letter to an unknown doctoral researcher

Dear becoming-doctor,

I know that you are about to enrol in a PhD. That’s fab, no really, it’s great – but there’s something I want you to think about as you fill out that form.

By the time you reach the PhD you are well-schooled in the art of comparison. Throughout your long education – school, undergraduate and masters courses – you’ve been ranked and graded against criteria, standards, targets and goals. You’ve also been compared to other people. And this comparison doesn’t stop when you start the doctorate – no, it actually gets more intense. When you enrol in the PhD, you also sign up for endless comparison. Before you even begin to do an introductory course or seminar you are compared to others – and you implicitly or explicitly compare yourself as well.  How? Well here’s two examples:

(1) getting into the PhD

Getting an offer to do the PhD is a competitive game, and part of the process of application is getting the proposal into its most competitive form. You will probably ask yourself – does this project look more appealing to this supervisory team and this university than others? Does my track record look good compared to other people’s? And whoever is assessing your application will ask the same kind of questions.

(2)  getting support to do the PhD

Applying for funding is very competitive and you are inevitably in the game of positioning your proposed work and your history of academic and professional experiences against criteria and (imagined) others. The funders do draw up ranked lists of applicants which address just this question – how does this person and project stack up against the others who’ve applied.

By the time you start actually doing your doctoral research it’s not simply other people who compare you to peers. You also do it yourself because the process demands it. In fact the processes accentuate and embed the practices of comparing yourself to set standards – and implicitly other doctoral researchers. The PhD is full of institutional points which you are expected to understand and meet – can you produce a full proposal within a short space of time? Is your work proceeding at the expected pace or are you behind or ahead? Does your thesis stand a chance of making an original contribution? And so on. Comparison all the way along.


Now, comparison is problematic for two reasons.

Firstly, comparison is always normative. Scholarly comparison works with and to the norms of an academic game – and the norms are clearly problematic. Norms exclude. Norms discriminate. Norms oppress. Norms produce ways of becoming and being that are specifically cultured, gendered, sexualized, raced, abled and embodied. But of course, norms can be challenged – and indeed  in the contemporary university they often are. But academic norms do need my – and your – continued attention.

However, struggling politically and collectively against discriminatory institutional/social norms isn’t all that matters. You also have to deal with the potentially damaging personal effects of being schooled in comparison while also needing to pass your doctoral examination(s).  The second big problem with comparison is that it can be mentally, physically and emotionally harmful if it gets out of control.


  • No-one I know has difficulty getting started on their writing.
  • I am still trying to sort out my research design and everyone else has started.
  • I seem to get reams of feedback from my supervisor on my writing and no-one else does.
  • I’ve read some theses in my field, and they seem so good/important compared to what I am doing.
  • Other doctoral researchers are writing huge amounts every day and I don’t write as much, maybe there is something wrong with me.
  • My friend is already writing chapters and I am still doing analysis.
  • I will never write as well as my friend/supervisor/academic hero.

And so on.

Now, you know what I’m going to say here I’m sure. This kind of comparison is not helpful or healthy if it goes on and on. The occasional side glance at others is almost impossible to avoid. But continued comparison with others, negative or positive, can be really counter-productive. Too much negative comparison really is really de-powering. And too much positive comparison can lead to over-confidence, hubris even.

I’ve heard that you’re a parent. And parents know the comparison trap well. “My child is slow at talking/walking etc compared to my friends child” ignores the reality that children develop at different rates and in different ways. Some children hardly speak at all for a long time and then suddenly produce sentences and conversation all at once. Some children take a long time to walk, others seem to almost skip crawling. It’s good to keep this child development analogy in mind – because the PhD is not entirely unlike a baby – your baby. Just like children, research and theses develop in different ways, and at different paces. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work at the research and writing, you certainly do. But it does mean that looking for direct comparisons with others isn’t always that useful.

Sometimes people who seem to be racing ahead actually aren’t at all. To mix the metaphor, while you might proceed tortoise-like through your PhD, struggling with generating the data, doing the analysis and getting the text sorted out, the hare has handed their dissertation in. But often, hares end up with loads of corrections while tortoises have much less to do. And if they don’t, well let’s be happy for the hare and also happy for the tortoise, because both have got there in the end.

The real problem is that constantly comparing yourself to others can actually impede your work. Yes, I know we can all think of someone who seems to have been spurred on by a drive for normative perfection. And there’s no doubt that knowing what’s expected is crucial to getting to the Dr. But for every one of those competition-loving people there are lots of others who are made very miserable – and often immobilised – by comparing themselves negatively with their peers and against institutional requirements. Sadly, in  my experience, these people often have a much more depressing and pessimistic view of where they are and what they can do than is actually the case.

