Pre-tenure survival: The competition

Jul 09 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The Monkey has a post up about the internal awkwardness of the feelings related to congratulating a peer on their success. The conversation stems from this tweet from Karen James. There was much agreement on the twits that people find it difficult to see others succeed. In particular, this rang true with pre-tenure folks who have milestones they see is career-critical and have watched others make it to these points faster than themselves.

Been there. Done that.

Here's the thing: it never really gets better. I left the following comment on DrugMonkey's post and it is the unfortunate truth.

It doesn't matter how successful you have been or are being, there will always be someone running just a bit faster. And you will always compare yourself to front-runners and forget that people are comparing themselves to you and feeling less successful. It's the nature of the business, it's human nature and even if you're sailing along at a solid clip, it won't get easier. Be happy for them and move on.

Nearly every single position has different constraints and requirements. For the first couple of years I had this job I was constantly looking at one of my foreign collaborators and stressing over the fact that their publication rate was way better than mine. It turns out that this collaborator has zero teaching responsibility and an automatic budget to count on in addition to any grant funds. That is not my situation.

While that's a bit of an extreme example, even colleagues who work in comparable positions as mine have very different responsibilities and commitments. Some are doing better than I am and some are falling a bit behind and I completely expect that there will be peaks and valleys for all of us in the coming years. Nevertheless, one will always focus on the labs setting the pace.

It's okay to be competitive. It's okay to strive to be the leader. But don't define your success that way or you will undoubtedly spend more time chasing windmills than developing your career.

17 responses so far

  • Acclimatrix says:

    Thanks for this. I struggle with this so much, and your comment on international collaborators is so apt. I literally cannot compete with them, because of the circumstances you describe. It's frustrating.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In fairness, I also have european colleagues who struggle mightily just to afford basic supplies because they are not of The Chosen Few. There's variability everywhere.

    However, the sooner one recognizes that you have certain constraints that make a difference for your productivity and begin to factor that into your field-view, the better off you'll be. Focusing on making the most of your own situation is a good way to end up being ahead of the curve without obsessing over it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I have two comps (as they say in the real estate biz) who were really kicking my butt early in my career. One eventually got hit with a career setback that rivals some of my own woes, maybe worse. It all evens out, at least more so than it may look right at the current moment.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm willing to bet you had plenty more comps who you didn't compare yourself to because they weren't doing as well.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I dunno....I was looking for positive news pretty hard 🙂

  • mytchondria says:

    Nana always use to say, "You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do"*.

    While I relate to what Karen says about the angst over other's success, I don't feel it. I congratulate those who I know who have worked hard and gotten ahead all the time. Others who have been weasels get the side eye.

    For the earnest, often lucky, few that are moving ahead at any given time, I give them a card with $10 inside like Nana use to send me and tell them 'to go get themselves a treat'. I did that with the new head of Medicine and an endowed chair. Both of whom thought it was hilarious/endearing.

    Life is short.

    * Nana might have been quoting Elenor Roosevelt or vise versa.

  • NatC says:

    I LOVE the idea of the $10 gift! I'm gonna start doing it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think my sensitivity towards this has drastically reduced as I have become more comfortable with my place among my peers.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Survival has a way of armoring one against slings and arrows, eh?

  • mytchondria says:

    That's why I'm coming after you with a bazooka, Ted.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Survival directly selects for those good at handling rejection and feelings of running in quicksand. After a while it's just another Monday and this kind of shit rolls off a lot easier than it used to.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Re: The Chosen Few in European system of science, pay attention all ye fans of restructuring NIH funding to provide a less competitive base level of funding.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Tenure has certainly changed my feelings somewhat. There's a difference between envying someone's success and envying their ability to have a career at all while you worry about whether you'll be looking for a new job in a few years.

    As far as envying other people's success in general, a friend of mine already had multiple Nature papers* as a postdoc and went on to be a super high flyer once she became a PI, so I got over myself pretty early on in that regard.

    *The kind that don't get retracted.

  • namnezia says:

    Now I'm feeling insecure since mytchondria has not sent me my 10 dollars after I got my grant. And I really could use some frozen yoghurt right now...

  • mytchondria says:

    Nam, remove the restraining order so I can be in contact and I'll give you $10.

  • I am friendly with several scientists who each lie awake at night agonizing over whether they are going to win a Nobel Prize. And they are not delusional: they each actually could win one. They already have huge amounts of fame, funding, and high-profile publications, and now this is what they make themselves miserable over. It's fucken pathetic.

  • […] okay to be competitive. It’s okay to strive to be the leader. But don’t define your success that way or you will undoubtedly spend more time chasing windmills than developing your […]

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