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It is simply not enough to be smart: How you come across as a person makes a big difference

September 6, 2010

One major difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the nature of the interpersonal and work relationships that students have with faculty members, and with student peers. In graduate school, you may need to work closely and cooperatively with others – with other students, or with one or more professors, for example – and your overall success may depend on how good you are at working with others. You will be around certain other students and professors on an almost daily basis, and for a few years. You will likely get to know some of the faculty members well enough to be on a first-name basis with them. Even the ways in which you deal with secretaries and other university staff might be different – probably more friendly – than when you were an undergraduate.

There may be a significant amount of independent work involved in earning a master’s or PhD, but it is not generally possible to avoid certain situations, from time to time, in which good interpersonal skills are essential for success.

In graduate school, you will be part of a special community within your academic department, and how you fare will depend to some extent on how well you get along with others. You will be highly visible much of the time, unlike most undergraduate students who may feel more or less anonymous among the crowd in large classes, without ever having significant contact with any of their professors. In graduate school, certain professors, and other graduate students, might get to know you rather well, and they are likely to develop opinions about your personality and character based on the cumulation of all the interactions they have with you. It is difficult to blend into the background when you are a graduate student, so the social environment of graduate school favors people who are reasonable, likeable, and who communicate well. Admissions committees and other graduate program faculty members want to fill their programs with students who fit this bill.

It is simply not enough to be smart. Unfortunately, this fact is largely unappreciated by the majority of applicants, who pay little or no attention to how they come across as a person to those who will be making decisions about their application. Like it or not, your interpersonal skills will be on display at several different points in the application process. The fate of your application will depend largely on how these skills are perceived.

Most importantly, your chances of being successful in the long-term – even after you get your PhD – will depend, to a significant extent, on whether certain people you meet at graduate school like you, or not. It is a frequent occurrence during most academic careers, for example, to come into professional contact, in any of a number of ways, with one’s former grad-school peers. The other person can sometimes be in a position to either help you with something or not, or they could either put in a good word for you or discredit your character. This kind of situation arises more often than you might expect. For at least a few years after receiving a PhD, people are extremely dependent on positive references from faculty members who knew them when they were in graduate school. Just as you need effective letters of reference from the right people in order to get into graduate school, you will also need those kinds of references when you look for a job, after graduate school. Most employers will be just as interested in your ability to get along with them, and with other employees, as in the specific skills or knowledge you possess.

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