What does it take to be a successful doctoral student?
There are some inherent qualities that most would be able to identify such as, critical thinking, good writing, and so on. But those are skills, and the doctoral and dissertation journey is not completed by only intellectual components.
What then are the dispositions needed to be a successful doctoral student? Dispositions by their nature are more holistic qualities that speak to one’s character. That is, they echo who you are more than what you can do. With over a decade spent teaching and advising doctoral students, I’ve come to realize there are three intangibles that are vital to success: curiosity, perseverance, and reflection.
Curiosity may seem an odd choice. After all, wouldn’t most successful doctoral students be innately curious and drawn to learn new things? Yes, but perhaps not in a way that will lead to their flourishing. As theologian Paul Griffith describes, classically understood, curiosity was a vice, not a virtue.
The curious were indeed interested in knowledge, but with the twin goals of owning and dominating it before discarding and seeking new knowledge. When disordered, curiosity becomes a form of intellectual consumerism. But when rightly oriented, it seeks to understand and participate in the knowledge; what the classical world recognized as studiousness.
Applying curiosity as a student
For the doctoral student, becoming a scholar and student of a topic they (think) they know well is the first step before attempting to research and participate in that topic. This requires slowing down, reading the work of scholars who have come before you, and building from their work.
One consequence of disordered curiosity is that it leads to what philosopher Harmut Rosa calls a “frenetic standstill”—a mind that is constantly in motion, but going nowhere and achieving nothing. Not a disposition to inhabit when considering a dissertation.
Doctoral students know there will be challenges along the way, but typically those difficulties are thought to be external, not internal. Engineer Peter James’ recent theory about the Egyptian pyramids helps reveal why such internal trials may actually prove beneficial. Tasked with restoring many ancient buildings in Egypt, James wondered why pyramids with the best construction techniques lost their smooth siding millennia ago, while the Bent pyramid—long believed to have worse construction methods—still retains most of its smooth finish.
His theory was that the massive temperature fluctuations in the desert caused the limestone rocks in the pyramids to expand and contract over thousands of years. The pyramids with the most accurate limestone cutting methods literally had no room for such volatility. Therefore, the smooth siding cracked and fell.
But the Bent pyramid and its flawed limestone blocks could weather the rock movements and thus retain its desired exterior. As one author described, the Egyptians’ “perfection became their imperfection.”
For doctoral students, it is critical to start a program knowing you are an imperfectly cut block. Not that you don’t bring the necessary knowledge and skills, but some of the challenges experienced are because of the growth you will need to experience internally. Persevering through such difficulties and the corresponding doubts they foster will ultimately lead to a stronger, more tested scholar who can reach the end of the journey.
The alternative is to assume that you have it all together; that you are a well-cut piece of limestone that can weather any trials. Perhaps… but perhaps just like the pyramids, such certainty leads to cracks. Embracing the role of perseverance in the doctoral experience will only lead to greater success.
The final disposition is reflection, which builds from the previous two. Curiosity requires us to slow down, understand, and participate in the researchers gone before us. Whereas perseverance requires an acknowledgment of the necessary internal growth coupled with determination and persistence. Together they require an individual willing to reflect.
Doctoral students need guidance and should expect to receive feedback from their mentors in the form of appreciation, evaluation, and coaching. This feedback will help them understand where they need to improve and how they can improve.
In a culture obsessed with speed and efficiency, the patience and posture reflection asks of us can be a difficult pill to swallow. Patience because—quite literally—waiting on feedback takes time. But the posture is one that embraces the humility of learning along the way.
So what does it take to be a successful doctoral student?
In addition to the obvious skills and intellectual capacities, it takes curiosity, perseverance, and reflection. Remember, achieving success and earning your doctorate has just as much to do with who you are as it does with what you can do. It may be one of the most challenging things you ever do, but you’ll never regret it.
-Written by Dr. Preston Cosgrove, Associate Professor in the Doctor of Education program.
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