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I am currently an undergraduate student. I noticed that regardless of what courses I'm taking, there are always a handful of people who view everything as a huge competition. That is, they would do anything possible (other than committing academic offenses) to ensure that the final grade they receive is higher than everyone else's. They create a rather hostile environment.

However, I always thought that Academia is about advancing knowledge, which means we need to help each other, not put each other down.

I am still young, but I have been thinking of pursue an academic career. So my question is, are there any reasons for this competitive behaviour? Is this just an undergraduate problem that will go away when I enter graduate school? Or am I just way too naive of how the world really works?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – aeismail Oct 25 '15 at 12:40
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    What you observed is a standard human behavior. Moreover, it's a standard living organism behavior, shared with pretty much everything alive that participates in a process of sexual selection. It has very little to do with Academia per se. You'll find people who earn to win anywhere from *cough*Stack Exchange*cough* to kindergarten. – DVK Oct 26 '15 at 16:53
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    Also, it would significantly improve your question if you explained in particulars in what way "They create a rather hostile environment". Is there some tangible hostile behavior that you can demonstrate, or does the environment merely seem hostile to you because you don't want to compete but feel that you must in order not to look like you lost the competition? – DVK Oct 26 '15 at 16:56
  • You need to explain what "They create a rather hostile environment" means. It's hopelessly vague. You could be talking about a hundred different things, some of which are good, some of which are bad, some of which are not even applicable in grad school. How can we know what you're asking about? – smci Oct 27 '15 at 7:43
  • Welcome to the world of business. – OK- Nov 5 '15 at 16:13
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You've asked a question that is both very important and very difficult, as well as one that is likely to draw different answers from different people depending on their own experiences in academia.

This is because there are both competitive and cooperative aspects to academia. Different people take different strategies with respect to the balance between these two, and that affects their communities as well, so that the mixture of competition and cooperation that you encounter will also radically differ between different academic communities.

Some of the key factors for inducing cooperation are:

  • Science is hard.
  • Working together, people can accomplish things that they cannot possibly accomplish alone.
  • Cooperation in a team gives you an advantage when competing with other teams.
  • Many people enjoy working together in teams, and this is just as true for science as it is for any other human endeavor.
  • Scientific discovery feels awesome and it can be really fun to share that feeling with other people.

Some of the key factors for inducing competition are:

  • Inherent conflict of ideas: when theories compete, people often become polarized and begin competing based on the "team" they support intellectually.
  • Limited resources: you've got a good idea, but a lot of other people have good ideas too, and there is not enough funding to support all of them fully: some people will not get what they want. Likewise, the Hubble space telescope can only point at one thing at a time, and there are a lot more things people want to point at than time to point at them.
  • Explicit competition set up by external agencies. For example, DARPA will sometimes make scientists in the same program compete with one another, and the loser gets their funding cut off.
  • Many people are just plain competitive, and want to "win" over other people in various different ways, and this is just as true for science as it is for any other human endeavor.

Bottom line: just like everything else, academia can be a competition, and everyone faces some aspects of a competition. But it's not just a competition, and I feel sad for anyone who experiences it in that manner.

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    +1 for looking at cooperation as well as competition, and for the last sentence. One more factor for competition might be the (non-academic) job market. I only have anecdotal evidence for this but at my university the level of cooperation between students seemed to correlate to the job prospects for graduates of that subject. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Oct 23 '15 at 5:59
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    +1, I think you have highlighted all the major points, except maybe one: the perceived nobility of a field: the more the field is perceived as "noble", the more hard competition is to be expected. For example, from my experience and what I've often heard, medical and mathematical studies are known to be very highly competitive (even avoiding sharing data), while human studies are often open and highly collaborative. It would be interesting to have some studies on that. – gaborous Oct 23 '15 at 18:02
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    @gaborous That is interesting. At my university, math was one of the most collaborative departments. They even had a large homework room with 6 big blackboards and lots of chairs and tables and a few computers, and students were encouraged to form homework groups and work there. They did it, too - between 10am and 6pm there was no time when the homework room was empty. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '15 at 7:06
  • "just like everything else, academia can be a competition, and everyone faces some aspects of a competition" Still on average academia is far more competitive than the average workplace, simply due to the fact that everyone is to a large extent fighting their own fight. – David Mulder Oct 26 '15 at 8:16
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    When you're fighting for multiple $500,000 a year grants for your teams to fund your research and pay your PhD and Master's students, you're going to constantly strive to be at the peak of your abilities. There's no shiny silver medal for finishing second. One other point to note: science is indeed hard (ie: difficult), but to further draw on that, STEM fields are "hard" as opposed to "soft" sciences (ie: rigore scientifico), meaning that the answer is cut and dry, and there's no room for bull****ing. This means only the best get the top grants, funding, acknowledgement, etc. – Cloud Oct 26 '15 at 16:17
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People will be people, in short.