Being in a state of comparison deficit – that continued feeling of not being good enough compared to others – stops all kinds of important thesis-related activities.  At its worst, feeling crap in comparison to others means you can’t be creative because you don’t feel able to let go. You can’t rely on your imagination because you already know that your ideas wont be as good as other people’s. You can’t just get on with getting on with things, as there seems to be no point. You fret about every word of supervisor feedback as you see all comments as being about the hopeless you, rather than being pointers for what to do next. You can’t critically interrogate the normative nature of expectations because you are so overwhelmed with a sense of not being good enough. Comparison deficit can make you hypercritical of early drafts of writing – or stop you ever getting past the first paragraph.

Comparison deficit is unhealthy, not good for you in any way at all. Comparison can be crippling and painful. A little goes a long way, as the saying goes. Don’t let it stymie your doctoral dreams.

Dear becoming -doctor, it’s important to get to grips with the ways in which comparison has become and keeps on being deeply embodied and embedded and integral to the process of doctoral – and academic – success. Being in the academic game, as it is at present, is highly comparative and competitive. We academics are constantly being ranked in our teaching, research and publication. Our publications and our research funding are generally acquired through competition. So if you do aspire to work in the academy, and you don’t have to sign up for it, you need to be able to manage this side of the work.

I don’t want to put you off the doctorate at all. Research and teaching can be immensely satisfying and pleasurable. I just want you to think about comparison and competition as you start, not later when you’re in the throes of self doubt. It’s so important as you start the doctorate to work on finding your own Goldilocks comparison position – not too self critical, but critical enough to make sure you can play the game where and when you choose to. Critical enough to take on the norms when and where you choose to, preferably in the collective company of others.

Apologies for the lecture. I’m sure you know all of this. It’s just that it’s often hard to put a comparison-lite position into practice.

All the every best.

Your friend, Patter






About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in comparison, competition, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, norms, PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to letter to an unknown doctoral researcher

  1. Jane S says:

    Dear Pat: As ever, an eerily timely post. As one on the lengthy finishing straight (fingers X’d) but in ‘throes of self doubt,’ anxieties and feelings of being alone, I’ve been roughing out a post (a useful tool for self-analysis, blogging!); a thought thread launched by your Aalborg guests’ post of 17 Nov ~ particularly in regard to the processes of interaction and writing that are so rarely, if ever, either mentioned or implemented in research relationships.
    Three or four years ago, all I was interested in was ideas and how to write them, to link felicitously with other ideas. Now I’m thinking the experience overall has turned out to be in diametric opposition to my original determination and imagined creative freedom of expression …
    Your unknown doctoral researcher’s pedagogic and peer relationships may well significantly influence the quality and outcomes of her thesis. It might be fine, acceptable to all parties, for years, until the crunch comes, *inevitably towards the end of the writing process*, when, as you say, we’re vulnerable. You cannot know at the beginning how it’s going to turn out, whether it’s a good fit with the prescriptive trammels of academic writing, and comparing yourself vs others will always make you feel wanting. If you’re given a wealth of positive comments and one tiny little suggestion of a minor change, you’ll focus on the negative implications and fret about not being ‘good enough.’ It was the same at school! You have your own individual internal comparisons and self-doubts to cope with, AND the outside comparisons with the perceived performance or abilities of your peer group. As the man said, back in the fifteenth century, ‘comparisons are odious,’ but the people who tell you they’re shining examples of normative perfection are likely bolstering their own confidence. It’s a human trait – don’t let it get to you.

    However, you and Inger Mewburn are wise counsellors ~ for when the going is tough, and when it isn’t. 🙂


  2. Paul says:

    Thank you for this timely reflection/perspective/advice….yes it has been all that. A few days ago I gave my worst project presentation, nearly broke into tears while at it. We drew lots and I picked the last slot, I sat through all the brilliant presentations from peers and in my mind concluded I shouldn’t be in the same room, or even share the same podium with them. It was the first time I was hit by a panic attack; I froze, forgot everything-couldn’t explain my own slides, couldn’t form meaningful sentences…the longest 10 minutes of shame i endured. I didn’t know how or whether it’s at all possible to bounce back from such an experience.


  3. Pingback: Reflect reading on comparison and competition during PhD – Enjoy today

  4. Kellie says:

    A simple thank-you for brightening my day, adding a little perspective, and giving me hope for moving forward – like a tortoise but toward the finish line (or a “renewed beginning” line).


  5. Pingback: Weekly Round Up |

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