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What It Means to Be a Scholar: Understanding Scholars Today

Some of the greatest scholars in history have faced monumental personal and professional challenges to become an intellectual force of nature. We can all learn from them, be inspired by them, and become a better person by learning about what it means to be a scholar and the qualities that made them successful.

A scholar is an intellectual who sets themselves apart through their expertise in a field. They have a high aptitude for inquiry-based exploration, sharp focus to ensure their work is clearly defined, strong curiosity to drive their investigations, and a desire to question why currently accepted ideas are recognized as truths. A scholar applies the scientific method and logic in their search for objective truth.

Whether you’re attaining scholarship yourself or you’re interested in learning more about this area of mastery, I encourage you to keep reading.

In this article, I’ll separate the academics from the true scholars, define students vs. scholars, and discuss the qualifications necessary to reach this level of excellence.

How Are True Scholars Different from Academics?

Let’s begin by defining what makes a true scholar different from the others. True scholarship is the highest form of academic achievement.

These experts possess traits that push them to continually strive for excellence.

They use empirical evidence to draw their conclusions and take a scientific and well-reasoned approach to their work at all times. This is not always true of academics.

True scholars will persevere, especially in the face of difficulty. Their passion takes them far.

Despite the obstacles they face they rely on science and logic and will not lower their standards for objective truth. They approach ideas with an open mind and a willingness to listen to other points of view.

They also tend to stay humble no matter their successes. This makes a true scholar surprisingly approachable.

How Are Scholars Different From Students?

The difference between a student and a scholar is that the student is still in the process of identifying and pursuing their own intellectual potential.

In the process, they will explore the topics that interest them. Then, if they choose, they can carve out a niche for themselves in their field of interest after becoming intimately familiar with the classical and current literature.

During their journey, they will learn, stumble, and be challenged by adversity. If they can overcome the challenges along the way, they may have a chance at becoming a scholar.

Scholars, on the other hand, have already completed these steps and more. They have also chosen to actively contribute to their field at the highest level.

How Does a Student Become a Scholar?

Let’s say you or someone you know has expressed an interest in scholarship. How would they even go about it? Does schooling help a student make the jump to an academic and then a true scholar?

Not necessarily. Being book-smart is just one of the attributes of a scholar.

There must be a deep passion for intellectual exploration and tenacity built on top of that intelligence.

To that end, a student could become a scholar in their own personal time by dedicating said time to studying up on their favorite topics.

What qualifies someone to be a scholar then? There is no formal process to qualify an individual as a scholar, although higher formal education in the form of a terminal degree certainly would help.

Those who wish to establish themselves as scholars should attempt to emulate the qualities of other successful scholars to ensure they are on the right path.

They may even work with a scholar in a type of internship program to learn the ropes from a true expert.

The Qualities of a Successful Scholar

What qualifies someone to be a successful scholar? For those who want to learn more about what it takes to become a successful scholar, the following qualities are a good place to start.

If you want to take your performance to the next level, check out this article I wrote on how to follow through on your academic goals.


The way in which one approaches difficulties will significantly shape their capacity to respond to intellectual challenges with grit and determination.

It’s important for a scholar to have a disposition that is suited to the needs of their work.

They must demonstrate poise academically, frequently exploring skepticism about knowledge claims. They should also embrace self-criticism and doubt as hallmarks of their intellectual processes.


The reputation of the scholar hangs on what he or she does when no one else is looking. A successful scholar will always work their hardest to differentiate between facts and opinions.

They also have the highest standards of objective truth in their work and will reject pressures to spin the results of their research in the face of political pressure.


A scholar exudes authority on the topic about which they are speaking.

They bring clarity and continuity to the topic, framing a relevant narrative around a complex subject. In doing this, they provide valuable insight that is difficult for others to achieve.


A scholar is well aware that their intellectual pursuits will be filled with dead ends and divergent pathways.

They are persistent in the face of these challenges and use them to deepen their understanding of the investigative process in pursuit of truth.


Successful scholars stand out. They are identified by their peers as bright and curious researchers.

Over time, they are invited more often to take part in research activities that increase their opportunities to be noticed by other influential researchers.


Choosing how and where to spend one’s energy matters a lot. Scholars have a serious grip on their time management.

The most successful scholars are very productive and know where to spend their energy.

They work to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness through how they spend their time. They are also selective when choosing research topics and partners.


The world of scholarly research may seem polite and sanitized to outsiders, but it is actually highly competitive.

Researchers must figuratively fight for the most coveted research grants, notable awards, and professional recognition that places high regard on their reputation.

That makes the product of their work that much more important.