Some people are competitive. Some of them fiercely so. And some people are jackasses. Some of them fiercely so. Some are both at once. Some of those, fiercely so. They'll all be pretty much everywhere you ever are, being the people they are, because what else can you really expect them to be or do? Academia, offices, your family, the corner gas station, even your friends probably...they'll be everywhere, living their lives, doing their thing. I suggest you just get used to this facet of the tapestry of human personalities.

If you happen to think they have driven things into a violation of university rules--sexual harassment and discrimination could certainly cause a hostile environment--then you should report it to the appropriate authorities, as that is not okay and is not something to simply "get used to".

You may also be experiencing the typical shock of reality from an idealistic view of "college will be totally different from high school." It's really not that much different, especially for Freshman, other than that most of the students have easier access to sex and alcohol (and drugs, honestly). All of your fellow undergrads were high school students not too long ago, after all.

Lastly, depending on your college or the grading policies of your specific courses, the competition may be actively encouraged. Some universities have held policies such as "Only the top 10% in a course can get an A, no matter what," which means even if the class is nothing but Einsteins then only 10% of them will get an A and they will obviously have to compete for those positions. This can be even more pronounced when the number of B's is also limited, which can mean students may find themselves with a very bad-looking grade if they aren't willing and able to compete for a better one.

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    To somewhat intensify your last paragraph: Such grading schemes mean that you do not have to be good but only better than others. Hence, if you can make somebody score worse, it’s also usually good for you. – Wrzlprmft Oct 23 '15 at 7:54
  • Regarding your paragraph 1, there might be some answers as to what and why people are like, by using personality classifications like the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory and the later Keirsey-Bates elaboration on it. My first thought on reading para 1 was: "...and those people are probably NTs or SJs." – user28174 Oct 23 '15 at 14:06
  • I mostly like this answer, only the penultimate paragraph ("You may also be experiencing the typical shock of reality ...") seems to strongly depend on location/culture-specific properties of highschools and colleges. Personally, I felt university to be fundamentally different from highschool, and looking back now, I can still see so many aspects that are objectively different that I could certainly fill an essay with them (although exactly the points you suggest are not among the differences I perceived). – O. R. Mapper Oct 23 '15 at 14:13
  • @O.R.Mapper I may have been a bit heavy handed with that one. What I really wanted to point out was that the range of personalities, and general behaviors, does not differ significantly between high schoolers and (new) undergraduates. There are definitely many differences beyond that, but in my experience there is a certain set of freshmen who are expecting a massive shift away from the personality spectrum they were used to in high school. Frequently they are expecting it to shift towards their personality type or ideals thereof. Reality has a tendency to then shock them. – zibadawa timmy Oct 24 '15 at 4:01
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    Well not everywhere. I'm grateful to pretty much have no in-family competitive jackasses. It also seems to be possible and desirable to exclude competitive jackasses from friends, associates, loved ones and in many endeavors, from co-workers, business associates, vendors, clients, patrons... – Dronz Oct 24 '15 at 18:39
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The world is one big competition. However, as privileged individuals, we can choose how much we participate in that competition.

In general, when something is described as top something, it's a sign that more competition lies that way. By steering clear of such places, you can live a less competitive and less stressful life.

Academic research is interesting and fun. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn't willing to provide for everyone who wants to be an academic. As a result, there is always going to be more competition in the academia than people would like.

The best way to avoid excessive competition is being flexible. Don't work on the fashionable topics everyone else is working on. Find your own niche with some low-hanging fruit, and become the expert in that niche. Don't be too eager to get into the best positions at the top universities. There are hundreds of good universities around the world, and most of them can be good places to conduct research. The world is full of opportunities for those who can find and catch them.

