DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.
Ph.D. programs can be really interesting experiences. Most interesting of all is meeting our new classmates. We introduce ourselves to fellow students who have also decided to dedicate the next 4-plus years of their lives to accomplishing this most challenging of tasks. Some orientation programs even have neat icebreakers to get students to begin congregating and socializing with one another. These new classmates have the potential to be our future professional colleagues, collaborators, employers, employees, friends, and even romantic partners.
Each doctoral program will have its own unique culture and personnel, but it is important to understand that there are a number of students who share certain characteristics regardless of program or institution. Below is a breakdown of the different types of personalities you may encounter among your classmates as you enter and matriculate through a program. These observations are based not only on personal experiences, but also on discussions and encounters with friends and other colleagues in different programs, disciplines, and institutions. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, or even universal. It is just a few of the personality types that you may find among your graduate school colleagues.
1. Silent/Observant. There is usually a student, or group of students, in every program who seem to be a bit more reserved than the other students. This is the silent/observant student. She is focused on listening to the experiences of others during class discussions and takes pleasure in learning through observing. Despite her consistent reticence, it does not take long for classmates to realize that she is extremely intelligent and an asset to the group. Although she does not talk much, when the observant student does speak, she tends to say something that is very profound and astute. Become friends with this person. She will add instant value to your life.
2. Cocky/Bombastic. The cocky/bombastic student is the exact opposite of the silent/observant type. His cockiness forces him to talk all the time, regardless of the topic. He believes he is never wrong, but will not hesitate to let you know when you are way off base. Mr. Cocky is always ready to “name drop” the top scholars and practitioners in the field and let you know that they are friends. Constantly, he will brag about what he intends to do, but never does it. In reality, Mr. Cocky is actually one of the least productive students in the program, simply because he spends more time trying to show how bright he is rather than letting his work speak for itself. Avoid this student at all costs. He is on a downward spiral toward ABD, and will blame any and everyone for his troubles other than himself.
3. Earnest. The earnest student is hell-bent on becoming a top scholar and future leader of the field. She has no reservations about asking questions, leading all group discussions, and initiating study groups outside of class. Ms. Earnest is the student that does all of the required reading, notices a footnote in the reading and reads the full text referenced in the footnote. Committed to her goals, she wants to graduate at the top of the class, if for no other reason than to say she was the best in her program. While still in the first year of the program, she has already spent significant time studying trends in the job market and has a tentative plan in place for acquiring her dream position. Stay close to her. She may be a bit crazy at times, but her ambition can become infectious and benefit you tremendously.
4. Formality for Work. This student exists more specifically in applied degree programs, such as those for high school superintendents and academic administrators. These are students who see their time in the program as purely a formality to move up the employment ladder. Mr. Formality has no desire to be a scholar or think deeply about anything. To him a doctorate is a necessary evil for promotion. I call this the Marshawn Lynch student. He typically will show up to class at the last possible minute and is usually unengaged. To be fair, most of these students usually hold full-time jobs during the day, and do not have freedom to be serious researchers or writers. It is difficult to say whether or not you should seek out or avoid this person. But understand that if this is the type of student you plan to be, you are in for a long program. Pursuing a Ph.D. solely for job promotion is not enough of a motivator to get you through the drudgery of doctoral work.
5. Lifelong Learner. Professors tend to love the lifelong learner. She is the student who loves ideas, thinking, research, deep discussion, and analysis, and does not care one bit about having three letters behind her name or how much money she will make after graduation. The lifelong learner would show up to class even if there was no degree attached to the program. Love for learning is her primary motivation. Nothing but great things can come from being around this student. Make her your friend and soak in any residue of her love for learning for your own life.
6. Here for Mom/Dad. There are a few students who enter Ph.D. programs purely to please their mom or dad, or someone else they know. Perpetually unhappy, this student is extremely smart and capable of succeeding in the program, but his heart is just not in it. He would much rather pursue his own professional ambitions, which typically have nothing to do with earning a terminal degree. Law students often attest to encountering this type of student as well. Mr. Unhappy is more than likely headed to dropout status. If you come across this student it may be beneficial to help him realize that he should move on and pursue his passion. Life is too short to live it for someone else, and if he leaves he could possibly free up funding for someone who really wants to be there.
You will meet many types of colleagues in your doctoral program and at professional conferences. Be cordial to everyone, but build meaningful relationships with those whom you know will have a positive impact on your career and life.
What are some other types of personalities that you have encountered in your graduate programs? How have you navigated your relationships among the different people in your program?
[Image by Wikipedia on Google Images and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]
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