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One variable that consistently arises as important to student success in college or graduate school is perseverance (Hwang et al., 2018; Ramey et al., 2019; Tynan et al., 2020), a component of grit (Duckworth et al., 2021). Anecdotally, when I ask colleagues who have earned graduate degrees the key to their success, their narratives frequently include stories of perseverance.
I want to pause here to be crystal clear. While perseverance is important, it is not the only important factor. For example, it does not matter how much I persevere, my 54-year-old self will not become an Olympic athlete. (I might have a shot at the Senior Olympics, though—if I were so inclined. I’m not, but I could be.) We can help students find their own inner drive to persevere, but we have to be careful to not blame a student’s lack of success on their unwillingness or inability to persevere. In other words, when you don’t see me competing in the Super G at the next Winter Olympics, don’t put my failure to be there solely on my lack of perseverance. For starters, I could use some financial support to help me live near a resort with world class ski runs. Oh. And to take ski lessons.
In college, I was accustomed to earning good grades. And then I ran into a Theories of Sociology course that gave me fits. On the first essay exam, I earned a D. I thought I had included all of the necessary information on which theorist said what, but evidently not. The second exam replicated the results of the first. I talked to my professor. My answers were bullet points, which was the style preferred by a previous professor. This one wanted sentences assembled into paragraphs. A fair request. And, in retrospect, that style of writing should have been my default. However, as a first-generation college student creating college-student schemas by the tried and true methods of trial/error and observation, I had created a schema for college essay writing. “Professors want bullet points.” I had to make some significant changes to that schema if I were going to recover my grade in Theories of Sociology. I studied my butt off for the final. During the final, I filled my blue book and was the last one to finish. My score on the final was enough to bring my overall course grade up to at least B.
To get through Theories of Sociology, I needed perseverance. I could have given up, taken an F, and sacrificed my minor in sociology. In the greater scheme of things, that wouldn’t have been a tragedy. But, no, I persevered. But I also brought other resources to the table. I had strong study skills (thanks largely to a challenging high school chemistry class that forced me to up my study game), I had decent enough writing skills (thanks to some excellent K-12 teachers and a love of reading modeled by my mother and older sister), and I had solid social support in the form of college friends who were there to encourage and study with me. Perseverance wasn’t the only thing I needed to succeed in that course, but it was necessary.
In Science, each issue ends with a feature called “Working Life.” Readers of Science are encouraged to submit essays about their careers. Here are three very different stories that, at their root, are about perseverance. Students may find inspiration in reading these freely-accessible essays. For each, I suggest a few discussion questions. (Each article appeared in print under different titles and different dates. I’ve provided the online references rather than the print references.)
- Senka Holzer had several opportunities to give up, yet she persevered. Which challenge—either when interviewing for the Ph.D. program or in her life—do you think was the most difficult for her? Why?
- Identify at least two other skills or resources Holzer may have beyond perseverance that contributed to her success. Explain.
- Describe an academic challenge you have experienced that required perseverance to overcome. Identify at least two other skills or resources you drew upon to overcome that challenge.
Doing research abroad felt lonely. Here’s how I made friends (Bonnesen, 2022)
- Kasper Bonnesen had reason to believe that his six months abroad would not go well, yet he chose to go anyway. In his time in Atlanta, he persevered. Why do you think it was important to him to succeed in staying this time?
- Identify at least two other skills or resources Bonnesen may have beyond perseverance that contributed to his successful stay in Atlanta. Explain.
- Describe a social challenge you have experienced that required perseverance to overcome. Identify at least two other skills or resources you drew upon to overcome that challenge.
- Ilya Smolensky had several opportunities to give up having a science career, yet she persevered. Which challenge do you think was the most difficult for her? Why?
- Identify as least two other skills or resources Smolensky may have beyond perseverance that contributed to her success in a science field. Explain.
- Describe a physical challenge you have experienced that required perseverance to overcome. Identify at least two other skills or resources you drew upon to overcome that challenge.
Bonnesen, K. (2022, June 30). Doing research abroad felt lonely. Here’s how I made friends. Science, 377(6601). https://www.science.org/content/article/doing-research-abroad-felt-lonely-heres-how-i-made-friends
Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D., & Tsukayama, E. (2021). Revisiting the factor structure of grit: A commentary on Duckworth and Quinn (2009). Journal of Personality Assessment, 103(5), 573–575. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223891.2021.1942022
Holzer, S. (2022, May 19). A horribly embarrassing interview landed me a Ph.D. position—And taught me a valuable lesson. Science, 376(6595). https://www.science.org/content/article/horribly-embarrassing-interview-landed-me-ph-d-position-and-...
Hwang, M. H., Lim, H. J., & Ha, H. S. (2018). Effects of grit on the academic success of adult female students at Korean Open University. Psychological Reports, 121(4), 705–725. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033294117734834
Ramey, H. L., Lawford, H. L., Chalmers, H., & Lakman, Y. (2019). Predictors of student success in Canadian polytechnics and CEGEPs. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 48(2), 74–91. https://doi.org/10.7202/1057104ar
Smolensky, I. (2022, June 16). I worried my cerebral palsy would halt my progress in science—But I found a path forward. Science, 376(6599). https://www.science.org/content/article/worried-my-cerebral-palsy-would-halt-my-progress-science-fou...
Tynan, M. C., Credé, M., & Harms, P. D. (2020). Are individual characteristics and behaviors necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions for academic success?: A demonstration of Dul’s (2016) necessary condition analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 77, 101815. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2019.101815
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