We need to talk about competition

Competition is like the background radiation of academia – ever present, but rarely visible. Here’s a field guide to some common forms of competition amongst research students and some useful ways to think about it. If just to prove that competition does not have to be a way of life, this post has three authors:

Simon Korwin Milewski, who holds a PhD in operations management from the University of York. He currently works in organizational development at a large steel and engineering company in Germany.

Gerald Payne Dyson, who recently finished his doctorate at the University of York and is currently Assistant Professor of History at Kentucky Christian University. His research focuses on the books of the medieval clergy.


Brigitte Leah Rohwerder a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies. She works mainly on a project providing rapid literature reviews for staff in donor agencies working on conflict, humanitarian response, governance and social development.

This post was written from the point of view of the humanities. I think a lot of the insights apply in the sciences too, but I’d be interested to hear your views in the comments.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 6.12.18 pmAs research students, we aim to advance our disciplines through rigorous research and intense focus on our studies. At the same time we are all too often full of anxiety and uncertainty that keep us from achieving our best. Even though other students among our friends provide support, the amount of inherent competition among research students is often overlooked. To spark a discussion on this topic, we have written a few thoughts on aspects of this competition between research students.

We are curious to compare our experiences with those of others. We do not intend to explain why students may compete. However, we present some typical areas of competition that we have experienced doing our PhDs in social sciences and humanities. We also lay out a few strategies for dealing with competition that may help others to cope with such situations.

We focus on four key areas of competition, namely:

  1. Competition over the quality of supervision
  2. Competition over the quality and quantity of data
  3. Competition regarding progress
  4. Competition regarding publications

Competition over the quality of supervision

As a PhD student, you are likely to engage in many conversations with other students discussing your supervisor(s). Sometimes, these conversations result in anxiety over a supervisor’s methods or how he or she interacts with your work. All of us, for example, often worried that our supervisors were not discussing our work in sufficient depth. This fear was intensified by fellow students’ anecdotes about the close supervision they received. Conversely, a friend often worried that because of the close guidance she received compared to others, she would not be able to work independently later on.

Do you have a good supervisor? Great! You will probably learn a lot from him or her that will equip you for future challenges in your academic career. It will probably also help make your project even better and have greater impact.

However, if you feel that your supervisor is not doing a great job, use that experience to your advantage. Learn to manage your supervisor and seek feedback from other experts in the field. Having busy supervisors forced us to work independently, and this became an area of strength that has been very useful working in our current jobs (both in industry and academia).

That said, not all difficult supervisory situations can be handled with stoicism and a willingness to learn from the experience. If your supervisory situation is intolerable, most universities have systems to aid you. Use them if necessary.

Key message: If your supervisor is good, great. If your supervisor isn’t good, try to use the experience to your advantage and learn to work independently.

Competition over the quality and quantity of data

For our studies, we all collected a considerable amount of qualitative data. While insightful and enjoyable, the urge to collect a huge amount of data was driven by stories we had heard about the data others had collected. This led to fear that we would not have enough material to work with in the end.

The problem was, like many other PhD candidates, we underestimated the broader implications of data collection. It is much more important that you prove your ability to analyze and critically reflect upon your data than having a huge amount of data. This is also an important point for those working in the humanities. When deciding on what and how much primary material to examine in your study, consider how much you can usefully and thoughtfully analyze rather than heaping up mounds of poorly considered and peripherally connected sources. At the end of the day, this part of your PhD is clerical work, while analysis and reflection are where you show that you are a good researcher.

Key message: Do not worry if others have collected more data than you. You need less than you think, and the value is created through your analysis. 

Competition regarding progress

The significant cost of a PhD means that there is pressure for you to finish your degree on time, regardless of whether you are self-funded or supported by an institution. We felt this pressure more acutely when other students talked about how they were nearly finished with their theses. Looking back, many of them were not as far ahead as they claimed to be or we believed them to be. But even if they had been, it should not have been a matter of concern. Writing a thesis is not a race against others, and it does not matter whether you finish first or last in your cohort.

Nevertheless, we always advocate having a full first draft in hand as early as possible. In almost any project, things change regardless of how well planned they may have been. Once you have hold the first draft of your thesis, it becomes much easier to work on shaping, adding and deleting parts of it. It is okay if your draft consists of copied and pasted sections, very rough drafts of chapters, notes and photographs of white-board sketches, screenshots or drawings. Besides, beginning to write in the first year of your PhD will help you to hone your writing skills and make for a more readable thesis in the end. Better writing means less revision when you turn your doctoral research into a book or series of articles later on.

Key message: It does not make sense to compete to finish first; a PhD is not a race. Having a full draft in hand sooner rather than later is helpful though.

Competition regarding publications

Our supervisors always encouraged us to attend conferences and publish in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. We all presented at international conferences and published a number of articles before submitting our theses, although our PhDs were by thesis rather than by publication.

In spite of this, publishing was probably the domain where we experienced the most competition. It is typical that you meet other students, especially at conferences, bragging about how much they have already published. Unnecessary and off-putting as that kind of attitude may be, it does not matter what or how much others publish or whether they publish in good journals or not. What matters is that you aim to publish for your own good.

Therefore, collect data and draft your thesis as early as you can to maximize the time you have to attend conferences or submit to journals and work the resulting feedback into your thesis.

This competition for publication also exists among humanities PhDs, but many graduate students are not published until after they have finished their thesis and passed their viva. Do not be discouraged by this, but try to be flexible. Some theses will work better as a series of articles rather than a monograph. Also, feel out your publication options using your connections (e.g., your supervisor, your panel and conference contacts).