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I've found it also depends on the culture inside the university. Some of the universities I've studied in (and frankly and ironically, the ones that provided a better overall education) were non-competitive. There was no one-up-manship as you describe. Some of the classmates were clearly excelling beyond the rest, but there was no competitive spirit displayed.

Other universities have a more competitive spirit displayed. This comes from the level of the professors and is fostered by the overall culture.

An anecdote: I've noticed that lower-quality schools including some state schools seem to foster the competitive style. This is unhealthy and reduces the quality of the education. I have not noticed it as much - ironically - from the best schools like MIT and Stanford.

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I think that academia, as many things in our life, is a rather complex phenomenon. As such, it very much depends on how you look at it. By "how" I mean from which perspective as well as at what level of consideration, usually referred to in academia as unit of analysis. Based on this framework, one can discover, as is expected for a complex system, that academia exhibits both aspects you've mentioned (advancing knowledge and competition), along with many others. It seems that levels of those aspects are different both in nature and effects, based on perspectives and units of analysis.

For example, at an organizational level, we see generation of significant advancements in knowledge, but also some, and sometimes significant, competition for prestige, funds, talent, etc. Similarly, at an individual level, there is both advancement and competition, but their nature, intensiveness and effects. It can be argued that, under specific conditions, competition positively affects advancement of knowledge to some degree, directly and indirectly, at the various levels of analysis. More generally, it can be argued that those aspects, along with other related factors, affect each other and provide an interesting and important area of research.

In regard to the competition, especially, on an individual level, I think that it represents a complex phenomenon as well, combining internal psychological factors (i.e., proving one's worth to yourself, natural evolutionary "survival of the fittest" instinct) and external economic (i.e., career advancement as a safety net) ones. Considering the subject at higher, organizational levels only adds complexity to potential analysis. Your question is indeed interesting and important (hence +1), but large and complex, so my answer hasn't even scratched the surface in terms of comprehensive description. However, I hope that it will provide some food for thought and further discussion.

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Apart from what @jakebeal has posted, I have one more point to add: crowd mentality.

When the major portion of people who enter a field tend to excel, the rest of the population are pulled towards it. This is what leads to the resource conflict problem in the first place.

This comes under the Law of Supply and Demand. In today's world where education itself is considered as a commodity, we are considered as supply entities. When prices of the commodity increase, the supply also increase in the same direction. Sadly this also leads to the decrease in demand of the commodity. When only proportionately lesser entities can be allocated to the resources (jobs), the rest is up to the survival of the fittest.

One may not to keep all of the above in mind. As one of the comments stated, it would just ruin the rationale of education itself. If everyone just go for the field that interests them most and work at it, they would succeed regardless of the feeling of contest.

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No, universities (academia) generally aim to educate for the sake of it. By definition, this is the goal of academia. This is usually reflected in their admissions requirements, which are purposefully low enough to only pose a barrier to those who are unlikely to benefit from the education offered. This often puts universities at odds with prospective students who feel entitled to displace others based on having exceeded the admission requirements to a greater degree. This competitive attitude is encouraged by society's promotion of higher education as a mere vehicle for attaining greater relative wealth, and not as a worthy pursuit in and of itself.

Graduate school will be better.

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    What is "academia" in your answer? Who is representative of it? I know for a fact that students are not in it for the sake of education per se, and neither are the teachers. Honestly, people who want to learn for the sake of learning usually do it in the local library or over the internet, because college costs a lot of money and time which is a pure waste if you just want knowledge. – Davor Oct 23 '15 at 10:21
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    @Davor: I agree with your two initial questions. However, I doubt that none of the students are in it for the sake of education per se, and I doubt even more that none of the teachers are. Lastly, "college costs a lot of money and time which is a pure waste if you just want knowledge" is clearly contradicted by the hordes of pensionists who decide to attend university after retirement to get another Bachelor and/or Master degree in a discipine they are simply interested in (often, but not exclusively, in something humanities-related). – O. R. Mapper Oct 23 '15 at 14:21
  • @O.R.Mapper You are probably correct about the "more than none"s, but your proof seems flimsy. I personally have not seen "hordes" of pensioners and have very, very rarely seen them last more than a couple semesters. They tend to wise up when they see the bill. – Zach Mierzejewski Oct 23 '15 at 18:19
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    @ZachMierzejewski: Granted, where I live, there is no bill for studying, or at least none of any substantial sum. Hence, this might be region-specific. – O. R. Mapper Oct 23 '15 at 18:46
  • academia is academics. "a teacher or scholar in a college or institute of higher education." – JJBee Oct 24 '15 at 4:01
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However, I always thought that Academia is about advancing knowledge, which means we need to help each other, not put each other down.

