Discipline – THE bedrock of achievement

Discipline is perhaps the most important predictor of success in graduate school and life. Whatever else you may have – talent, charisma, speed – you will not get far without discipline. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth writes, “Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.” [p.51]. In the context of a Ph.D., this means you will have to learn how to make the same kinds of efforts toward the same goals, working with the same types of people every day for [an average of] five years. Inspiration isn’t enough to meet that demand; you need discipline. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your worldview), there are no shortcuts to discipline. It must be cultivated by facing the demands of life with resolve, courage, and perseverance. “So, which comes first, Erome? The chicken or the egg?” I cannot say for sure, but here’s what I know: you will need discipline to succeed, and if you let it, graduate school will help you build discipline. Therefore, I urge you to view your time in graduate school as an opportunity to build discipline. Don’t be discouraged by failure or difficulties. Instead, view them as a chance to learn how to keep going, even when you feel like quitting. If you don’t view difficulties as opportunities, you will leave graduate school bitter and complaining about how terrible it was rather than enjoying how much you’ve grown. Inspiration may have been enough to get you into a graduate school, but discipline is what will get you to the finish, and depending on how disciplined you are, get you to the finish line with style.

When I was in graduate school, I learned two things. First, that graduate school was the perfect incubator for discipline; second, among my cohort, it was not the brightest students who did well but the most disciplined. These were the students who refused to stop trying despite failure. I saw them frustrated and impatient, but I never saw them give up. They worked on a problem until it was solved. They took the initiative to move projects forward. They came to the lab and left at around the same time every day. And when they were in the lab, I saw them do little else but focus on their tasks. These students didn’t take comments about their work personally because they did not see criticism of their work as criticism of their scientific abilities. By observing them, I learned that a graduate student’s success is more contingent on discipline than being a genius. As I continue to emulate them, I have not been disappointed.

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