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10 qualities of successful postgraduate students

How to thrive and be successful is a common question that (prospective) postgraduate students ask themselves. Learn more about the top 10 qualities of successful postgraduate students, centring around mindsets, relationships, and physical and mental health.


What makes postgraduates ‘successful’?

Success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder: Definitions of success vary, and different postgraduates strive for different things.

Nonetheless, academia is a competitive work environment. And how to be successful is on the minds of many master’s and PhD students.

Which postgraduate students thrive in academia? Initial responses to this question often centre around intelligence quotients, the number of publications, impact factors and so on.

On second thought, however, many of these quantitative metrics can be (partly) debunked. Instead, there is an alternative set of qualities that are much more decisive when it comes to the success of postgraduate students: qualities that centre around mindsets, relationships and health.

1. Curiosity

Curiosity is a key quality of good scientists. Curiosity is what draws many individuals to postgraduate studies in the first place.

Curiosity may include the interest to discover something new, to try and solve complex questions, or the fascination to enter unchartered territory. Successful postgraduate students manage to continuously foster their curiosity.

Instead of being satisfied with certain answers or findings, successful postgraduate students always come up with more questions to discover and explore.

2. Open-mindedness

Successful postgraduate students are open-minded, lifelong learners. They are keen to understand different perspectives and viewpoints and can process a wide range of information.

Postgraduate students’ work is repeatedly scrutinised. And criticised. By supervisors, by peers, by journal editors, during conferences, etcetera. Therefore, to be successful, postgraduate students also need to be open-minded to feedback, new information and novel input from many directions.

This does not mean that postgraduate students have to agree with every feedback or a new perspective. But those that are stuck in their way of thinking will miss out on both personal growth and academic development.

3. Flexibility

Postgraduate studies are hardly ever a linear journey. Instead, many things do not work out as planned. At the same time, unexpected opportunities may arise.

Successful postgraduate students don’t get too discouraged if a research plan or experiment does not work out. They don’t give up easily. Instead, they look for alternative pathways.

Successful postgraduate students also grab opportunities when they present themselves. Even if it means that their initial plan needs to be revised. They know that all planning has its limits, and can go with the flow.

4. Proactiveness

Successful postgraduate students realise that they are in the driver’s seat of their journey.

Instead of waiting for others to tell them exactly what to do, successful postgraduate students take matters into their own hands.

For instance, they actively prepare and steer meetings with their supervisor/s. Or, if they realise that they lack certain knowledge or skills, they look for opportunities to acquire them.

5. Fostering relationships

Successful postgraduate students are aware of the importance of networks in academia and are good at fostering relationships.

They don’t focus on superficial relationships as strategic career moves. Instead, successful postgraduate students invest in genuine and meaningful connections as the foundation for their strong academic networks.

Postgraduates who constantly compete and try to outperform their colleagues at all costs, ultimately get the short end of the stick.

Successful postgraduate students don’t put others down. They lift them up. Collaboration is always better than competition, and the resulting relationships will pay off.

6. Prioritising tasks

Successful postgraduate students can prioritise tasks. Being organised and learning how to multi-task is important. However, successful postgraduate students know that there is a limit: They understand that no one can ‘do it all’.

Successful postgraduate students can see the forest for the trees. They realise that some tasks are more important than others. And that there are times when certain tasks need priority over others.

At times, prioritising a specific task involves ruthlessly dropping a lot of others to focus on what matters. Successful postgraduate students are comfortable with making this call because they know that it ultimately leads to success.

7. Being able to say no

While it is important to develop an all-round academic profile, there are only so many hours in a day. And the many tasks and demands put on postgraduate students can easily be overwhelming.

While it is one of the hardest things to learn for early career academics, successful postgraduate students are those who can say no. In a polite and friendly manner, yet with confidence.

Successful postgraduate students can set healthy boundaries. They don’t take on more than they can handle. At the same time, they give their all to the tasks that they do take on.

8. Cultivating hobbies and interests outside of work

Successful postgraduate students work hard. They know that postgraduate studies require flexibility and that there can be times when the work-life balance suffers.

However, successful postgraduate students try to keep these periods to a limit, and actively cultivate hobbies and interests outside of work.

Switching off from work and engaging in activities outside of work is extremely important for general well-being.

Furthermore, hobbies and interests outside of work foster intrinsic self-worth, as they help to separate self-worth from academic achievements.

9. Taking care of mind, body and soul

Successful postgraduate students prioritise self-care. Even during hectic times, they do not forget how important it is to nurture mind, body and soul.

When they struggle, successful postgraduate students reach out for help. They know that struggling is no reason for shame. By being open, reaching out and accepting help, successful postgraduate students can overcome obstacles.

Successful postgraduate students also sustain a healthy level of activity and eat a balanced diet. And they are aware of the value of sleep for academic performance.

Not spending 16 hours a day in the lab, or behind the computer, may feel like a disadvantage in the short term. However, by taking care of themselves, successful postgraduate students have a big advantage as they can manage – and uphold – their energy in the long term.

10. Having fun

Last but not lead, successful postgraduate students have fun. They know that they spend many of their waking hours on their studies and their research. Therefore, they try to make their postgraduate journey as enjoyable as possible.

Having fun involves not taking themselves or their work too seriously. Indeed, successful postgraduate students take negative feedback with a grain of salt. A conference rejection? A failed experience? Maybe it will turn into a funny story at some point.

Successful postgraduate students also have fun by incorporating activities into their academic journey that bring them joy. A supervision meeting can turn into an inspiring academic exchange. A writing session with a colleague can include a lovely lunch. A conference abroad can turn into a mini-holiday.

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