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Competing Against Myself: Academic Rivalry at Grad School

My old college roommate jetted into town last weekend for a conference with his New York law firm. He’s the kind of guy who at 26 already has the key pieces of his life put together. He graduated from NYU law school in May, proposed to his longtime girlfriend in August while vacationing in Europe, moved into a spacious Manhattan apartment in October, and started working at a multinational firm in November. Basically, he’s one of those people who I always feel like I’m playing catch-up with.

How competitive is graduate school?

Seeing my roommate got me thinking about competition and rivalry in graduate school. To what extent do grad students compare themselves to one another and worry about getting ahead? The stereotype for me has always been that school gets really competitive as you move up the ladder. I’ve heard horror stories about graduate students at elite universities hiding books from one another and stealing notes to make sure they get the best grade in the class. Everyone wants so badly to succeed, and there’s only so much room at the top.

Since I’ve almost completed my first full semester here, I’ve actually found the academic community at the George Washington University’s Elliott School to be pretty different from the stereotypes. Getting admitted was competitive to be sure, but the student body itself is pretty laid back and supportive. Part of it has to do with the nature of the program. Since this will be the terminal degree for most of us here, grades matter somewhat less than for those in programs where they will have to apply to yet another school afterwards - unless you’re like me and thinking about going for a PhD down the road.

Most of us have settled on particular regions or areas of study, so the peer-to-peer competition is also more diffuse. What’s the point of measuring yourself against a security policy guy or a Europeanist if you’re more interested in international development and East Asia?

Competing with yourself

Since graduate school has been more about each person pursuing his own thing than undergrad was, I’ve also found there are fewer study groups and group projects. There is less sharing and swapping of notes, especially since most assignments are written papers that require original research and analysis. It’s usually inappropriate to want to compare grades with a classmate. We still chat about courses and assignments all the time, but the work itself is usually completed independently.

[Read Jamal’s post about the amount of group work and collaboration in her undergraduate program]

I still obsess over earning straight A’s and standing out, but that has more to do with my personality than with my school environment. Talking with friends at different schools, I think that only certain graduate programs actually encourage competition between students, and those are the ones in fields where grades are attached to professional incentives. I know my friend in dental school feels a lot of pressure to stay at the top of his class because that’s the only way he’ll be able to specialize in orthodontics. Likewise, my friend in law school had to keep his grades up because it mattered a lot for getting accepted by a good firm.

Usually though, I try to remember an observation once given by one of my professors, who said that exams and grades shouldn’t matter for graduate-level students, and maturity and passion about our fields of study should be motivation enough to succeed. The reality probably depends a lot on the kind of school you’re going to, but even then I like to think there’s a choice between being a hard worker, which describes every grad student, and being competitive against your peers, which doesn’t always have to be the case.