• The Ghost of Grad School

Competition Within the Ranks: Toxic Colleagues and How to Protect Yourself

One oft-lamented aspect of graduate school is the constant sense of competition. Graduate students in the same lab have to work together even though they are (at times) competing for the same source of rewards (i.e., their professor who can give them new research opportunities, write great letters of recommendation for them).

So how does one handle the complexity of working alongside the same people who are going to be competing against you for scarce resources? What is a grad students supposed to do when jobs, research opportunities, and authorship positions are on the line??!

Well for starters, there’s a couple things to think about before holding up your shields and drawing your swords…

Most students are not your natural enemy (due to difference in content area).

Most folks aren’t going to be applying for the same job that you are. Most jobs come out with a specific research emphasis and/or content area that is only going to be applicable to maybe (MAYBE) 5-10% of potential applicants in any given field. Even students in the same lab will often not be applying for the same jobs.

Many students who WOULD be natural competitors with you will be on different trajectories and timelines.

While they DO overlap with you in terms of content area, they are not going to be competing for the same things as you (at least in the short term). Honestly, these folks are best to nuzzle up to and become familiar with. They can become lifelong collaborators if you manage the relationship correctly.

With those two points aside, there will be times when an academic adversary will emerge. Here are some things to keep in mind when that happens.

Pitfalls to Avoid Amidst Toxic Competitiveness

  • Don’t badmouth or speak ill of your competition. Well, I recommend not bad-mouthing anyone ever. Not an advisor, not a colleague (even an adversarial one). Word gets around, and unfortunately the grapevine is often not your friend (for a couple reasons). It travels both ways, meaning that .

  • Don’t fail to deliver on an important product that could have been given to your competition. You need to shine in the area that you want to pursue most. Many times, (even partially) established success in an area by grad student A will lead to grad student B picking a different content area. Good (see "healthy") professors will often direct grad students in slight different directions to prevent this kind of head-on assault from happening. And honestly, there’s a lot of potential areas of research to pick from that are still relatively unknown, especially if your research isn’t dependent on limited grant money.

  • Don't add to the toxicity on the days that you win. Everyone is going to catch some windfall from time to time - could be a paper that was finally accepted or a small grant that you were blessed with. When success finally does shine down on you, don't fall into temptation and start tooting your own horn. It's not good to become known as the person always pointing out what they've done (though you do have to speak up at times to make sure your contributions are not forgotten, tis the academic way). Honestly, the best place to be is to let others point towards your successes and then share the credit with everyone who was involved. Because it usually was a team effort, right? (Sole-author publications might be the only exception to this.)

Protecting Yourself Amidst Toxic Competitiveness

  • Do your best to protect your most innovative ideas, particularly the ones you haven’t had time to test or write up yet. I’ve heard lots of examples of grad students and professors basically stealing ideas that they heard from someone else over coffee, and often the other party isn’t aware until they see it published later on.

  • Do develop a broad network of friends and colleagues that goes beyond your areas of interest. Oftentimes it is breakthroughs and examples from other fields that can break down a barrier and/or shed light on a new frontier of your research. And naturally these people are not going to be competitive towards you within your content area. Actually, it is friends in other content areas that I would say I have the best relationship with today.

  • If you haven’t already chosen a professor: Do take a look around and see how professors treat their grad students. More specifically, look at the lab environment they foster. Advisors set the tone for how grad students in the same lab will treat each other. Some professors try to silo students, making it easier to pit them against each other (“XYZ, my other student who is a year behind you, just got their first publication. Why haven’t you gotten one yet?”) and also prevent students from ganging up on them(!). Other professors naturally foster teamwork. Some professors only accept one student every two years and naturally build in a mentoring system where new students learn from more senior students in the lab, which naturally reduces unhealthy competitiveness.

Competition is a natural part of growth and something that you are likely going to be unable to escape from.

Like any undesirable but necessary thing, it takes energy and focus to manage and navigate. Choosing a research environment that is not so competitive that it’s toxic is the greatest choice. Make sure you choose wisely.

What other ways do you avoid toxic competitiveness with other grad students, whether they be natural competitors of yours (based on content area) or not? Let me know in the comments below.

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