Ethics and honesty are the core qualities of a successful researcher. The code of ethics that one chooses to follow will shape the quality of their professional work and will be the basis upon which their careers are built.

Ethical scholars treat their colleagues with respect even when they are competing with them. They are open to constructive criticism and they don’t seek to gain leverage over others through their position or esteem.


Scholars know the importance of long-term relationships. They remain loyal to their employer and will support them in their strategic initiatives.

These scholars also mentor colleagues and seek to improve the overall health of their department and organization by building bridges between contact groups.

They consider the impact they have on others and work to ensure it is positive.


The contributions of the successful scholar will move their field forward in the pursuit of new knowledge.

They understand the existing bodies of research well and thus forge new paths that were not pursued by other experts.


As mentioned before, the successful scholar keeps their mind open to broadening their understanding of the world around them.

They consider a wide range of viewpoints and are receptive to the ideas of other researchers who offer them feedback on their work (source).

Examples of Successful Scholars to Emulate

Learning about the qualities of successful scholars is quite helpful if you are looking for inspiration or hope to one day follow in their footsteps.

To help with this, let’s take a look at some examples of successful scholars who have shown us what is required for success through their words and actions.

You can use them as a benchmark for high performance. Although their achievements may seem out of reach, their hard work and dedication are not.

If they inspire you to set out to improve your academic performance, check out this article I wrote on finding and understanding your academic strengths and weaknesses.

Sigmund Freud

“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”

Sigmund Freud was born in Austria in 1856 into very modest means. Although his family often struggled financially, they worked hard to instill a sense of intellectual curiosity into their children.

Their efforts helped to develop the medical doctor credited for creating psychoanalysis and related therapeutic techniques like free association and transference.

Freud pioneered modern psychology but did so at a cost. By the time he was in his 40s’s, he’d suffered from numerous psychiatric disorders and phobias, including a fear of dying.

These challenges forced Freud to look inward, and some of his most important work on self-analysis occurred as a result.

Freud was chased from his home by the Nazis in 1938. He settled in England where he died of cancer in 1939.

Although many of his ideas are no longer accepted today, his work laid the foundation for the field to develop into its modern form.

During his lifetime, his ideas faced intense criticism for questioning existing notions with concepts that diverged so much from the norm.

This criticism was often personal to him, as he spent a lot of time exploring his own neuroses in his efforts to better grasp the human mind.

In the end, his efforts were rewarded. He is celebrated as an important thinker in not only psychology, but philosophy, sociology, history, and political science as well.

Thomas Sowell

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

Shortly before Thomas Sowell was born in South Carolina, his father passed away.

At the time of his birth, his mother already had four kids and worked as a housemaid. Due to these circumstances, his great aunt and two daughters adopted him and raised him.

They later moved to New York City. As he got older, Sowell worked local jobs to help earn money for the family. When he became of age he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Sowell’s path to higher education began after his discharge from the USMC. He earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia before completing his doctorate at the University of Chicago.

His early work was admittedly Marxist, as he described himself as a subscriber to this philosophy.

Sowell remained so until he interned for the federal government in 1960. This experience inspired him to embrace free-market economics.

Throughout his career, Sowell’s work lived up to the highest intellectual standards.

However, because his ideas did not quite match university political orthodoxy, they were not examined closely by the majority of intellectuals who disagreed with him politically.

Sowell’s willingness to take a stand for his beliefs in the face of political ostracization should be admired by aspiring scholars who seek truth above a network.

Albert Einstein

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions that differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”

One of the greatest scientific thinkers in history, many people consider Einstein to be the pinnacle of human intellectual potential.

He very well might be. However, when you take the time to get to learn about the challenges he had to overcome, you will have a more realistic view of what the great ones have to do to reach the top.

As a young child, Einstein’s parents worried about his development. He did not learn to speak until the age of three.

They took him to see doctors to figure out if something was wrong with him. His early academic years were successful, but not remarkable. Einstein began to study electrical engineering at 17.

He developed a negative reputation as someone who had a rebellious attitude and frequently skipped class. As a result, he struggled to get a job in academia out of college.

Later in his career, Einstein’s rebellious attitude served him well. He was willing to question the dogma of the day and develop theories that others could not imagine.

His unbound creativity was driven by his ability to question the ideas accepted by the establishment and explore why they deserved any special distinction.

Einstein eventually became an American citizen and commented that he was impressed by American philosophy and ideals because of their emphasis on personal freedom and free speech. Sounds like the words of a rebel to me.

Galileo Galilei

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

Galileo’s accomplishments are perhaps the most impressive of any person on this list.

He was a true trailblazer that eventually proved to humanity that its preconceived notions of how the world functions were incorrect.