You are being judgmental. You may think that Academia is about advancing knowledge, but other people may disagree. Also, telling other people what they need to do, such as help each other, is generally not a good idea. Stop projecting your ideas on other people and take care of yourself.

Or am I just way too naive of how the world really works?

Nobody knows how the world really works. Everyone just sees a certain slice of the whole complex phenomenon.

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    "Also, telling other people what they need to do, such as help each other, is generally not a good idea." - if those other people are actively sabotaging what you consider your legitimate progress, then yes, it is absolutely right to at least try and tell them to stop. Or, in other words: "Stop projecting your ideas on other people and take care of yourself." - ... said the bully while he pressed his victim firmly to the ground. We generally don't live in bubbles, but we (have to) interact, including with people who have conflicting goals with our own. – O. R. Mapper Oct 24 '15 at 18:39
  • You are being judgmental. You may think that Academia is about advancing knowledge, but other people may disagree. So he/she is being judgmental because he/she thinks something about which other people might disagree ? BTW rest assured that the vast majority - probably all - academic institutions state as their goal the advancement of knowledge; whether that's their real goal or not is another subject. The advancement of knowledge is definitely the official goal of academic institutions. – SantiBailors Feb 6 '16 at 12:12
  • Agreed with both points. I don't know what I was thinking 3 years ago. – user14102 Nov 11 '18 at 20:58
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I am currently an undergraduate student. I noticed that regardless of what courses I'm taking, there are always a handful of people who view everything as a huge competition. That is, they would do anything possible (other than committing academic offenses) to ensure that the final grade they receive is higher than everyone else's. They create a rather hostile environment.

Unless you're enrolled someplace like ancient Sparta, if this behavior is causing problems ("rather hostile atmosphere" sounds like it is), you might report it to their teachers or other appropriate people at your college. If they're not sympathetic to your concerns, you might consider another college.

However, I always thought that Academia is about advancing knowledge, which means we need to help each other, not put each other down.

I'd say that's a good principle. All such principles are just single perspectives, though. Real people and situations can be seen usefully from a variety of (often contrasting or even contradictory) perspectives.

I am still young, but I have been thinking of pursue an academic career. So my question is, are there any reasons for this competitive behaviour?

Good question. Each situation is different. Perhaps it could be interesting and useful to discern what's happening in the cases around you. Various possibilities have been suggested in answers here. Could be the academic structure (grading curves, limited slots) or the ideas (and sicknesses) your culture, school, teachers, or maybe just certain students have.

You might also consider whether it's really a problem worth worrying about. People who think that "life" or "the world" are about competition, tend to express ideas designed to convince (themselves and) others, and this can suck others into needless concerns or arguments.

A perspective that can be useful is "what we resist, persists"; it may be best just to ignore or avoid such people. I'd hope that (outside Sparta) just being a good student will still be effective, regardless of their competitive antics.

Is this just an undergraduate problem that will go away when I enter graduate school?

It could go away by going to a school or class that isn't like that. Few I've known would I call "extremely hostile"! Some graduate programs may be like that, but you can try to detect and avoid those. Subject can also tend to correlate to a difference (e.g. law school, business school, and limited (enrolment/grant) programs, versus humanities or less-overly-popular subjects).

Or am I just way too naive of how the world really works?

No. Even if one were to adopt a selfish competitive philosophy (which I don't recommend), it would still be foolish (even in Sparta, or a sports program) to treat small-scale tasks as competitions and to fixate on beating everyone else and so create a hostile environment. That's undermining one's own learning environment, and to me indicates sickness.

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