In short: is it possible to do research in academia (starting from a PhD position up to being a professor) while not liking competition?

I was an athlete in high school and I left because I was not really able to perform well under pressure. I thought that academia (or the research world in general) would have been a better fit. But I now realize how wrong I was. In fact, some fields are even worse. I like doing research and I really want to continue my journey in academia with a PhD. But that's it, research. I'm not interested in competing with other researchers. Actually, I'd love to learn how to collaborate rather than being faster to get it published before them.

I thought I could handle it but it's getting worse and whenever I start working on something that I would otherwise enjoy doing, I start panicking thinking that my peers are doing it better and faster.

Again, is it possible to do (good) research in academia while not liking competition? Is it really fundamental?

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    It is completely okay to say no to this system. Many do just that and live more fulfilling, less stressful lives as a result. Save some money, do research in your spare time. Maybe get picked up by big company to have some fake role while actually doing research for them. There are many ways. Jul 13, 2019 at 19:15
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    I think you're right, it's pretty stressful, especially when you are judged by 1) brilliant people who find it very easy to publish, 2) idiots who owe their position to politics. You can get a teaching track position, then enjoy research in your own spare time, if any.
    – PatrickT
    Jul 15, 2019 at 10:55
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    brilliant people who find it very easy to publish — I don't believe such people exist. Other people just think they do.
    – JeffE
    Jul 31, 2020 at 21:58
  • @JeffE I think that, on the contrary, it is very easy to publish. I've seen master's students and even a high school student publish, and I know a well-reputed research group that sometimes publishes small bits and pieces of their work (although usually not).
    – Jake
    Apr 25, 2021 at 21:23
  • I think OP's issue can be addressed by a selection of research topics. At least in my field, there are plenty of good research topics that nobody or hardly anyone is working on. Most people choose to work on same or similar topics as others. The density distribution of research effort in the space of possible research topics is uneven.
    – Jake
    Apr 25, 2021 at 21:26

5 Answers 5


Actually, the competition is largely in your head, not in academia itself.

I'll never be able to win a stage of le Tour de France, so why should I ride a bicycle? I'll never win the final at Wimbledon, so why should I play tennis?

Of course, there are extremely competitive corners in academia. If you are in a "hot" research area where many many people are chasing exactly the same very few goals, then, yes, you are likely to get scooped.

But imagine two scenarios.

The first is that you have a thousand people at one end of a field and there is a single prize at the other end. Everyone runs to get that prize but only one can succeed.

The second scenario is that the thousand people are wandering around the field, each seeking something that they find interesting. Here, everyone can succeed.

Academia is, except in a few instances, much more like the second scenario than the first. Collaboration is possible. Two can enjoy a sunset. But only one can capture the flag.

Another competitive scenario is being one of many junior faculty at a very (very) top university, in which only one can be promoted to a tenured position. It is, of course, very competitive and collaboration with your competitors may be sub-optimal. But collaboration, even here, with others is not to be spurned. Even being second or third on an important paper is a good thing for a beginning academic, so long as you don't quit with just that.

But most universities, even very good ones in the US, aren't like that at all. Life can be good. But there are also some people who thrive in such a high pressure environment and would have nothing else.

My experience in academia was that the greatest thing was that I could think my own thoughts and pursue my own goals. Much of that was in collaboration with people. Some of those folks were just about like me, and some were internationally known superstars. But it was always fun.

I studied at R1 universities, but taught there only briefly (visitor). But my sense of it was that even for people in the same narrow field, collaboration was highly valued. The most senior professors, were happy to share ideas with junior faculty in field-centric seminars. Often those junior faculty (and we grad students) would develop those ideas, even with help of the top researcher. It was a shared process to extend what was known.

Of course, if a person has a lot of ideas, it is also often the case that they don't have time to completely explore them. For such people, generosity in sharing those ideas costs them nothing. They may not be a co-author of every paper, but their stature in academia rises nevertheless.

Don't think of academic, or research in general, as a zero-sum game. Everyone can win, especially if everyone has their own goals and are not somehow driven to adopt the goal/value system of others.

The field of research is broad and richly endowed. Find the bits that are interesting to you.