Friendly advice from senior academics can help you see your work in an honest light and overcome doubts instilled by comparison with your peers. Above all, persevere. It is worth the effort. After all, it is pretty cool to be a published author.

Key message: If you do not have to, publish only for your own benefit, not because others may or may not have published before you. Be flexible and seek advice when necessary.

Concluding advice: Do not listen to others (too much)

Obviously, as a PhD student, you will spend a lot of time with other PhD students. However, every PhD is different. Do not waste time comparing yourself, your supervisor, your progress or your publications to other students too much. Be confident.  Most other PhD students know just as little as you do. Therefore, don’t pay attention to others too much. Be aware of the competition among fellow PhD students, but don’t let it distract you.


When we came up with this post we focused on writing about the competition we had experienced first-hand. When we gave the manuscript to some friends from other disciplines they added many more potential areas of competition, such as:

  • competing for laboratory time
  • competing for conference funding
  • competing for teaching slots

and many more. What kinds of competition have you faced in your PhD? Did our experiences match yours? How did you manage those challenges? Feel free to share your own experiences with us.

Related posts

Thesis Prison

The Process


15 thoughts on “We need to talk about competition

  1. fionatitowheatland2016 says:

    As a newly graduated PhD, I think that the downsides of competition are much understated. One of the things which I think is crucial for a healthy and flourishing academy is open discussion and the free range of ideas in a respectful but curious environment. We would sometimes catch this at a PhD researchers lunch, as we shared ideas, but it was something I found hard to find elsewhere. Opportunities for this were few and far, and lunchtime discussions with academics were short on time to tease things out. People were encouraged to ask questions which were not too critical and short, which made it hard to grow your own thoughts. An environment of free, respectful, unrushed conversation about ideas, was disappointingly rare and an underlying background of individual competition and ownership of thought was ever present. How do we create safe spaces for ideas to grow?

  2. Belinda Fabian says:

    Competition for funding is something I experience as a Science PhD student. Sometimes opportunities for applying for external grants (from funding bodies outside my university) are not shared as this would lead to (perceived) increased competition for the funds. And if two lab members apply for the same grant and then one member of the lab is successful in winning the grant and another is not then this could lead to an awkward situation. But even as I type this it sounds slightly ridiculous and I’m not sure it would actually play out this way – maybe it’s all in my head (or our collective heads) and I’m overthinking it.

  3. Carol says:

    Absolutely there is competition between PhD students (I am in Humanities). I felt it most when comparing myself to other students who have published and getting teaching work. But I have also experienced the other side, when I couldn’t attend a conference because of illness, another student offered to present my paper for me and all the other students I knew who attended from my University went along to support him. This is the awesomeness of generosity of spirit.
    But overall, now coming to the end of my thesis journey, I believe that there is a strong mental attitude component to completing a PhD and all the nuances such as completion between other students play with your head (if you let it).

  4. Rosalie says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. I always feel this pressure when i talk to other students who have published a lot of stuff (as they say). I don’t know why I feel uncomfortable about it, perhaps it is because no one talks about their problems with their thesis. It’s always about how fast they are, how many job offers they already have and how brilliant they interact with their supervisors. But no, we have to share our problems, we sould help one another.

  5. madiapatraismar says:

    Thank you for this post and advice. I am in the middle of my thesis journey and experience pressure from listening too much to my friend who is a conference star as she says and I feel guilty for comparing myself to her and find myself lacking quite alot. So again thanks for this: “Therefore, don’t pay attention to others too much. Be aware of the competition among fellow PhD students, but don’t let it distract you”.

  6. Mm says:

    Also appreciative, I compare myself to other students timelines and how much they’ve done compared to me… I feel slower at everything and maybe like they know their topic more… thanks for this post.., the part where you said that they know as little as you do… it helped as I often feel lacking. Thank you.

  7. Alice P. says:

    A few more examples of competition within PhD programs:
    -In-house scholarships and awards
    -Presentation spots at conferences
    -Conference poster competitions
    -The 3MT competition
    -Postdocs and faculty positions once we graduate

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is a great post — I found ‘competition’ by far the worst aspect of my PhD. Surprisingly, I discovered that I am a strong conference presenter and a capable reasearcher. I also tend not to worry what other people think, so it was a shock to be surrounded by other students who had virtually no conversation apart from being competitive. As mentioned by other commenters, there was very little exchange of actual ideas or feedback — most interchanges were a dressed-up way of students big-noting themselves. It was a vicious cycle that even those who could perceive the dynamic struggled to break, and it was hugely depressing because academic enquiry was largely irrelevant. A few of us endured relentless victimisation by the most competitive students, who derided us as ‘supervisors’ favourites’ when we got papers or funding. In reality, they were refusing to acknowlege that we were good at our jobs, and that our success didn’t diminish their own. My supervisor (who was awesome) suggested that the PhD cohort was excellent training for life as a ‘real academic’. Needless to say, I’m now a university administrator, which none of my former colleagues can understand. I chose not to cope with the spite, the brutal and unwarranted criticism of others, and the obsessive workaholism that was presented to me as the only option for junior academics in marginalised fields of the Humanities. The friends I have still in the field are broke, stressed, self-doubting and unhappy — some of this derives from other problems with academia (e.g. casualisation), but I think the seeds were sown in the PhD environment…

  9. paperown says:

    Excellent information on your blog, thank you for taking the time to share with us. Amazing insight you have on this, it’s nice to find a website that details so much information about different artists thanks from. academic-writing

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