Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: on Competition in Postgraduate Research
We are taught to compete from the very first day we enter an academic institution. Golden stars, class rankings, honours degrees, scholarships, and university status all contribute to our being primed for competition. The fact that the reward system in academia is largely based on a prestige-based publication system does not help, either. Additionally, we are bombarded with poster and presentation prizes, operate within a strong hierarchical system of seniority and, due to the lack of permanent positions, this race to the top never ends. Academics are therefore constantly in competition, and the definition of winning is simply that you need to be better than someone else.
Psychology teaches us that humans are driven to self-evaluate and we largely do so by comparing our opinions, actions, and abilities to others (proposed by Leon Festinger in his 1954 Social Comparison Theory). This can be very useful when we gain motivation from watching aspirational figures, develop our moral code based on what is deemed ethical in our societies, or feel gratitude for having certain privileges that others do not. But where this is not useful at all, I would argue, is in postgraduate research.
The PhD journey is an individual one
Are you making a fair comparison when you assess your PhD success to that of a colleague? Some of you may have had to start a research project from scratch, whereas others had a clear hypothesis and preliminary results from the get-go. Some may have a dedicated and supportive supervisor, others an absent boss and lack of supervision. Some may have used similar techniques or approaches during previous degrees, others enter a new field and need time to catch up. You may find a research strand that just works, whereas a colleague first needs to go through lots of trouble-shooting before their project takes off. Your boss may be a big name in the field, giving your more options in terms of networking and publishing than someone else. In turn, their group may have more funding and resources available compared to yours. There are hundreds of factors that contribute to the success of your project, many of which are not actually within your control. As such, comparisons are always unfair and we cannot compare all researchers on the same scale.
Our assessment of others is inaccurate
Even so, I’m sure you are thinking that there are some other PGRs that are just like you and present a fair picture to compare yourself to. But when you do, what are you actually comparing? There are many qualities desirable in research: coming up with the right questions, designing research questions, collaborating, networking, delegating, generating data, writing, reading, publishing papers, activism, communicating, presenting, coding, illustrating, planning, managing, organising. We all tick some boxes, but surely not all. There will always be someone that is good at a thing we are less competent at. Why does that sting, while surely the reverse is true, too?
Additionally, we are not very good at accurately assessing the potential of others and ourselves. That colleague with the effortless presentation style may have battled a fear of public speaking for years. That person that looks like they have life completely figured out may have crippling anxiety over their future. And that quiet and withdrawn person that looks miserable to you, may feel perfectly happy and at ease but just not have a very outgoing personality. We only see a perception of others that is coloured by our own preferences, values, and insecurities. A person’s reality may not match that perception at all. What comes easy to one person, may be a struggle for another – which makes a certain skill a given for one, but an accomplishment for another. This means that not only can we not compare everyone on the same scale, we also cannot compare everyone using the same unit of value.
Value is subjective
Ultimately, the question we need to ponder is what is important to you? The desire to be a research superstar and investing all your time into making that happen is no less valid than the desire to do your PhD to the best of your ability, but above all be a family person, an athlete, a carer, an entrepreneur, or simply reserving enough time to spend on your friends and hobbies. In academia, we often judge whether we work “hard enough” based on hours put in. But this is not necessarily an accurate measure for productivity, and says nothing about our happiness. Is it useful to drop everything in pursuit of a prestigious paper if your real love is public engagement? Or following a research project that will be academically successful, but in a field you’re not actually passionate about? We can only decide for ourselves what goals we wish to pursue, and what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve them. What is acceptable for you may be a deal-breaker for someone else. We have different value systems, goals, and boundaries.
Time is available in a limited fashion to all of us – why waste any of it on things that don’t add value to your life? Align the investment of time with your goals. Inevitably, some activities will be judged as more prestigious or worthy by supervisors and other academics than other pursuits. It is not always easy to keep this from influencing you, but ultimately their judgements are their values. When you take others out of the equation and just think of what is important to you, you’ll see your priorities will shift.
Another negative side effect of competition is that one person’s success becomes another person’s failure. They won an award, landed a cool job, published a great paper – and you didn’t. Sadly, I see many people reacting negatively to others people’s success in academia. We’re quick to offer up excuses: they didn’t actually achieve this alone but had help from postdocs. Their project just happens to be on a topic that’s hot right now. Their research group’s money gave them an advantage. Their supervisor’s big name pushed the paper into a more prestigious journal. We especially love to say: they just got lucky. All these factors, and luck, surely contribute to successes. But even so, this person still managed to work together so well with that postdoc, position their project into the booming field, turned those opportunities into results, and landed a job with that famous researcher. These are accomplishments, too. Why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge this? And if you would succeed in the thing you are pursuing at the moment, would you have done it all alone, in the worst possible conditions in the world, either? When we start to see other’s achievements as separate from our own value, their accomplishments will no longer take away from our self-worth. Genuinely supporting others and celebrating their successes will add happiness to your life. In contrast, I can’t think of any benefits of feeling jealousy and envy.
Now, I realise this blog has a high level of “self-help and motivational quotes” feel, which frankly I’m a bit allergic to. Realistically, I do think that it’s unlikely we’ll transcend into a state of mind where we are totally unaffected by how others are doing. Humans will always compare ourselves to others and derive a proportion of our confidence and status from that. When competition is done right, it can also motivate and encourage. My hope for today is simply that when it comes to your research, you’ll release that above all it’s important to draw your own path, climb it to the best of your individual ability, and help others on your way up.