Imagine that you are nervously sitting in class as your professor begins to hand back your graded midterm. You wait in anticipation as she slides your upside down paper toward you. You take a deep breath as you flip the paper over to see that you passed. Just as you breathe a sigh of relief, you begin to look around and wonder, “What did everyone else get?”

You get a feeling of unease as you ponder this question. You scan the room, wondering whether or not to ask your classmates what they received on the test. You cannot explain why you are so eager to know, yet the desire is there. The need to know where you are in comparison to others is strong, and you do not know why.

I have the answer, and it is one word: Competition.

Competition is Sneaky

Competition. Say it with me: COM/PE/TI/TION. It is the dirty secret that graduate students hate to discuss. It is in every classroom. It creeps into every presentation. It hangs out in the lobby where students are trying to eat. It bothers students while they study in the library.

If you ask any students, they will claim that it is an unwelcome guest, yet there it is – just roaming around campus, tuition-free. No one has tried to escort it off the campus, so it remains to fester and cause chaos.

Competition is Confusing

While competition is a normal part of life, the feelings it brings up need to be well managed. When competition has free reign, it can resurrect old insecurities – especially in students. Wondering if other students are performing better than oneself can lead to feelings of worthlessness, which can be exacerbated when graduate schools promote a mindset of “We are all in this together.”

When graduate programs paint an overly positive picture – a false utopia of cohort cohesion – students can feel shamed for experiencing something that is a natural part of life. The message they may hear is: Why would “healthy” students feel competitive toward classmates unless something is wrong with them?

Competition is Here to Stay

The reality is that as students, we are constantly competing against each other. We competed against each other to get into the program, we compete for research funding, and we certainly compete for internships.

We are pitted against each other, so it is natural that feelings of competition arise. Not only is it normal, but it is also necessary, as it allows our fields of study to grow and expand. It forces us to live up to our fullest potential because we know that there is someone who is waiting to take our spot.

Here’s How to Make it Work

There is nothing wrong with being competitive. There is nothing wrong with wanting to push yourself to do more and to be more.

In fact, it is because of that competitive drive that you are in graduate school right now. If you did not have that competitive component within you, you would have stopped pursuing your education the moment that you completed high school.

However, you did not stop there.

The same drive that moved you to apply to college is pushing you to finish graduate school. It is the same competitive drive that is discussed in this article. A certain amount of competition is necessary to survive graduate school; nevertheless, it is important that your competitive drive works in your best interest.

So how does one get competition in check? Here are four ways:

1. Acknowledge

Own up to the fact that you are feeling competitive toward someone. I know, it’s hard and uncomfortable, but it can be done. By putting a name on the feeling, you are already stifling its ability to control the situation and your response.

Acknowledging your feelings is like a turning on a light for a child who is afraid of the dark. Once you turn on the light the room does not seem as scary. The child feels relief because they know what is there. Once you shine a light on the feeling, competition seems less scary.

2. Explore

Figure out where this competition is coming from. This can be done by having an honest conversation about it – a real, honest conversation about what is fueling this emotion.

If you can’t identify where this feeling of competition is coming from, it might be a good time to see a therapist so that you can become more aware of your own intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts. Just as you can be competitive with your cohort members, you may also be in competition with your clients – but that is a different article for a different day.

3. Accept

Accept that competition is a part of you and that it is okay. Feeling competitive does not mean that you are a horrible, insecure, or unworthy person. Nor does it mean that you are not a team player in your cohort. It just means that you are a student.

4. Support

Being supportive of your classmates is not the antithesis of being competitive. An individual can be supportive and competitive at the same time.

I know that is a hard concept to grasp, but we see it all the time. What better example than the recent 2016 Olympic Games? World class athletes were rooting for their teammates while at the same time doing their best to make sure that they won the competition. These athletes understand that competition is a healthy part of life, and it is time that graduate programs teach that notion to students.


So, the next time you want to ask your classmates about their midterm grades, take a deep breath. Acknowledge that you have competitive feelings, explore the root cause of this emotion, accept that you feel competitive towards your classmates, then endeavor to support them.

Remember it is okay to feel competitive. Just do not allow for something that is natural to destroy the connection that you have with your classmates.

It is time that graduate programs have an honest conversation about the realities of competition. Until then, it will remain everyone’s dirty little secret.

Jacquelin Darby
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