Intelligence, emotional intelligence, curiosity
and conscientiousness may be keys to getting
your degree, research suggests.
BY NIKHIL SWAMINATHAN
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
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.
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.
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