We’ve all been there.

We’ve just started a new project, a new job, or a new role. Maybe its at the same time as someone else. Before long we start comparing ourselves to others and we’re spending waaaayyy too much time obsessing about other people, feeling like they’re doing it better or that they are leaps and bounds ahead.

Competition is an inherent part of science and academia, because we are all vying for resources that are in short supply. There’s hundreds of thousands of researchers all around the world working towards similar goals. Spending all your time thinking about that is neither helpful nor productive.

Learning how to deal with competition the right way is critical, for your success and for your wellbeing.

Step one: change of focus.

Specifically, focus your time on your own business, and not other people’s.

Ask yourself this question: how can I do something outside the box to set myself apart from everyone else? Could I learn some special techniques, gain some unique experience, do some outreach, build my own collaborations, get an internship in another lab? If you can differentiate yourself, your competition becomes irrelevant!

Try making a list of everything that you believe makes an “ideal” early career researcher. All the things that would make someone really attractive to grant agencies, employers, and collaborators. You can even ask your mentors or senior colleagues what types of things they look for that are relevant to your particular field.

Voila – you’ve just created a to do list for yourself. Its going to take time and energy to complete this list, and that’s good! Once you change the definition of how you’re spending your time (i.e. focusing on your own stuff and not obsessing over other people!) you will be putting your energy to good use.

Your competitors are your colleagues.

In reality, your competitors are not actually your competitors – they’re your colleagues! Your colleagues are an untapped resource of knowledge, support and opportunity.

For example, when you are overwhelmed and have too much to do, can you work together or delegate to your peers? Maybe this particular item is more relevant to them, than to you.

Relationships are all about giving and taking, so if you could start to give a little, your colleagues will likely return the favour and you will develop a great relationship over time. Remember that you might all be PhD students right now, but some day, you’re all going to be PIs or CEOs of successful organisations 🙂

Viewing your colleagues as competition is not productive or healthy. Instead, recognise that your colleagues are an opportunity! By strengthening your relationships and building networks with them, you will all help to make each other better.

But, won’t sharing information hurt me?

Sometimes you want to be supportive but get the sense that others are fishing for information. Or you’ve shared some cool opportunities with your pals, but they haven’t reciprocated. Then, when you try to act in a way that you think is more professional, you start to feel competitive and guilty.

I know this feeling really well. So how do I support my peers while protecting myself?

In my experience there are tons of people I work with who I can trust and share almost anything in my life with. Then there are others where I need to keep a little bit of a safe distance. And that’s okay. Figuring that out requires intuition and decisions on a case-by-case basis.

When sharing doesn’t feel right to you, it’s okay to enforce your boundaries. Here’s some of things you can do.

If you start to get the same questions over and over again, you can redirect or return the questions, or point the person in the direction where they can get the information for themselves.

Implement the Quid Pro Quo, or This for That. There’s nothing wrong with exchanging a little bit of value! Not everything has to be a giveaway.

Most importantly, its okay to say “No.” You aren’t obliged to give over sensitive information, or to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Sounds hard? You don’t have to literally say it 🙂 you can just say “I actually don’t share that information, its taken me a long time and energy to build that resource.”

In general people (including myself) have the attitude that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Sometimes the request is without the expectation that you will actually give them what they want. However, its their prerogative to try, and yours to say no. Keeping certain things private doesn’t make you a “bad” person. Sometimes you have to trust your gut or even just do what works for you.

I want to end that on an important note. Your colleagues generally have the best intentions, and there aren’t actually a lot of people you need to keep a safe distance from. Keeping a generous and kind spirit will be the most beneficial for you in the long term, so even though you have the power to say no, use that power only when its really necessary.

A final tip.

I have a final tip that’s helped me enormously over the years. I constantly ask myself: If I am doing my absolute best every single day, what more can I possibly expect of myself?

There are many things in this job that are out of my control: whether my papers are accepted, whether my grants get funded, and whether its me or my friend that gets that one available award. At first, this was a really tough concept to deal with.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that these things are out of my control. The only thing that is in my control, is that I am doing my absolute best every single day. I do still compare myself to one person, and that’s the person I was yesterday, last month, last year. I love where I am while I continuously aim to be better.

There’s enough success for everyone.

Over time, I’ve learned that there’s enough success for everyone, particularly when you consider that we all have something individual to offer. When my friends have successes, I see a win for them as a win for me. We push each other up and celebrate each other’s achievements.

Channelling all our energy in a positive direction has been beneficial for all of us 🙂 it makes every day life easier and our jobs in general so much more enjoyable.

Thanks for reading through to the end. If you liked the blog and found it helpful, give it a “like”, share and leave a comment! I love hearing your feedback, questions, and new things for us to talk about. Dr Nat