Thoughts on Competition in Academia

This page is part of my Advice for Students.

Read This First

I created page to share my thoughts about competition in academia with my students. I focus on a competition structure that often appears in the following forms (and others):

All of these are extra-curricular, in the sense that they are ungraded and do not show up on academic transcripts. They are optional to degree requirements (except for graduate admissions: i.e., you must get in to earn the degree), though students benefit from participating in them. All involve evaluation by panelists who are faculty or other professionals. These panelists read students' portfolios, interview students, or both. Students receive little guidance for finding meaning in these competitions: the typical practice of urging students to aim high and to persist against difficult odds, while appropriate, provides an incomplete picture.

I describe some of my experiences with competition (especially my mistakes), some recurring patterns that students may not be aware of, and some thoughts about extracting value regardless of outcome. I encourage students to apply for competitive opportunities, especially to gain certain benefits that are more reliable than the possibility of winning. Students who are drawn to competition, who fear it, or who feel unduly affected by it might particularly relate to the contents of this page.

The Thoughts

a long exposure of a street intersection in a city at night, showing streaks of headlights and tailights; the sky glows blue
Oakland, a Pittsburgh neighborhood.


I Was an Overachieving College Student

As an undergraduate, I participated in my university's honors program and lived in an honors dorm. It was a tight-knit community of students where I met most of my closest college friends and also my future wife. We were encouraged to have thoughtful conversations, to support each other, to challenge assumptions, and to make bold plans.

In a dorm where many students had double majors or myriad minors, I was the rare triple major (computer science, mathematics, and philosophy), and I accumulated enough credits to turn each major into a separate degree when I graduated. I also submitted honors theses for each of them. I received outstanding senior awards from the computer science department and the philosophy department. By most reasonable measures, I was a successful college student.

However, I rarely felt satisfied or comfortable with the things I had done.

Other Students Over-Overachieved Me

Among my friends were Goldwater Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, NSF Graduate Research Fellows, and Marshall Scholars. I applied for Goldwater and the NSF fellowship but I didn't receive either of them, nor any other major national scholarships. I didn't accumulate the kind of portfolio to create a strong application for Fulbright or Marshall.

Down the hall from me in the honors dorm was a friend who was a quadruple major, with four minors and a higher GPA than mine. While I often overworked myself, he appeared to handle his (much greater) workload with finesse. Others handled workloads similar to mine with relative ease, giving them more time to build friendships and enjoy the freedom of college.

The rejection that bothered me the most was for a university scholarship that I applied for during my sophomore year. The application required a portfolio of intense personal reflection and a proposal to go on an international trip that would enhance my education. I had little experience with traveling alone; I was afraid of both losing (not getting to go) and winning (having to go). My first-round interview went poorly, and I was eliminated from further consideration. That evening I walked around campus in a daze, wondering what the rejection would mean for my future. (In retrospect: not much. Things turned out fine.)

The main reason I had interviewed poorly was fatigue: I had overworked myself in the days leading up to the interview, leaving insufficient time for sleep. I tried to recover by taking a nap just before the interview, but I still woke up tired. Talking with the panel, my mind was blank from exhaustion.

What Motivated Me to Compete for Things?

Several reasons, including:

construction cranes around a tall building at night; the cranes have red lights and the building is lit in purple
London construction site.


Criteria Saturation

As faculty, I serve on panels to rank candidates or select winners for competitive things: scholarships, fellowships, awards, science fair prizes, grants, and research internships. When I review applications for the most sought-after opportunities, there is a common problem: some of the best candidates win, but there are many best candidates and not enough resources to accommodate all of them.

Selection panels use implicit or explicit criteria for choosing among candidates. However, these criteria become less meaningful when many candidates maximally satisfy them. Differences in panelists' interpretation of the criteria become more significant to the outcome than differences in candidates' portfolios. Competitions require panelists to make judgements when otherwise no reasonable judgement could be made.

When I was a college student, a scholarship panelist once spoke with me after an interview to deliver the news that I hadn't been selected. Apologetically, she pointed out that "there can only be one [winner]". I didn't understand her frustration at the time—after all, she wasn't the one receiving bad news—but I understand it now.

Limits on Meritocracy

When my first round of graduate school applications essentially failed, a faculty member tried to reassure me that talent and hard work always eventually led to success. It was a dubious claim of meritocracy: that performing well would inevitably attract awards and achievements.

There are many reasons to doubt that student competitions are purely meritocratic, including:

Time is also a factor: Someone who has the time to apply for lots of opportunities may appear to be more successful than someone whose time is more limited. As an undergraduate, I once exploited a loophole in a scholarship competition that allowed me to submit three separate applications, through each of my majors' departments. I received the scholarship, and ironically, one of the departments that declined to forward my application to the finalist level posted a news article on their website announcing that I had won it.

Sheer Luck

One time interviewing for a scholarship in college, I faced a panel of half a dozen interviewers who had just returned from lunch. They had clearly enjoyed themselves, and were still chatting and entertaining each other with jokes when I entered the room. The room was arranged formally—they sat in a row behind a table, with a single chair set out in front for me—yet once we began talking the mood was light and friendly.

