When the Going Gets Tough, the Gritty Get Going

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When the Going Gets Tough, the Gritty Get Going


 Rachel Kaufman, Editor

 Albert Einstein had it. Michael Faraday had it. So did Marie Curie. Maybe you have it.

“It” is grit, a personality trait that is increasingly considered one of the most important factors that predict your success—in college and in life. Grit has been defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as a combination of “perseverance and passion,” and colleges and employers are increasingly recognizing that people with grit are more than they may appear “on paper.”

At first glance, this sounds obvious—especially to physics students used to pulling all-nighters and spending evenings and weekends in the lab. The message boils down to this: You might not be immediately good at something, but if you’re passionate about it and work hard at getting better, progress will follow.

This message is making its way into academia, as admissions programs are beginning to consider factors beyond grades and test scores, such as grit.

Since 2004, Fisk University and Vanderbilt University have offered a master’s-to-PhD bridge program to help students from backgrounds underrepresented in physics and astronomy successfully transition into a PhD program. During the application process, the admissions committee looks for students with a good GPA and strong letters of recommendation, but it also looks for “fire in the belly and sparkle in the eye,” says Arnold Burger, codirector of the program. “What we mean by it is what [do you] do when you encounter difficulties? How do you go about solving problems?”

Unlike many graduate programs, the Fisk–Vanderbilt bridge program doesn’t have a GRE floor for admissions. That’s partly because the GRE doesn’t predict success in a PhD program. The test’s own creators, Educational Testing Service, say as much, noting that the GRE can only predict success in first-year graduate courses. (It’s a much better predictor of sex and skin color than of ability.)

“Grit may not be sufficient for success, but it sure is necessary…”

Also, like many successful physicists, the students applying for the Fisk–Vanderbilt bridge program don’t necessarily have top GRE scores.

If you are a student with a less-than-stellar GRE score, take heart: A 2014 essay by bridge program administrators, published in Nature, found that if admissions officers had used a 700-point GRE score as the minimum floor for candidates, 85 percent of the bridge students would have been rejected. But that doesn’t mean that 85 percent of the student body should have pursued another career. On the contrary, 80– 90 percent of enrollees finish their PhD within 8 years, and all PhD holders who have gone through the program hold STEM jobs in academia or industry. (Nationally and across disciplines, only 54.7 percent of people who start a doctoral program have finished it 10 years later, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.)

That’s why the admissions office for the Fisk–Vanderbilt bridge program makes sure to place emphasis on the student’s letters of recommendation, as well as their answers in a long interview. In that interview, admissions officers try to tease out a potential student’s perseverance or response to adversity.

Both Burger and Dina Stroud, executive director of the bridge program, emphasize that grit and perseverance are only part of the success story. The bridge program also works because it provides resources like tutoring and mentoring to help students make up any academic deficiencies. That said, of course, it takes perseverance and grit to keep showing up at the tutoring sessions week after week; having resources available isn’t the same as taking full advantage of them.

Neither Burger nor Stroud uses the term “grit” to describe the program’s students. There are a few reasons for this. For one, emphasizing “grit” and self-control places the onus for success or failure on an individual student and “ignores systemic racism and other systemic discrimination,” says Stroud.

Grit doubters point out that intelligence, not perseverance, explains 

at least half of people’s differences in “performance in academic and work settings,” according to a meta-analysis of grit studies published in 2016.

Others say “grit” is synonymous with “conscientiousness” —a similar personality trait that psychologists have known about for decades.

Duckworth, the psychologist, for what it’s worth, argues that grit is related to conscientiousness but is not the same. She also addressed the question of structural barriers, writing in a FAQ on her website, that “Grit may not be sufficient for success, but it sure is necessary…. [T]he question is not whether we should concern ourselves with grit or structural barriers to achievement. In the most profound sense, both are important, and more than that, they are intertwined.”

It’s hard to study grit, and it’s hard to self-assess whether you have it, because you can only judge yourself in context with other people. If you’re surrounded by hard-working physics students, you may feel like you’re less “gritty” than everyone around you. If your roommate spends all day browsing social media, you may feel like you are more hard- working than the average person.

The jury is out on whether you can “train” yourself to be grittier. Scientists are still researching this question, but grit may be something you’re born with—or not. But good news: Even if you might not be able to become grittier, you might be able to start acting grittier—which is apparently just as good when it comes to academic success. A literature review from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that “students are more likely to display academic perseverance when they have positive academic mindsets or strategies to successfully manage tasks,” even though it also noted that “grit is fairly stable as an individual trait.” 

That said, it’s OK to step back every now and then and take a breather. Duckworth, the psychologist, writes on her website that she doesn’t “have any data that suggests there are drawbacks to being extremely gritty,” but adds that it’s possible to be “too stubborn about mid-level and low-level goals.” In other words, mental maintenance can be just as important as persistence.

The idea of admitting students based on grit or perseverance is gaining traction. The American Astronomical Society adopted a policy in 2016 recommending graduate programs eliminate the GRE requirement or make the test optional, and stop using cutoff scores. But it’s true that many schools still care about test scores—flawed though they may be—if only because interviewing properly can be time consuming and difficult for many admissions offices. So if your goal is graduate school, having grit in the absence of other qualities “on paper” may not yet improve your admissions chances. But having grit, or learning to act “gritty,” will serve you well in all other aspects of your physics career, giving you strategies to cope with setbacks, to work hard even when the goal seems far off, and to hold steadfastly to whatever your goal is.

In other words, to butcher a phrase, when the going gets tough, the gritty get going. 

Are you gritty? 
Find out at https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/

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