We need to talk about competition


As 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.