Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grit, and Beyond

(Image from needledesign)

I have long felt, and I'm sure most of my colleagues would agree, that talent or aptitude, be it in-born or acquired, is not sufficient in an academic environment. This is particularly true in the Ph.D. program, where the environment is dramatically unstructured, and it's not a question of meeting short-term, well-defined, externally-defined goals, with little connection to the outside world (as is the case in most of schooling up to that point, in the form of exams and grades).

Angela Lee Duckworth, a faculty member in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania has been advocating "grit", a combination of consistency of interest and passion and perseverance of effort over long periods of time, as a metric that is predictive of success. Here is a paper by her and her co-authors: "Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals." In this work, they describe research evaluating the correlation between grit (measured through a suitably designed questionnaire) and achievement in a few different settings --- educational attainment among groups of adults, retention among West Point cadets, and rankings among spelling bee contestants. The researchers conclude that their findings "suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time."

(Here is the questionnaire they use to measure grit; perhaps you'd like to try it yourself.)

I think this is very interesting work. At the very least, this paper expands and adds concrete research data to the debate about the sufficiency of talent. It presents compelling scientific evidence that single-minded persistence is an absolutely valuable character trait. But I cannot help feeling that this is still not the whole story.

One critical aspect that is not captured by the grit trait is how self-driven and autonomous the individual is; whether this individual's interests and efforts are being externally defined and driven by others, or if they are coming from within. For instance, some currently popular authoritarian approaches to parenting and education already place a lot of emphasis on focus and hard-work as the essential ingredients. My view, however, is that these do not allow adequate room for individuals to learn to make their own choices and pursue their own interests in a self-directed manner, important in more creative settings. Notice that the examples chosen by the researchers (spelling bee, West point) are not particularly creativity-oriented environments.

Another aspect that is rather orthogonal to the notion of grit is social and communication skill. Those who are most sociable and open to helping, collaborating and discussing with others have more avenues for getting fresh ideas and growing and improving themselves. In an academic environment one is crucially dependent on  communication skills, when making oral presentations at conferences and invited talks, or when writing proposals, papers, reviews.

Success during and after the Ph.D. (and in many other non-academic spheres of activity) requires not only talent and grit, but, in addition, autonomous initiative as well as strong social interaction and communication skills. I believe that these are malleable traits, that individuals can work mindfully to improve themselves on. A good education should help people grow in all these dimensions.

What do you think?


Marc said...

I think the ability to be the free thinking, autonomous reseacher depends on who funds the research. Those who pay their own way (typical of liberal arts degrees) tend to have the flexibility to pursue their own interests, with an advisor, committee or colleagues to guide them. In science and engineering, tuition and stipends are often covered by research assistantships, but one has to sacrifice some autonomy as part of the deal. Sometimes the sacrifice is minimal. Other times, the work can become too narrow in focus and overly-regulated by external forces. Along the way advising turns into results-oriented, calendar driven, project management. It may be an effective way of advancing research, but I think something gets lost in the process.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Fair comment. The degree of autonomy possible in a science/engineering Ph.D. does vary significantly depending on the advisor and the funding source.