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    many junior faculty at a very (very) top university, in which only one can be promoted to a tenured position — I’m not aware of any university in the US, including the very (very) top universities, where this still happens. (20 years ago, I had to be told that my university doesn’t have separate “tenured slots”; by 10 years ago, new faculty candidates had stopped asking.)
    – JeffE
    Jul 13, 2019 at 23:44
  • @JeffE, some (many?) US universities don't want to have too many professors at any given rank as it makes future planning difficult in the event of change. If everyone is tenured, for example, financial considerations may make it difficult to hire anyone. At places I worked, the final tenure decision was made by the board of overseers, not by the administration or faculty. Some would be told, even after a positive decision from faculty, "we'd love to keep you but can't afford to do so".
    – Buffy
    Jul 15, 2019 at 10:59
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    It's funny this answer got so much upvotes saying "everyone can win" when many Q&A's here are whining about how to be the first author, best grad school and finishing PhD in 3 years. It's like the american dream, everyone can make it and everyone knows only a few can and will...tragedy or rather lottery. Mostly people vote for what they want to be truth Jul 15, 2019 at 19:47
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    @Buffy I understand the financial pressures, but those can be (and in my experience are, at least at R1s) handled by adjusting the rate of new faculty-hiring to adjust for changes in budget and the rate of tenured faculty departures (which can be helped along by a mixture of early retirement incentives and unpleasant administrative duties). Tenure decisions at my university are also formally made by the Trustees, but decisions overturning the advice of the multiple layers of faculty committees and administrators are extremely rare, and typically lead to AAUP censure.
    – JeffE
    Jul 15, 2019 at 20:14
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    I find it remarkable that most of the participants of this discussion seem to accept the premise of absolute meritocracy, with questions revolving around whether one is "good enough" or if one needs to be better than others. In acadamia, much as in any other job, success is the outcome of a number of factors and circumstances. Skills, intelligence and perseverance are certainly important, but one also also needs a few other things, for instance quite a lot of luck. It also helps to be part of an influential network of scientists and to have a powerful mentor who can promote your career.
    – RHertel
    Jul 16, 2019 at 18:55

I'm not sure what these wishy-washy answers are trying to accomplish. Make their authors and you feel good? Try to lure you in academia because it's a cult and the more people try to join, the better? Working in academia isn't riding your bike every other weekend because it's fun. It's a job. It's training with your bike every day and watching videos at night about biking techniques, because if you're not in the top 10% at the biking competition, then you won't even get to enter the next one.

Academia is a competition from start to end. You have to perform well in school to get a PhD stipend, then you have to perform well during your PhD to get a postdoc, then you have to perform well during your postdocs to get a tenure-track position, then you have to perform well to get tenure, then you have to perform well to get recognition, grants, promotions... At each stage the funnel becomes smaller. If you get the thing, someone else won't, and vice-versa.

Don't get me wrong: it's not a dog-eat-dog world out there. You will collaborate, you will make friends, you will meet mentors who will help you through your career... But this doesn't change the core fact that yes, academia is a competition, and yes, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on you. There are not many jobs out there where the line between personal and professional life is so blurred, and they usually pay much better. You will be required to perform at your best all the time, and if you don't, this will visibly and immediately stunt your career. You don't have to be the very absolute best at what you do to succeed in academia, and you will always have peer who are much faster and must better than you; but if you are not among the best – I'm not going to be able to give a precise number here – then you will not even get a choice about whether this life is for you or not: you will be kicked out. You will be able to do research and enjoy yourself for a while, sure, but at some point, time will catch up with you.

I'm not trying to scare you, but at the same time, I don't see the point in sugarcoating the truth.

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    you get my upvote for your honesty and because imho the accepted answer is much too soft :-) But, of course, I think my answer hits the mark: Academia is a lottery game and there is not much competition by principle in lottery. Fundamental research is unpredictable. Look at the story of nobel laureate Stephan Hell, he was the only one really believing in his idea and fought hard to finance and realize it. Not every professor is a prodigy with super high IQ, most are just very curious, ambitious, disciplined and patient in addition. Hell had zero competitors most of the time working on his idea Jul 15, 2019 at 19:42
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    This answer is good for the US :-)
    – user104070
    Jul 15, 2019 at 21:48
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    I agree to some extent. But I guess there's a difference between performing well and competition. My point is not that I do not want to perform well (obviously), just that I do not really like competition. Again, that does not mean producing garbage.
    – wrong_path
    Jul 16, 2019 at 4:44

You have a rather big misconception if you assume and experience that academia or research is mostly consisting of competition. Maybe even amplified by reading too long on this site where many Q&A's are about "being first author" and publish as much as possible. I also guess you are doing research in an engineering field where research is more about improving incrementally figures of merit, not real fundamental research, which is mostly about complementary research questions among groups, everybody doing the same would be a tremendous waste of money.

