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:

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