Main Question: To what degree is a competitive (as opposed to collaborative or mutually-supportive) academic environment endemic of famous/top-tier/high-powered institutions?
This question developed out of my recent experience doing a masters program at one of the top universities in the world. Perhaps in part due to my cozy experience at a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, I was caught off-guard by the competitiveness — and what felt to me like toxicity — of the graduate school environment. I had a sense that unless I had already done amazing work, it was very difficult to feel respected by my peers or get the attention of the excellent academics lecturing my classes. And in classes there was so much discussion of who wrote the best paper, or who got the highest score.
This culture created a lot of anxiety for me and led me to a number of unhealthy and counterproductive behaviors. I wasted significant amounts of time seeking acceptance in a culture which, by its very nature, is not exactly accepting.
Research holds a lot of meaning for me, so I would like to return to school for a PhD. But I just need to make sure I can find an environment that feels successful and healthy but also challenges me as a thinker and a researcher. As such, I have a number of questions:
Is this culture inevitable in top-tier institutions? I wonder whether this pattern will always emerge due to graduate students' competition over the limited resource of these famous professors' time. That being said, alternative explanations of the above exist, including a) that my experience at a small liberal arts college was abnormally sheltering, and that my masters program was actually normal; and b) that masters programs are not good predictors of the PhD experience: a masters student occupies an awkward, liminal position in a department and likely must do more grasping for recognition than a PhD student.
If this culture is inevitable, what are some suggestions for combating the insecurities and inefficiencies that result from it? How can I maintain my health within these communities? I believe that some of the best research, some of the most creative ideas, requires relief (at least temporarily) from the pressure of constant judgement. I want to be able to find or create that shelter for myself.
One alternative to dealing with these communities is to attend a mid-tier program. Would I able to receive the same level of academic excellence, be challenged and enriched as deeply, at an institution which is not publicly understood to be top-tier? Are there examples of top-tier academics whose pedigree (in advisers and institutions) is relatively humble?
The degree was a taught masters in mathematics.
Interactions with peers:
- Attempts to do homework with others from my course were unsuccessful. I realized that compared to the students I attempted to collaborate with, I prefer to take a long time on homework, connecting the problems to other areas I know about, thinking about extensions, generating questions, and interrogating my understanding. When I tried to do homework with others in the course, I would frequently be seen as slow. It was the student who completed his assignment in 30 minutes who was lauded by other students. (And my attitude toward homework is not entirely by choice; I am not at the moment capable of that speed).
- Discussions of ideas with peers outside of the classroom was also difficult. I learned that unless I had already done the work of formalizing, carefully defining my thoughts, I would be met with criticism. Sentences starting with "what about something like ..." were met with "I can't see how that would work" or "that doesn't make sense," rather than, "tell me more," or "hmm, what if we added this...". The whole point of discussions for me is to explore hazy ideas collaboratively, but it felt like the culture of discussion was more like a performance.
Interactions with professors: I was lucky to receive support and attention from certain professors, but both my degree adviser and my thesis adviser appeared less-than-interested in me, sometimes missing scheduled meetings without notice. I got a sense that if my existing work were more interesting or important, this might have not been the case.