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Competition vs. Community in Grad School


Making the decision to go to graduate school carries with it a lot of concerns and fears.  Financial matters, balancing schoolwork with work-work, and social/family life are all puzzle pieces the majority of us struggled to fit together when we decided to return to the classroom. 

These were the known hurdles, but what about the unanticipated challenges?  For me, one of the major difficulties was coping with competition. 

I can honestly say I did not foresee grown adults, with established careers, twitching over the idea of an A- and tripping over each other to charm professors.  I didn’t realize instructors would be listing the class grades and that I would be receiving a litany of texts about “what I got”.

After years of clinical practice, I foolishly believed I had the market cornered on coping with high stress while working as a team alongside others towards a common goal.

Any intense experience has the power to draw people together, forcing them to rely on each other for support and motivation.  It’s tragic to lose sight of the gift we have in a peer group, especially when studying something as intense as medicine or nursing. 

Success at practicing these disciplines relies on our ability to treat fellow human beings with compassion and empathy, often putting our patients’ emotional needs first.  Yet, in the academic setting, an overly competitive element overshadows the endpoint of growing into capable providers.  It becomes more about the A, the recognition, and the attention. 

Some people are able to use the competitive nature of others as motivation for themselves.  They can tune out the hysteria and instead focus on their own performance, only seeing others in the periphery. I was not one of these people, and as I reached out to others in similar programs, I found many who felt like I did. 

From bizarre stories like the girl who logged all of her classmates comments in a book to my own experiences of peers breaking program rules. Quite a few of us are facing this challenge we might not have expected at this stage in our lives.

So what works? 

I really believe that unhealthy competition leads to division, and the antidote to division is community.  Finding people in your program that help foster learning but also mental well-being is key. A lot of the negative behaviors are rooted in fears of being inadequate, of poor performance, and unmet expectations. 

Having a friend or peer in your program to keep you in check when you begin to become overwhelmed or go into self-doubt can be a great tool to keep from going off the deep end.  Reassurance that you are not alone in your fears can restore confidence and keep you from becoming one of those people focused only on a perfect score and not on real learning and growth.

One aspect of competition also has to do with being solely focused on yourself and your performance. A great way to combat this is through activities that benefit everyone. My best friend, who struggled with preparing for exams, would host study sessions at her house.  I would collect sample test questions from a few peers and make us practice exams. 

There are always going to be classmates who are struggling – reaching out to ask how someone is doing helps tremendously. The end result is that everyone winds up learning, feeling that they have a resource to go to for support, and that they are working toward a goal as part of a team.

“Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” – Mattie Stepanek