketball games, helping (and being helped) by other graduate students while just lounging around in the computer lab, and hearing from a colleague that I really admired (secretly) that they had read my paper.

Interest is also what makes the tough times in graduate school— like the entire summer I spent watching videos of two strangers meeting for the first time (not as interesting as you might hope), or the seemingly countless grant applications, conference presentations, and manuscripts that I had rejected over the years—feel not so tough and terrible.

I enjoyed graduate school so much that it just never felt like work, and so I really enjoyed pushing projects through to their completion—even one’s where I had to do some admittedly tedious and repetitive things. The research process was fascinating to me and I couldn’t help but keep making progress. A lot people talk about how we are meant to hate graduate school, that it is a terrible evil step-sister, or a meat grinder, and it can be for those that simply don’t like aspects of the research process. This seems obvious, but knowing that you aren’t really all that interested in the daily activities of research might be a good sign that a research career is not for you. But for those who enjoy the process, who are fascinated by research, and who think about science like others think about sports or movies, then graduate school is truly a playground of the mind!

This essay was inspired by a Facebook comment made by University of Illinois colleague Brent W. Roberts, by the research of members of the University of Illinois I/O Program, and by this article by Adam Waytz.

Su, Rong; Rounds, James; Armstrong, Patrick Ian (2009). Men and things, women and people: A meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 859-884 DOI: 10.1037/a0017364

Van Iddekinge, Chad H.; Putka, Dan J.; Campbell, John P. (2011). Reconsidering vocational interests for personnel selection: The validity of an interest-based selection test in relation to job knowledge, job performance, and continuance intentions. Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0021193

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