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The ‘Reality’ of Doctoral Programs: Competition vs Collaboration

New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate
December 21, 2021 Tori Callais

As much as I sometimes am embarrassed to admit, reality television consumes way too much of my time and has since I was in middle school. I can remember at a young age watching marathons of America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) on CW or VH1 and hearing the contestants and judges repeat the phrase, “this is a competition, you’re/I’m not here to make friends”. As an adult reflecting on that show, there are countless moments that are full of controversy (to say the very least), but as a second year doctoral student the quote mentioned could be placed in academia and fit just as well. I want you to take a moment and think about pursuing a doctoral degree- what comes to mind? I know when looking to apply for programs, I thought of the heavier workload, countless readings and papers, and an overwhelming idea that doctoral work was survival of the fittest. Or to put that last part into ANTM framework, only one could be given the title of ANTM (and win the prizes that slightly change every season). While my own doctoral experience has indeed been full of continuous readings and papers, I have found that collaboration and building community has been immensely helpful rather than leaning into the competitive nature of academia. Through my own experience, I have found that finding my people, challenging the ways we define collaboration and intentionally questioning who benefits from the culture of competition in academia has made all the difference. 

Scene 1: Finding Your People

Reality television shows exist because there is a team of people working together to create entertainment. Similar to these teams, in doctoral programs cultivating meaningful relationships takes time and effort. Some doctoral programs have cohort models that help with the facilitation of these relationships, while other programs take more strategic connection building across different years when students begin the program. For me, I found that attending virtual social events put on by our student organization and creating a GroupMe with my cohort was immensely helpful to getting to know people. Your collaborators may not even be in your own doctoral program. While I am incredibly grateful for my own cohort, I continue to work with former faculty members, classmates, coworkers and friends and family. Competition in academia attempts to have us believe that we have to do this high stress experience alone, but in other high stress situations it’s recommended that we rely on a support system to reach our goals. Why should our academic experience be different from other experiences in our lives? Though some may argue that competition challenges you as an individual to better your skills and performance, I think there is also an argument about how your community can challenge you to be the best version of yourself too. 

Scene 2: Collaboration is Not a One Size Fits All Approach

Just like there is no one way to do a runway walk or take a photo on ANTM, collaboration comes in many different forms. Often, we think of collaboration in doctoral work as working on a group project, but collaboration in a doctoral program can be much more expansive than this. In my own experience, I have collaborated with other members of my cohort (and extended cohort) through reviewing each other’s papers and providing feedback, scheduling virtual writing or work times where we hold each other accountable to show up and work, working on research teams together, sharing grant, scholarship, conference deadlines with one another, celebrating each other’s wins via GroupMe or in person, and checking in to make sure people are okay throughout the semester. Collaboration is an ever-evolving experience, but it’s important to identify what approaches feel authentic and good to you. 

Scene 3: Questioning Who Benefits  

Competition can be entertaining to watch on television, but who benefits from the culture of competition in academia? Instead of going with the motions of what has been done by previous students and faculty members, it’s important to ask ‘why’ to see how we can create a more cohesive and supportive environment. If you are reluctant to share grant opportunities or scholarships or journal submission deadlines with those in your program so that you have less people to compete with, but you support social justice…there’s a disconnect. Just as there is a disconnect with doctoral programs that articulate social justice in their mission statements but continue to perpetuate cultures that are isolating. The ‘reality’ of it all is that competition is not necessarily going to disappear any time soon (especially as we continue to navigate the intersection of higher education and capitalism), but there is an opportunity for us as doctoral students to prioritize community building for the betterment of our learning, programs, and academia in general.

Author: Tori Callais (She/Her/Hers) is a second-year doctoral student in the higher education program at Loyola University Chicago and works with Dr. Demetri Morgan as a research assistant. Prior to enrolling at Loyola, Tori worked as a practitioner in the areas of orientation, first year experience, college access, as well as working in state government. Her research interests include critical whiteness studies, the intersection of whiteness and gender, and antiracism in higher education. Tori received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Louisiana State University with a major in liberal arts- concentration women and gender studies and minors in sociology and social work. She holds a Master of Arts Degree in Higher Education Administration from Louisiana State University.