Your misconception can be explained though: the number of tenured positions is not as much increasing as the number of PhD graduates. Though, this is the same nowadays in industry for leading positions in a company, more and more academic graduates. If you actually like to collaborate, academia is the right place, as it gets more and more interdisciplinary, team-oriented and the number of publications is growing exponentially. Therefore, the direct topical competition has not really become higher, but lower. But it is more a lottery nowadays to become professor. You just have to make a decision if you want to join the lottery game for 5-10 years being a postdoc.

You just seem to have the utter most wrong research strategy: Doing exactly what your peers are doing, just better and faster?! That's exactly the engineering/industry view. Look for unsolved complementary questions in regard to your peers or look/ask for collaborative ideas that make a outstanding contribution to the community and a single group/researcher cannot solve. Also, don't waste public money by doing exactly the same like some other national group. Among different countries there is and has to be competition, due to economical competition.

Most of the funding mondy is also given to the best ideas, not the most competitive researcher, at least if the scrutinization is objective and anonymous, which seems to become more important than having a big name in an interdisciplinary research landscape.

Last but not least, it's not like that the researchers get elected professors which published the most x highest impact factor until 35-40. I know many professors being postdoc nearly a decade before turning professor with 42-45, because they were very well connected in their community and true experts rather than having a couple nature papers with 35. Maybe the latter case becomes more common in times of publish or perish, but this can also be a short trend as many trendy topics in high impact journals when faculties sees that bibliographic statistics are not the best measures to judge the influence of researcher in a community.

Have you ever wondered why many professors in STEM are not 30 year old prodigies, but quite normal and assidiuous people and many chemistry, mechatronics, material science professors being educated physicists? The best and most competitive specialists rather go industry/entrepreneurship and they get paid there much better, interdisciplinary interested and curious researchers tend more towards academia, where the competiton and responsibility is much lower for a professor in comparison to a R&D manager in a company, if you only manage an average research group as a professor and not bigger institutes consisting of several teams and sub-groups.


What academics think is collaboration is night and day from being in a company together (operating roles) or even the sort of collegial environment in corporate R&D or at a national lab or FFRDC.

I wouldn't expect the mountain to move for Mohammad. Your sense of academia is not off. And don't expect it to change for you. And listen to your gut. Some people don't mind it, but I think you will. The tournament system for tenured profs at R1 is exactly what you're NOT looking for. Yeah, you can get off that (as many people here have), but expect lower pay/prestige than. And much more emphasis on teaching and being a second class researcher with less grants, etc.

Not sure your exact qualifications, but looking at your profile of communities, having a masters in stats (or the like) and then moving to some role at a pharma company is not a bad move. Of course, very few jobs are secure and who knows what the future for that industry is. It might get less plushy and R&D focused if price controls come in effect. But it will still be around in some form. Also, if you are willing to consider working more with operating companies, there are huge needs/opportunities for statistics in healthcare, manufacturing, oil and gas development, Internet usage, etc. I think many places where you could do something useful and not be tenure track professor at Berkley or Harvard, still struggling for grants even there.

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    The tournament system for tenured profs at R1 — Speaking as a tenured professor at an R1: What is this “tournament system” of which you speak?
    – JeffE
    Jul 13, 2019 at 23:37
  • @JeffE, you don't have tournaments at your place? :) Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon? Jul 15, 2019 at 21:09
  • @paulgarrett Sure, of course we do. But what do directed complete graphs have to do with tenure decisions?
    – JeffE
    Jul 15, 2019 at 21:14
  • @JeffE :) ...... Jul 15, 2019 at 21:22

Don't forget that you can be extremely competitive and run into personal issues and you'll be out of the game. Mine was becoming a caregiver for a dying family member during the last stretch of my PhD. But in the end, it does not matter. There is more to life than academia. You'll make enough to pay your bills, you'll find other stuff you are passionate about and you'll be all right.

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