Grad school self-comparison is the worst. Help me stop.
January 20, 2014 4:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my second semester of a professional master's program at a top-10 program. I can keep up with the classwork, but I get really caught up in comparing myself to other people. It not only makes me feel horrible, it significantly takes away from me doing my work. I'm prone to depression and lots of social anxiety anyway (I do have a therapist, we haven't talked about the self-comparison as much), but am well-liked in my program. I'd say I'm about on par with other folks in my program in terms of accomplishments (some have much more, some do less), so my intense feelings of inadequacy are mostly unwarranted. However, when I hear people talking about doing things I'm not (eg working with professors more than me, getting fellowships), I feel absolutely terrible. What should I be doing or trying to do to knock it off? Mental hacks, philosophical approaches, practical tips all welcome, though I should say I understand intellectually that there will always be someone doing more than me and that's life.
posted by anonymous to Education (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Keep your head down, do your work, check in with the people who matter (e.g. professors, etc.) Do not compare yourself to others, although you'll overhear them talking. Assume that some of what they say is posturing, some of it was their luck, and some of it is your ears catching the things it wants to hear (which tend to be all those things your brain doesn't want to hear :)

It's hard, I used to do the same thing during a professional degree, dug myself out of it after a semester, graduated and had a decent career, and feel into a TERRIBLE bout of it when I returned to do my PhD and took my comprehensive exams. In fact, I'm still in the throws of it, so I sympathize with you. I really do. Definitely talk to your therapist about it.
posted by absquatulate at 4:39 PM on January 20, 2014

Your cohort now is the professional network of your future. The better everyone in your cohort does, the better your professional network will be in the future. Be glad when your peers win awards, fellowships, etc. Especially when they are competing against students in other schools. There are 9 more cohorts at top-10 schools where you know very few people, if anyone. Those folks aren't going to look out for you out in the real world in the same way that your current peer group will. You want your peer group to be as good as possible, even if that means you are not the best among them.
posted by u2604ab at 4:41 PM on January 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

Anything your peers do to improve your program's reputation will make things easier for you in the job market. In the real world, your competition will be the people who don't know you already, and your value is bolstered anytime your program's name comes up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:29 PM on January 20, 2014

Don't forget that everyone is dealing with their own issues, most people just don't advertise the fact.
posted by gillianr at 7:20 PM on January 20, 2014

Insecurity is pervasive in grad school. Often even the smartest students struggle with it. As others have said, grad school is far from a zero sum game. Even if you were one of the lowest achieving students in your cohort, that relative distinction would be all but insignificant. Are you doing decent work? Do you get good feedback from professors? Are you doing your best to network with other people in your field you run into? Do you have long-term writing projects you're working on with the aim of submitting to conferences or for publication? Then you're doing a great job, and it is in fact to your advantage to have your cohort be as smart and high-achieving as possible. All those smarts will make your program look better, which will make your degree look better, and will give you the opportunity to have lively class discussions, get good feedback on work in progress, etc.

In sum: 1) You're probably much closer to average--maybe even above average--than you think; 2) even if that were not so, so long as you are doing your best it is to your advantage that the other members of your program be as smart and successful as possible.
posted by pdq at 9:33 PM on January 20, 2014

You can't always see the cracks. I'm yet to meet a soul who doesn't have them. You're on cue academically and well liked WELL DONE. There was a theory in the UK that the 'top of the top' academics might be less 'liked' generally (both socially and as potential employees) for having a bit less of a life/narrower perspective and so on.

I can't think of anything worse than having hung out with most of my tutors... inspiration etc can come from far less obvious places.
posted by tanktop at 3:00 AM on January 21, 2014

I recommend reading a book called, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, MD. The book is ostensibly about depression, but the ideas in the book are applicable to a wide variety of troublesome thoughts. Briefly, the book argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that distorted, irrational thinking is at the root of emotional problems. Correct the thinking, and the emotions get better. I first read the book twenty years ago, and it's had a big influence on my outlook on life.
posted by alex1965 at 4:26 AM on January 21, 2014

I make a point of talking about this with our grad cohorts – getting graduate students to talk about it with each other enables them to realise that other people are going through the same thing. I think it's a well recognised part of academic life (in some respects, it never goes away), but it's particularly acute at grad-school level. Of course, telling yourself that it's normal, and that other people feel it too, doesn't exactly make the feelings go away.

One thing that seems to help, not exactly a life-hack, just a suggestion, is that when you feel these kinds of feelings (and there can be loads of them: feeling threatened, jealous/envious, feeling like an imposter, feeling maligned, underappreciated, preoccupied or distracted by it all), to make an active decision to rehearse for yourself the reasons that you chose to take the path into your studies that you have. And by that, I guess I mean that you could just take 5 minutes to note down some of the things you value about academic study, the subject you're working on, what you get out of it, why you like it, why you think it's important, what motivated you to be in this graduate school (rather than another) ... those kinds of things.

There's some research in educational psychology that suggests that this kind of reaffirmation of your values can be helpful at blocking out the noise that comes with comparing yourself with others (or comparing yourself with stereotypes about 'the typical x', where you feel you're falling short as an x). By concentrating on your motivations, your aspirations, and the things you're doing, you get a reprieve from fixating on other people's activities. Indeed, these kinds of reflections can be useful for helping you to recognise how other people's achievements (or at least: things that you're counting as achievements, since they might seem them differently depending on their motivations) might be helping you in achieving your goals [in the same way that watching my brother being generally excellent at everything has usually given me a shortcut in learning and understanding how those things can be done / done well.]
posted by Joeruckus at 5:27 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite] would be a place to start for tips etc...
posted by lalochezia at 2:29 PM on January 21, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell explains some interesting research on the experience of being a small fish in a big pond at fancy grad schools in his book, David & Goliath. It might help with perspective, i.e. that this is an extremely common experience.
posted by JeanDupont at 6:32 PM on January 21, 2014

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