apples and orangesKaitlin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate specializing in Biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a permanent author for GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @KtlnG.

The best advice I’ve received about surviving in the competitive world of grad school was passed down from a colleague: “Kaitlin, make sure to run your own race.” This came in response to a question I asked about how to deal with people around me doing all sorts of things that I wasn’t doing. What she meant was that it was my degree and it’s what I do that matters.  Looking around at your colleagues, there will be people publishing more, teaching more, and people who have more extracurricular activities, or more funding. It can be easy to think you don’t measure up. This self-deprecating thinking ignores strategies that can help make you successful and instead fixates on what others are doing.

There are benefits to checking in and seeing where you are at compared to others, but not to negatively comparing achievements. A shift in attitude can help to turn unhealthy thoughts into productive actions. Here are three ways to do so:

Negative thought: You think, “I’ve done nothing compared to students more senior than me.”

Your colleagues may be more productive because they have spent more time working towards their achievements. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women (which can also be applied to men), Valerie Young explains that people can characterize themselves as a “Natural Genius,” where their expectations for themselves are very high. These people often think it should be easy to go from novice to expert very quickly. This is not because of laziness, but because of thinking, “If I can’t pick something up quickly, I must be an imposter.” When successful individuals surround you, it can be easy to feel like if you don’t get it right away, you’ll never be like them.

Potential solution: Turn envy into admiration, and sit down with someone whose path you would like to know more about. This way, you’ll know the effort required to achieve that level of success. Young says to see yourself as a “work in progress” – you’re learning and building successes, so it’s okay not to be the best right away.

Negative thought: You think more about what others are doing than you do about your own work.

The more time spent thinking about what others are doing, the less time you have to think about what you’re doing. This means there is less time to achieve what you envy in others.

Potential solution: This is when I remember to “run my own race.” When thinking about what others are doing, step back and remember this is your degree, not someone else’s, and you can only control your actions.

Negative thought: You think you need to do the same things everyone else is doing.

Colleagues may be more interested in teaching-track positions while your goal is to get a tenure-track research position. But because of all the work on teaching they’re doing, you might feel the need to do more work on teaching strategies because they are, even though it doesn’t match up with your ultimate career goal.

Potential solution: While it’s okay (and maybe necessary) to be well rounded, your goals may be different from colleagues’ and thus, so will your degree path. Take time to reflect and think about what to do to be successful so you can put maximum effort toward achieving these goals.

What is your advice for dealing with envy of colleagues? How can graduate students ensure they “run their own race?” Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

[Image taken by Flickr user TheBusyBrain and used under the Creative Commons License]


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