After testing and retesting his findings, he stood by them in the face of criticism from those in power, knowing deep down that he was right and had revolutionized the human perception of the universe.

For his troubles, he was served a life sentence in jail.

Galileo was an expert in many fields.

He is considered the father of modern science, as well as the scientific method, physics, and observational astronomy.

His works produced many great benefits for mankind. Galileo’s scientific contributions are the basis for how we see the modern world today.

He was an early supporter of the idea that the laws of nature are mathematical.

He also pioneered the use of the telescope to observe celestial bodies in outer space. Galileo’s innovations produced 30x times magnification and facilitated a deeper understanding of the universe around us.

A major component of his developing views on the nature of the universe was the Copernican idea of heliocentrism.

This is the notion that the earth and other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun.

At the time, geocentrism was the dominant philosophy. This was the belief that the earth was the center of the solar system (at the time the universe) and everything else revolved around it.

This concept was central to the philosophy of many religions at the time.

As Galileo developed his theory over the years, religious leaders eventually charged him with heresy.

He served a life sentence under house arrest for standing by his findings, as mentioned.

Plans were made to bury Galileo next to his father and other relatives in the main body of his church, but these plans were quashed by the Pope at the time.

Instead, Galileo was buried in a small room at the end corridor of the building.

One hundred years later, he was moved to the main body after all. During the move, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his corpse.

The middle finger of his right hand was recovered and is currently on display in Florence, Italy at the Museo Galileo.

Hundreds of years after his death, Pope Pius XII said Galileo was among the “most audacious heroes of research… not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.”


“The superior man is quiet and calm, waiting for the appointments of Heaven.”

Confucius is known to many as the personification of wisdom and judgment. His teachings emphasized the importance of study in the pursuit of self-improvement.

Also, Confucious’ beliefs were rooted in the idea that the example of the person should be favored over rules in shaping human behavior.

He emphasized ethics through personal growth and the skillful development of one’s judgment as well.

He deeply believed that emulating those in life who serve as moral examples of goodness was the cornerstone of achieving deeper understanding and wisdom.

His teachings were presented mainly through innuendo and allusion as opposed to argument.

His moral system, known as the Confucian system, focused on empathy and seeking to understand others. The Confucian system is summed up in five basic virtues; seriousness, generosity, sincerity, diligence, and kindness.

This system has served as a model for over a millennia for those seeking to find their sense of worth and offer value to the world.

Confucius took the time to think about how our thoughts and actions impact others, way down to the intricate details.

Such an endeavor could seem theoretical and abstract, but he knew it wasn’t. In the end, his work laid out a roadmap for moral and ethical behavior that would reverberate through the ages.

Marie Curie

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”

Marie Curie was known to others for her honest nature and the modest lifestyle she lived.

The example that she provided extended to her generosity as well. She did not patent her radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could use her work in their research without limitations.

Also, she gave most of her Nobel Prize money to friends and family.

Like so many of the other scholarly exemplars on this list, Curie recognized the impact of her influence as a human being and sought to conduct herself with integrity in her public and private life.

As a scientist, Curie will be remembered in the annals of history for her pioneering work on radioactivity.

For it, she was recognized with the highest honors, becoming the only woman to have received the Nobel Prize two times.

Having lived in an era that did not openly welcome the intellectual contributions of women, her accomplishments are all the more impressive.

She reminded the world about the importance of humility and hard work during an age where convenience and consumerism were becoming more common.

George Washington Carver

“There is no short-cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer is not worth

George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor. He developed techniques that improved soils that were depleted as a result of repeated planting.

Carver’s research was based on the concern that monoculture cash crops were stripping the soil of its nutrients and leaving poor black farmers with no other options to earn a living.

He also promoted alternatives to cotton, like sweet potatoes and peanuts. He preferred peanuts in particular because they were simple to grow and helped replenish soil that was depleted by cotton.

Carver’s innovations may have never benefited the world if he had believed what he was told about his health.

After all, as he was not supposed to live past his 21st birthday. Carver survived much longer than that and sought to be an example to others for his faith and work ethic.

He worked to instill the following virtues in students of his Bible class:

Closing Thoughts

As you can see, the world of scholarship is way more than burying your nose in a book and thinking about life in abstract terms.

These great thinkers were emblematic of what all great scholars do, like wrestle with real-world problems and work to find solutions that will positively impact the greatest number of people.

Becoming a great scholar requires the thinker to know what drives them.

They must be deeply connected to their beliefs to keep them going as they face life’s obstacles and challenges.

I hope that by sharing their famous quotes and a bit about their personal journeys that you were to see scholars in a new light while gaining a new perspective on the level of humanity needed to be a scholar.