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Which STEM Graduate Students Become STEM Leaders?

How elite graduate students allocate their time may be important.

In 1992, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) initially surveyed 714 first- and second-year graduate students (48.5% female) attending top 15 ranked U.S. universities for STEM fields. Now, a new study by Kira O. McCabe, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow of Vanderbilt University in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology follows up those same students 25 years later. They, in part, examine whether what factors (abilities, personality, interests, hours worked, time allocation, etc.) predict whether an already top graduate student makes it to the pinnacle of the field. These authors defined a “STEM leader” as STEM full professors at research-intensive universities, STEM CEOs, and STEM leaders in government.

Here is a summary of their findings, from their abstract:

“For both men and women, small to medium effect size differences in interests, values, and personality distinguished STEM leaders from nonleaders. Lifestyle and work preferences also distinguished STEM leaders who were more exclusively career-focused and preferred to work-and did work more hours than nonleaders. Also, there were small to large gender differences in abilities, interests, and lifestyle preferences. Men had more intense interests in STEM and were more career-focused. Women had more diverse educational and occupational interests, and they were more interested in activities outside of work. Early in graduate school, therefore, there are signs that predict who will become a STEM leader-even among elite STEM graduate students. Given the many ways in which STEM leadership can be achieved, the gender differences uncovered within this high-potential sample suggest that men and women are likely to assign different priorities to these opportunities.”

As Russell T. Warne of Utah Valley University points out about the study, “among advanced STEM degree holders, much of what determines whether they achieve eminence comes down to personal interests, choices in how to use time…Non-cognitive traits matter in talent development and eminence. A lot of these people are almost single-minded in their dedication to work. If someone doesn’t have that focus, then they are unlikely to be the top of their field. Probably true for any field.”


McCabe, K. O., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2019). Who shines most among the brightest? A 25-year longitudinal study of elite STEM graduate students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.