Monday, December 15, 2014

Stress: Competition and Ranking

One issue I keep seeing in comments here and elsewhere on this issue is that academia is very competitive, with everyone worried about their rank.  In my last post, I admitted that it would be hard to completely deny that there is competition, particularly when people are younger, which tends to come out when jobs are at stake.  But, for the most part, I think the role of competition is completely exaggerated, strangely so.  Academia -- at least, certainly, my branch of it -- thrives on collaboration, and I believe people who go into it thinking that it is a big competition are going to lose out, both professionally and in their enjoyment of the profession.  (Indeed, one of the reasons I write these posts is because I don't want undergraduate and graduate students getting what I think is a one-sided, incorrect view of how academics work.)

First, I would again like to compare academics with other professions.  I've seen comments (including on this blog) that other professions are less competitive than academia, and people are less worried about rank.  I think people who are making that suggestion need to check in with people working in those professions, because I think they're ridiculously wrong.  Lawyers coming out of school to get jobs, doctors trying to get fellowships or residencies, consultants at consulting firms -- all very competitive.  As you move up, this continues.  For lawyers, there's who can bill the most hours, and the challenge to make partner;  for doctors, who can get the best positions at hospitals;  and for businesspeople, every promotion is a step up.  Even for software engineering types, there's competition.  When I was a graduate student, I recall visiting friends who had gone to a large well-known company, and for a large part of the evening all they talked about was what "level" they and others were in the company and the annual reviews and who was doing what project that might get them ahead.  So let's not be delusional and start by acknowledging that there's competition everywhere, and that's unsurprising when jobs and money are at stake.  While I'm not suggesting I have deep knowledge of all of these careers, I think academics have much less competition than most.  

If academics appear like they're concerned about ranking, perhaps it's because they appear to be easy to rank.  First, as I pointed out last post, there's not that many of us.  Second, there are obvious metrics everyone can understand:  number of papers published, number of papers appearing in "top" conferences, and h-index stand out.  I'm not suggesting these are good metrics -- but they're easy and to a first order give (potentially) some useful information.  They're a quick way of bucketing or sorting people, particularly those without an established track record and are therefore not necessarily widely known or visible in the field, and therefore have more of an impression and an impact on younger academics.

But very quickly after your PhD, this sort of ranking loses its importance, and the very idea of ranking starts to lose its value -- as many have noted in a variety of venues.  In academia, there's lots of ways to be successful, many points on the Pareto frontier.  There are many great results waiting to be found and many different subfields to work in.  At the end of the day, a history of good work and specific achievements is what people look for;  there's not really a finite pool of such things for which to compete.  Indeed, I'm not sure how I would go about competing with the top people in the field, except to try to do interesting work, which is what I'm trying to do anyway.  (A secondary way to compete is just to make sure people know about your work.  But giving talks is less important to being successful than doing the work that goes into the talks in the first place;  again, it can have a bigger impact for people in the early stages of their career.) 

Against this idea of competition, just look at how people in academia work together.  In computer science theory, in particular, most papers have several authors working together.  In a number of cases these are students with their advisors, but a closer look reveals that in many cases, they are not.  Credit can be shared easily in academia, and collaborations can lead to results that individuals could not get alone.  Working in groups is a way for people to get more done.  Instead of competition, collaboration often yields the path to having a greater impact on the field.  Rather than being a "competitive game", research is more a "cooperative game".  (As an aside, this is why theory's approach of alphabetical order for authors rather than some sort of implicit "credit scheme" based on author order makes such great sense.)  In most areas of computer science that I've participated in, a similar spirit prevails.

I encourage graduate students to team up pick out projects to work on together (and have seen this at other places, also -- one of my best experiences as a graduate student was such a project).  It gives them something to do and a sense of ownership outside of working with their advisor.  And, importantly, in reinforces that these other students are their colleagues, and that working together is a great idea that can gain for everyone.  Hopefully, they also learn that working together is more fun and generally more productive than working alone.  When it comes to hiring time, it's nice to see students who have worked on such team projects, because I typically prefer colleagues with a track record of working well with others.     

Sometimes small competitions break out, sure -- multiple groups are working on the same or similar problems.  Often, though, this is a very healthy competition, pushing progress forward in an area over a series of papers.  I remember in the past an argument with another group when we were working on similar problems and an issue of "credit" in the writeup of the various papers came up.  A week later, we were starting collaborations together on new ideas.  That's not exactly the sign of a super-competitive landscape. 

It could be that I've just got a mistaken impression of the field.  Harvard is a wonderfully collaborative place, and personally I've found overall I like working with others more than on my own.  But when I think of cutthroat competition, I don't think of the job I'm in.

To conclude the post, I think what may be going on is people confuse "competition" with "drive".  Most academics are smart, successful people, who are internally driven by a desire to do great work.  To many, that must appear like "competition", but if so, it's internal competition -- you're not out to beat others, but to be our best.  And I think it's very possible academia does have more "Type A" personalities that have this internal drive that is, surely, not always healthy.  It's not clear to me that this academia's fault -- such people would be similarly driven in any career -- but, if it is true, then it suggests we might consider if this is best for our field, and how we might open up the field to a wider set of personalities or how we might make work in this field healthier for this type of personality.  


Luca Aceto said...


Thanks for a very interesting posts on a topic that touches many (all?) of us at some point in our academic careers and for the pointers to other blog posts I was unaware of. The comments have been thoughtful and I enjoyed reading them.

I don't have the knowledge needed to compare stress levels in different professions or even among different career stages in the same profession. However, IMHO, there are several potential sources of stress in our work and some of the most pernicious ones are perhaps self-inflicted and are closely related to drive. (A point you mentioned in this post of yours.)

One is the angst that comes with research, which we share with all the other "creative professions", and feeds the inner worm of self-doubt. I am sure that I am not alone in wondering whether I still have it in me to produce some "new" research and write another paper on it. Part of our work is to keep producing new knowledge and we feel that we are not fulfilling our job description and we are letting down our own department/research community/funding agency if we do not do so for some time. I think that this has led several of us to depression and this includes some people who did truly seminal work at some point in their careers.

The poet Sylvia Plath wrote: "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." Sadly, her life ended in suicide.

One of the joys of our work is having young, very bright colleagues and students around us. However, when self-doubt and depression start working their way into someone's psyche, this can turn into a curse. Our inner voices might start comparing their success with our (relative) lack of achievement, feeding the worm of self-doubt even more and increasing the psychological pressure to "produce". As Sylvia Plath's quote says, this state of mind is not conducive to creative work and may lead to a vicious circle.

The negative feeling that if one does not produce research, papers, or funding for some time then one is letting the whole department/university down may be even worse in a small department where one is considered to be one of the flag-bearers.

What can one do about this? As Paul Beame wrote in an excellent comment on your first post in this series, I think that stressing a collegial and collaborative atmosphere in our own work places can help a lot. Lone rangers die.

ThinkingFish said...

The stress in academia is not so much about being in a competitive environment with bright people around one, but more about how those in academia perceive the environment.

I tend to believe that the widespread early success and smooth school experiences lead to a higher percentage of academics coping relatively poorly with pressure, setbacks, and a very high expectation for themselves both in absolute and relative terms. It doesn't apply to everybody, but in academia way more people are like that compared to the general population.

It is indeed the case much of the stress is self-inflicted. To reduce the (perceived) stress, they way bright people are raised and educated need to change to give them a healthy dose of challenge early on, so they can learn to cope. And as talent concentrate as one proceed through education, we need to help them continuously re-gauge their expectations.