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What predicts grad school success?

In her first year at as a clinical psychology student at Washington University in St. Louis, Aziza Kassam* worried that her friend Lauren* was going to wash out — fast. During statistics study sessions, Kassam recalls Lauren saying multiple times, "I don't know if this is worth it. I think I am going to drop out."

Lauren managed to skate by in the class, and went on to be a star student. Now a faculty member at a prestigious Midwestern university, she's listed as the first author on 12 publications. Despite her initial struggles, "Lauren was a go-getter," Kassam recalls. "She had a strong, innate desire to be the best at everything."

Meanwhile, another of Kassam's classmates — one who Kassam thought would do well and who had previous graduate school experience — failed to pass her comprehensive exams after three tries.

While Kassam found it hard to guess which of her classmates would excel, researchers have uncovered a handful of personality and cognitive traits that appear to predict psychology grad school success, namely curiosity, conscientiousness, resilience and confidence, with intelligence and emotional intelligence as crucial.

"By the time you get to graduate school, everybody is smart, so it's more the independent thinking, creative thinking and the persistence that really help folks succeed," says Peter Giordano, PhD, a psychology professor at Belmont University in Nashville.

Do you have what it takes to make it through grad school? Read on to find out.

Personality predictors

Graduate study in psychology requires a range of skills, including the ability to understand coursework, design studies, write up research and, for many, learn therapy skills. The trait that will help you most with all those tasks — and more — is intellectual curiosity, according to a meta-analysis published last year in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Sophie von Stumm, PhD, a psychology postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, and co-authors looked at 11 studies on the relationship between students' academic performance and their intelligence and personality characteristics, including curiosity. The researchers used the Typical Intellectual Engagement Scale, which asks participants how much they endorse such statements as "Almost every section of the newspaper has something in it which interests me" and "Thinking is not my idea of fun" (reverse scored). They found that intellectual curiosity was a direct predictor of academic performance, along with intelligence and conscientiousness.

The results suggest that students should strive to ensure their love of learning survives grad school intact — and that means they should avoid overloading themselves, von Stumm says.

"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 and will see academia as an obstacle that needs to be overcome," she says. "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."

Also critical to student success is conscientiousness, which includes self-discipline, future planning and willingness to work hard. Among personality characteristics, conscientiousness correlates most highly with academic achievement, according to a 2009 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin. Agreeableness was also correlated with academic success, though not as highly, found study author Arthur E. Poropat, PhD, a psychology professor at Griffith University in Australia.

How important is intelligence?

Not surprisingly, intelligence is a big factor for grad school success. In fact, GRE scores — which predict success in coursework — can serve as a proxy measure for both students' IQ and whether they have the knowledge they need to succeed in grad school, according to a 2001 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. The report, which examined 1,753 studies, found that GRE scores could help predict students' graduate grade point averages, first-year GPAs, ratings from faculty, exam scores, degree attainment and number of citations earned. The specific subject tests were even stronger indicators of students' performance.

"I agree with many other scientists who think subject tests are good predictors in part due to an overlap with interest," says University of Minnesota psychology professor Nathan Kuncel, PhD, who studies predictors of academic success. "If you know a huge amount about a wide range of psychological topics, you probably are very interested in psychology. Therefore, you are more likely to put in the time and effort to be a success."

Researchers have also found that emotional intelligence — the ability to discern others' feelings through subtle cues — might have predictive value for both academic performance and effectiveness as a therapist. A study of 63 graduate students who completed school psychology internships found that students with high emotional intelligence had better graduate GPAs and more positive ratings from supervisors (Psychology in the Schools, 2010).

Emotional intelligence confers a level of "street smarts" that allows students to negotiate difficult situations that will help them both in school and when they're counseling children, says study co-author Rosemary Flanagan, PhD, an associate professor at Touro College Graduate School of Psychology in New York City.

Also, when it comes to conflicts with advisors, a student's emotional intelligence can be a useful asset, adds John D. Mayer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. For instance, students can annoy their advisors by temporarily shirking research-lab responsibilities when writing their dissertations. Emotionally intelligent students might notice that their advisors are miffed and make up the missed time without prompting, but students with low emotional intelligence might not recognize their advisors' frustration. "These [students] are the same people who say they're constantly surprised by what other people do," Mayer says.

Of course, being able to read people is also helpful in a therapeutic career. A small study led by New York City private practitioner Matthew J. Kaplowitz, PhD, of 23 therapist-patient pairs published last year in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that clients with highly emotionally intelligent therapists were less likely to drop out of therapy and more likely to report improved symptoms.

Against the odds

If you're rankled by research suggesting immutable traits might determine your success, then congratulations, you're grad school material, says Alison Miller, PhD, author of the 2009 book "Finish Your Dissertation Once and for All!" That means you subscribe to what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, called the "growth mindset of intelligence."

"These students believe that intelligence is malleable and that, through effort, persistence and hard work, they can actually get smarter," Miller says. Such students tend to measure achievements by their own accomplishments, rather than comparing themselves to others. They also find support from others by, for example, forming dissertation groups, and they find mentors to ensure they're getting the guidance they need.

Grad school success also requires you to be open to criticism and to apply that feedback to your work, says Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, PhD, a clinical research psychologist at the Women's Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD. "Regardless of what personality traits you might have, if you can't try to continue to improve, that doesn't bode well for your eventual practice or your research career," she says.

That's why it's important to develop a self-regulated learning style, says Barry Zimmerman, PhD, distinguished professor of educational psychology at the City University of New York. Self-regulated learning involves setting challenging goals and figuring out strategies to reach them, implementing your plan and keeping track of its effectiveness, and then tweaking those strategies based on how successful they are at getting you closer to your aims. "A strategic approach to learning is one that really focuses on processes that precede success, rather than the indices of success, such as grades," Zimmerman says.

So, for example, a self-regulated approach to a research project starts with setting a goal that pushes you out of your comfort zone, such as publishing a paper in the first few years of your program. Next, break the process of achieving that goal into smaller chunks — perhaps reading a textbook on research design, identifying populations you might want to work with or meeting with a professor to discuss your design. Zimmerman suggests keeping a diary for this stage. "Consult it on a regular basis so that the feedback you take from it has the opportunity to be a source of adaptation," he says. Finally, reflect on your progress and decide whether you need to change your strategies.

Above all, Zimmerman adds, be sure to cultivate your curiosity. He suggests finding topics in a class syllabus that interest you and going beyond the assigned reading, tracking down books on the subject or looking at the latest research, and discussing the concepts with your professor.

"Going beyond having an interest and actually searching for additional information is really important," he says.

Nikhil Swaminathan is a writer in New York.
*Names changed to protect privacy.

Highly successful grad students tend to:

  • Set goals and make sure they're challenging and clear, such as publishing a study sometime during their second year of the degree program.

  • Cultivate a deeper interest in psychology by doing outside reading and discussing with professors and classmates.

  • Try out different study strategies and determine the ones that work best for them.

  • Form study and dissertation writing groups where students set common deadlines and keep one another on track.

  • Seek out feedback on their performance from advisors, supervisors and mentors, and use those critiques to grow and improve.