How to Deal with Grad School Competition

How to Deal with Grad School Competition

It is no secret that pursuing a graduate degree is emotionally, psychologically, and physically exhausting. Graduate school can be the first time students truly experience the deep frustrations of a competitive learning environment. Graduate students can come face to face with a deep, pervasive anxiety that seeps into everyday life, a constant questioning of capability, intelligence, and whether or not one is cut out to be there.

As mentioned in our Adjusting to Graduate Study section of, most individuals who apply for grad school are often in the top of their undergraduate classes, however, because you will be in class with the top of the top as a graduate student, you might find it more challenging to stand out. Here are some more tips to help you stand out, even when the competition is tense.

Competition is Sneaky

Competition is the silent topic that graduate students hate to discuss. It creeps into every classroom, lecture hall, and presentation. Looking at your colleagues, there will be people publishing more, teaching more, more extracurricular activities, or and people with more funding than you—making it easy to think you don’t measure up. This self-deprecatory thinking causes students to ignore strategies that can help make them successful and instead of fixating on what colleagues are doing. What are these strategies?

There are benefits to seeing where you are at compared to others, but do not negatively compare achievements:

Turn envy into admiration. Sit down with a colleague whose path you would like to know more about. You’ll learn the steps required to achieve that level of success.

Run your own race. When thinking about what peers are doing, remember this is your degree, not someone else’s. Classmates may be pursuing teaching-track positions while your goal may be a tenure-track research position. But because of all the teaching work they’re doing, you might feel the need to work on your teaching strategies, even though teaching doesn’t match up with your career goal.

Competition is Confusing

When graduate programs advertise an overly positive picture of cohort cohesion – students sometimes feel ashamed for experiencing feelings of competition, something that is a normal part of life. Competition sometimes resurrects insecurities among students—wondering if classmates are having greater accomplishments—leading to feelings of worthlessness, which can be exaggerated when graduate schools promote a “We are in this together” mindset.

Types of Competition

Little research has been done that focuses on the graduate level competitive atmosphere—but we all know it’s there. The underlying issue to when discussing academic competitiveness is the pressure grad students feel to succeed. The pressure to perform well in academia comes from many forms of internal and external sources (e.g., peer pressure, familial expectations, teacher expectations, or self-expectations). There are three types of competition:


Real Competition

Real competition is competition between students that has been measured through research, with students that have participated in studies to determine if students are in fact, competing against one another. Real competition is not necessarily unhealthy, competition can motivate students to perform at their highest potential; however, overemphasis on competition can be damaging to students’ performance.

Perceived Competition

Perceived competition is where a person feels that they are competing against someone else, but the other person is not in competition. For example, a study conducted in 2000 evaluated the effects of gender and its implications on academic performance for males and females. The article explored the academic stereotype that males perform better in STEM fields and females have a tendency to perform better in Language Arts. The study then took these stereotypes and looked at how each genders performance impacted their choice of which field to study; resulting in that males and females did not differ in their levels of performance. Research concluded that females compete more with males to overcome gender stereotypes than males have been competing with females.


Self-competition is when a student pushes themselves to perform better (i.e., they compete with themselves). The pressure students put on themselves to be the best sometimes creates enough stress to cause emotional difficulties. These are the students who are not satisfied unless they have perfect scores.

Competition is here to Stay

One of the most surprising things many learn in grad school is how competitive classmates really are. The reality is that students are constantly competing against one another; intent on making sure they are at the top of the class, receive much needed research funding, well-known and liked by professors, and as active in activities as possible.

How to Make Competition Work for You

Students pursuing higher education 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 for fields of study to grow and expand. In fact, it is because of that competitive drive that you are in graduate school. The same drive that compelled you to apply to a grad program is pushing you to finish. How do you do that? Here are some ways:


Recognize that you are feeling competitive towards a classmate or colleague. By identifying and acknowledging the feeling, you are hindering its ability to control you. By shining a light on this competitive, jealous feeling, the rivalry with your cohorts becomes less stressful.


Determine where this feeling of competition is coming from by having an honest conversation about what is fueling this emotion. If you think you may need additional assistance identifying the root cause of this feeling, consider going to see a therapist to help you become more aware of your intra- and interpersonal conflicts.


Accept that competition is a normal part of your graduate school experience, and that feeling competitive does not mean that you are a horrible, selfish, or insecure person. Feeling competitive just means that you are a typical student and want to perform your best.


Being supportive of your classmates is not the antithesis of being competitive. A healthy level of friendly competition amongst friends, whether it be in recreational sports, video games, or even grades, competition is an essential component of human interaction. You can be supportive and competitive at the same time.

Another common phenomenon among graduate students is impostor syndrome: something you are going to suffer from. An ailment known by many where you feel like a fake, characterized by feelings of inadequacy and the notion that you do not belong in graduate school.  Because of this, graduate students can experience uncertainty and doubt in equal or greater measure to a sense of intellectual freedom and exploration. Try not to let this halt you from pursuing your degree, you are not alone.


So, what can you do about this atmosphere of competition? Remember that all graduate students are going through the same thing and understand that competition is a healthy and normal part of life, and graduate programs need to teach this concept to students instead of the “We are in this together” mentality. It is okay to feel competitive, just do not allow it 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.

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