Five Characteristics Necessary for Psychology PhD Students

The top five characteristics necessary for psychology PhD students have one thing in common: They don’t require innate talent. The hidden secret of graduate school is that it’s not about how smart, organized or skilled at writing you are. It’s about how much you want to finish your degree and land your dream job in psychology.


Most psychology PhD will take more than five years to complete their degrees. You must be willing to overcome obstacles like limited funding, challenging classes or family emergencies if you want to graduate. Psychology departments will work with your schedule and offer part-time study plans, online classes and a leave of absence to let you manage your personal needs without derailing your academic plans. Even with this flexibility, completing your psychology PhD will require dedication. Consider how you’ve dealt with barriers during your bachelor’s degree and how you’ll be overcome road blocks during your studies.


You’re probably dreaming of an amazing research experience working besides your favorite professor and discovering a world-changing new way to understand the human brain. This happens for some psychology graduate students, but it’s just as likely you’ll do mundane research or work as a teaching assistant for a Psychology 101 class with 300 students. You don’t know what work assignments you’ll get from your PhD program, so keep an open mind. Flexibility is a key characteristic for graduate students and professors alike.

Interest in Research

Your psychology PhD program will include classes on the scientific method. You’ll also study research design, ethics in psychology research and the history of psychological research. Having an appreciation for these topics will make your graduate studies more enjoyable and give you a greater chance of academic success. If you’re getting bored just thinking about research, read about some of the mind-blowing psychology studies conducted in the past. Once you’ve learned about the Stanford Prison Experiment, the marshmallow test or Milgram’s study on the power of authority, you’ll have a greater passion for any research methods courses you have to take during your doctoral degree.

Able to Work Hard

Intelligence is not a necessary characteristic for succeeding in graduate school. In fact, intelligent students sometimes struggle in upper-level classes because they’re so used to school being easy. Psychology PhD programs require as much work as a full-time job; if you’re expecting to just skate through the hundreds of pages of reading and multiple papers due every week, you will quickly overwhelm yourself. Don’t worry about how smart you think you are. Just concentrate on your ability to stick to a schedule and complete your assignments: That’s 90% of the battle in graduate school.

A Willingness to Fail

No, this doesn’t mean you should accept failing your classes outright. Grades are still important in graduate school. You should be willing to fail at your experiments and willing to admit that you don’t understand something. You must care more about expanding your understanding of psychology than appearing smart to your professors. Graduate school is a chance to grow in a controlled and supportive environment, so make sure you can leave your ego behind when you head to your upper-level psychology courses.

The most important force behind your success in graduate school is your motivation to succeed. Even if you don’t have every one of the top five characteristics necessary for psychology PhD students, you can still excel in your studies with the right level of commitment.


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