I am getting my phd degree (in a STEM field) at a Top 20 department in a year or two, and I truly love my field, but I’m not sure if I should try for jobs at academia.

The thing is, I feel that I am way too competitive. I know this isn't a healthy attitude, but I cannot stop comparing myself with smarter people consistently and feeling stupid and inferior later, and I always care about people’s opinions on me too much. Back when I was an undergraduate, I felt terrible even if I got fewer scores on homework assignments than my peers/friends. I don't have hostility against people who are smarter than me; I really don't. But I admit that I feel really uncomfortable while being surrounded by people who are much better than me.

Having said that, I still do not want to give up working on my field, but I still cannot concentrate my mind completely on my research in order to ignore how I rank among others. Is my issue solvable? I really appreciate your advice, not to mention this is a really hard topic to discuss with others in real life.

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    How did you manage this issue while actually working on your PhD? It seems like such an attitude would be a major issue long before you got to the job market.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:17
  • @Jeff It's been an issue for years, but for the past three years since I enrolled my PhD, I did my best to preserve. I ask this question today here partly because I feel I will be out of determination soon....
    – Anonymous
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:20
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    Have you talked to a professional about this? You say you're competitive, but what you're describing seems to go beyond that. I suppose my short answer to your question is "yes, that sounds like it will be a problem in academia, but maybe it's not inevitable for you to feel this way."
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:23
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    I think you need to find some way to deal with the problem, and accept that you will always see people who are more capable than you in at least some ways. There are some very, very smart people in industry and government. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 3:06
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    I mean no offense by this but, have you considered consulting a psychiatrist about this issue? Because this attitude can be harmful in the long run
    – polfosol
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 6:52

2 Answers 2


I don't see the problem. You are hardly alone in having the qualities you described -- academia is full of very competitive people, and competitiveness is also the reason why many of those people are highly driven to work hard and excel at what they do, and therefore to some extent the reason why it is such a fun and interesting place.

I understand that you are worried that being overly competitive will make you perpetually frustrated and unhappy, since no matter howsuccessful you become there will always be people who are yet more successful than you. To the extent that that's true, it will also be true outside of academia in any environment you are likely to end up in as a talented and highly educated person, unless your alternative plan is to give up all ambitions and pursue a lackluster life managing a bagel store or something similar. And honestly, given your description of yourself, I really don't see you doing that. So you're stuck with your ambitions, like it or not, and academia is as good a place as any to be a person with such traits.

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    I second this. I was a little surprised, but the majority of PIs (especially young PIs) in my department seem highly highly competitive. Mostly in a healthy way, but it's almost a character trait that is selected for. All of them are into some sort of competitive sport. Ever watch a soccer match between PIs? It gets interesting... Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 3:28

I think it would be very unusual for a highly competitive person to wind up in a department where he is by far the worst academically. This is because a highly competitive person cannot be used for service like some people can and thus is of little use if he is academically sterile. Therefore it follows that if your competitiveness is limited to your department you should not be too depressed about it. Plus you can specifically pick a department weaker than you to make you feel good about yourself.

  • The thing is, I feel depressed whenever I have less capability than some other people, not necessarily all of them.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:50
  • @Anonymous Well its not going to get any better if you go into academia unless you are in a highly ranked program. Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:54
  • I know this attitude is unhealthy, and I hate it, really. This is why I ask my question here to see if there's some way that I can have a better mindset.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 3:02
  • @Anonymous It is my understanding that hating something so fundamental to yourself is not helpful. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 13:33

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