Partway through the interview, just as I had spoken the first few words to answer a question, a panelist blurted out something: he spoke so quickly that I couldn't tell what he said. The rest of the panel must have understood, because they burst into uproarious laughter. I worried that I had misspoken or somehow distracted them from evaluating me. It took them a few minutes to calm down, and instead of letting me finish my answer they moved on to the next question. However, they must have enjoyed speaking with me; later that day I found out I had won the scholarship.

I chose the interview slot after lunch because it fit best into my schedule, and I'll never know what was so funny. That kind of luck wasn't enough to win the scholarship, but it was still a factor I benefitted from while other applicants did not.

Information, More or Less

Criteria saturation, the limits of meritocracy, sheer luck, and other factors limit how much participants can learn from a competition. A participant who wins learns that their portfolio was among the best. A participant who doesn't win typically learns less: they might have one of the best portfolios, or they might not. It's an odd imbalance, and it means that the participants who most want to learn from the experience receive the least information from the outcome.

Panelists occasionally provide feedback on rejected applications, but liability concerns and the risks of accidentally misleading applicants often restrain them (panelists) from providing the full picture.

the harbor of a small seaside town at night, taken from a nearby hill
Stonehaven, Scotland.

Finding the Value

Judging the Opportunity Instead of Judging Yourself

Why should you apply for competitive opportunities if they require time and effort, and the odds of winning are low?

Some students simply can't resist (e.g., myself as an undergraduate), and some have no choice (e.g., the student who depends on scholarships to attend college). Some have priorities elsewhere and do not compete. However, for many the decision can be difficult. Impostor syndrome, time constraints, and uncertainty of one's personal chances each may play a role. Extended self-evaluation leads students to agonize and procrastinate over decisions to apply for opportunities.

An alternative to self-evaluating, or an addition to it, is to evaluate the application process. Consider whether applying for an opportunity will give you any of the following:

All of the above you can do without something to apply to, but structure and deadlines are often helpful to accomplish them.

Continuity, Not Existentialism

There's meaning to feeling bad when you don't win; it's difficult to work toward something without feeling invested in the outcome. However, for most students and most competitions, a negative outcome won't make life measurably worse.

For the most significant opportunities I applied to, rejection initially felt like a life-changing loss. The magnitude of the sense of loss was an illusion: I was equally not a Goldwater Scholar the day before I received notification and the day after. I was continuously not an NSF graduate research fellow before I applied the first time, between my two rejections, and still now. However, I had benefitted from structured opportunities to think about myself, to talk with mentors, and to update my documentation of my accomplishments and goals.

Merit and Fit

Some competitions focus on merit: the goal is to select the best students in holistic sense. For example, panelists choose students who show the most potential for becoming successful college students, groundbreaking artists, or productive researchers. They may want to select students that best exemplify a set of ideals or virtues.

Other competitions focus on fit: the goal is to select the students who are expected to perform best in specific roles. For example, panelists may choose students who are best suited for a certain environment or have the right combination of skills for a project.

Merit and fit aren't mutually exclusive, and some opportunities equally prioritize both. However, competitions later in college and throughout graduate school tend to place greater emphasis on fit. From the applicant perspective, the transition from merit to fit is about the difference between presenting oneself as an overall promising student (i.e., one who is likely to develop talents into accomplishments) and presenting oneself as a future valuable member of a specific team or workplace.

It's easier to learn from competition outcomes if you know how much merit and fit respectively were part of the evaluation.

Achievement Versus Personal Success

Academic achievements typically aren't correlated with success in one's personal life. A person might have both, or just one. As a college student, I watched some of my most accomplished friends deal with or instigate unrelated near-constant drama in their personal lives. (Compartmentalization is an important skill!) If you don't personally know someone but you're aware of their accomplishments, it's easy to idolize them, but you shouldn't. Recognizing their humanity also makes the achievements you associate with them seem less daunting.

The Long View

As I'm writing the first full draft of this page, I am 10 years past receiving my PhD and 16 years past receiving my undergraduate degrees. I can reflect on what competitions as a student meant to me.

The most painful experience with declined applications was the first round of graduate school applications, and the second worst was the sophomore scholarship I mentioned earlier in this guide. Neither these nor any other declined applications had a long-term detrimental effect on my goals or my career: partway through college I began thinking that I wanted to be a tenure-track professor at a major research university, and I am now.

Weighing my competitive successes as a student, two NSF-funded graduate fellowships for summers abroad stand out. The professional gains were modest, but the personal gains were huge: I got the life-changing study abroad experiences that I had wanted as an undergraduate, except better, and my fear of travel turned into enjoyment and a constant want for more. I've been successful at making travel part of my career.

It seems instructive that two successes stand out and the many failures had negligible impact. Because I wasn't exceptionally lucky, I needed to accumulate lots of attempts to get the things that I wanted, but I eventually did.

About the Pictures

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.

tall buildings of a large city, lit up at night, from the perspective of a nearby plaza
Central Singapore.

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