Competitiveness in academia

In this blog post, I will talk about competitiveness in academia. I will discuss questions such as: What are the different forms of competition in academia? Is there too much competition in academia? and How to cope with competition?

The different forms of competition in academia

Generally competition means that many people will compete to access a limited amount of resources and opportunities. In academia, competition happens at many levels:

  • Students competing against each other in courses. Students taking courses at an undergraduate or graduate level sometimes compete with each other to obtain the highest grades. This is especially true for courses where the teacher uses a normal curve for grading. For example, when I was a graduate student, some professors would give the highest grade (A+) to only the top 5% of students. Then, some students would work quite hard to be in that top 5%.
  • Being admited in graduate school. The best students may be admitted in better research teams and research institutions for their master degree or PhD.
  • Competing for scholarships. The best students are often selected to receive scholarships.
  • Publishing papers in conferences and journals. Publishing research papers is a competitive process. This is especially true for conferences that only accept a limited number of papers and have a good reputation. Some journals are also very competitive because they receive many papers and only publish the best.
  • Competing for a post-doctoral researcher or faculty position. The job market in academia is also very competitive. Some universities receive hundreds of CVs for some faculty positions. In fact, there are much more people that have Ph.Ds than there are faculty positions available, in several countries. Thus, not all PhD graduates can continue working in academia.
  • Competing for research project funding. Obtaining funding is also a competitive process, as many researchers wants to obtain funding.
  • Competing for research impact. There are millions of research papers that are published but many of them are never cited. Writing papers that can have a major impact is difficult and is often a matter of publishing results first and doing a better work than other researchers.
  • Competing for awards. Several awards are given to researchers based on the quality of their work such as “best paper awards” at conferences. Few researchers may receive it.

Is there too much competition in academia?

Hence, there is competition in academia. But is there too much? It is hard to say if it is too much, but there is certainly quite a lot of competition. For example, competing for publishing papers in top conferences or obtaining faculty positions in some countries can be very difficult. Some people certainly don’t like to have that much competition, while others are comfortable with it. A positive aspect of competition is that it can push researchers to work harder. But a negative aspect is that some people may be discouraged or fail to attain their goals due to the limited resources and opportunities.

Generally, I think that it is necessary to have at least some minimum level of competition. For example, it make sense that some papers are not accepted in top conferences and journals because these papers are weak and contain major problems.

How to cope with competition?

Given that there is a high level of competition in academia, what one should do to be sucessful? Some people believe that they should solely focus on their own success and not contribute to the success of others. This is the mindset that some people have in sports where helping other people would decrease your chances of winning. However, academia is not like that. The most successful researchers generally have many collaborations with other researchers. The reason is that collaboration can bring benefits to all researchers that are cooperating (it is not a zero-sum game). For example, doing research projects with other researchers allows to obtain ideas and comments from collaborators that can be very valuable. Collaborating can also result in producing more papers. Building strong connections with other researchers can also help obtaining opportunities such as being invited to join committes of conferences. To know more researchers, a good way is to attend academic conferences.

Inside a research team, there can be some competition sometimes. However, members of a research team should try to collaborate or at least support each other. This can benefit all members, and also the whole team.

Also, one should not feel discouraged by competition. If one really wants to achieve some goals, it is always possible. But it requires to makes these goals clear as early as possible and to work hard to attain these goals. I think that working hard and smart are some of the most important skills in academia.


In this blog post, I talked about competitiveness in academia, as I think that it is a very important topic for researchers. I have shared a few ideas related to that. If you want to share your comments or your experience about how you are living competition in academia or if you think that I forgot to talk about something important, please post a message in the comment section below! I will be happy to read you.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a professor of Computer Science and also the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 150 data mining algorithms.

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