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My advisor has bred a very competitive lab culture where students frequently compete for power and attention. I am not naive to think this is uncommon, and I suspect many PhD students are by nature very competitive.

My overall question is this: How does one thrive and remain at the top of the pack in such an environment? How do I cultivate influence and power within such a group?

These scenarios have occurred frequently for many people in the group.

  • During presentations, when my advisor doesn't know what the presenter is saying, students from the audience frequently interject the presenter and try to explain concepts from the presentation. To me this seems very rude as this doesn't respect the fact that the presenter normally knows more than the others students in the room. Students frequently stand up in the middle of a presentation and start having side discussions on nearby white boards. This has happened to many student presenters in my group.

  • During paper discussions, students tend to filibuster and interrupt each other and try to talk for as long as possible.

  • During group meeting, my advisor may ask one student to complete a task, but other students will also try to complete the same task with the belief that they would be able to one up the other student and do a better job.

The most successful students in the group also happen to engage most frequently in these demonstrations of power.

My advisor does not actively encourage such behaviors, but by inaction condones them.

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    That's not competitive, that's extremely toxic. And no, such a lab culture is not common. I have not seen such a culture anywhere so far. You don't "thrive" in such a lab, you get out. – xLeitix Jun 29 '17 at 12:29
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    Don't thrive, run. – Davidmh Jun 29 '17 at 13:00
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    Those bullets form a blueprint for academic disaster. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 29 '17 at 14:15
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    "I suspect many PhD students are by nature very competitive" - that does not mirror my experience at all. Hard-working and eager to accomplish something? Absolutely. Attempting to create something great that may supersede someone else's previous work? Certainly. But not in a "competing" way that tries to one up others. On the contrary, I have typically found PhD candidates to be very willing to support their peers' work with their insight and skills, and working on related or overlapping topics is practically synonymous of joining forces and actively collaborating in the groups I was/am in. – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 15:55
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    Grad school is already stressful enough to have to deal with something like this. Furthermore, cooperation and constructive communication with ones colleagues goes way farther than what you describe, where everyone's energy is put into competing. If you decide to stay there (or end up somewhere like this) you must work hard on maintaining your self-esteem and confidence. Probably the best way to do this is to abstain from these childish behaviours. – user347489 Jun 30 '17 at 0:24
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From what you are telling, your advisor has not bred a competitive lab but rather a horde of children. The behavior you are describing is unacceptable and shows no respect for each other at all. It normally is the professors job to make clear how the lab is working, to make sure the speaker in a talk is listened to and discussions are postponed to a break or after the talk, etc.

Furthermore, if everyone in the group is competing over a task, this shows that they don't have enough tasks of their own and go for everything that is available. Once again, it is the professors job to have regular discussions (in private!) with lab members about their current projects, to make sure that they go along well and that such a case as you described in the last point, i.e. everyone has nothing to do, does not happen.

All in all, it looks like this lab you are describing has no real leader, no one capable or willing to set ground rules and advice and guide everyone. I think and hope this is not the common case in labs and would advice you to avoid such a place if possible; maybe you are able to find a new advisor?

Side note: Of course competition will always be a thing and a healthy competition is good. But what you described is not healthy at all and in all the labs and research groups I visited so far (math, CS and engineering mostly), there was a decent amount of respect for each other.

  • Thanks for the advice. My advisor just got tenure, and the lab is a lot nicer now... – user2562609 Oct 21 '18 at 9:22
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In competitive lab members challenge each other.

In healthy competitive lab each member has their time to present and defend their work. Competitors show respect to each other.

In unheathy competitve lab each member intrigue againts their colleagues to grab attention.

In your case, even worse, members do not show enough respect to each other to listen their presentation!

Run. Actually, you should have your things packed yesterday and be knocking on different lab's doors.

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Your adviser has not created a competitive culture, but as pointed out by other responses, a toxic one. Unfortunately, this case you describe is not rare at all, so don't despair. Basically, the circumstances you are facing are not an exception. They do occur.

Why does this happen? Because your adviser has taken the easiest route: inaction and lack of confrontation. Inaction leads to self-management of the group and situations like the one you described, where bullies thrive and reasonable hard working "nice" people get resentful.

Advice? I would suggest you find a new group, because this is an unsolvable problem: it's the adviser who creates and maintains a culture, either by action or inaction. Furthermore, changing to another research group is usually hard and you have no guarantee that the next one will be better.

As difficult as it is, think that the person that should be happy with yourself is you, not your supervisor. Do you want to look like a smart-ass or become a bully to get his attention and approval?

Also, learn to defend your territory. Don't let anyone bully you, and tell them off if you need to. If you need to say "do you mind withholding the questions until the end of my talk?", just say so.

Regarding the "success or influence" you talk about, how do you define "success" exactly? Success is defined by your expertise, skills, knowledge and publications, which are independent of what your adviser thinks of you.

My condolences, and good luck!

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    I'm defining success the same way that you have. The people with more publications/skills also tend to engage in these behaviors more. – user2562609 Jun 29 '17 at 14:48
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    After more than 10 years in the business and also having witnessed those behaviors very often, I honestly don't have a solution. That's why I suggest you focus on doing quality work and be proud about it, and forget about the number of publications. – Pablo Jun 29 '17 at 15:51
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    @user2562609: Weird. My distinct impression is consistently that the people with more publications are precisely the ones who are constantly participating in a dozen collaborative projects with their peers, and involved in another dozen supporting tasks to help other peers in their research. Being closely in touch with so many people and their projects, and participating in so many common endeavours at a time is how they manage to be a part in so many publications. – O. R. Mapper Jun 29 '17 at 16:04
  • That's exactly my experience too, so often the number of publications is more correlated to political/people skills and those behaviors that are described here than with anything else. Therefore, either you have to engage in that behavior too, or forget about number of publications and focus on quality and ownership. – Pablo Jun 29 '17 at 16:10
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    @Pablo: Your statement that "either you have to engage in that behavior too" got me concerned that you place the so-called competitive behaviour the OP described and the behaviour I described in my comment in the "same pot". While you are free to do so, I'd like to clarify that with my comment, I intended to express that I consider the behaviour described by the OP as highly undesirable and disruptive for success, whereas I consider what you appear to call "people skills" as highly desirable and conductive to success. – O. R. Mapper Jun 30 '17 at 4:18

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