Shifting mindsets from competitive to collaborative

In Australia, if you are a psychology student, this is the process:

  • Step 1: Get into a psychology degree
  • Step 2: Get consistently higher grades
  • Step 3: Get into the one year honours program with your fabulous grades
  • Step 4: Go and do a professional masters (e.g., clinical, neuropsychology, or organisational) or a masters of research (which leads to a PhD)

(N.B., there are variations between institutions, but steps 1-3 are fairly universal. And I’m certain that this experience probably extends beyond just psychology students.)

This process puts into a competitive mindset.

I have to get good grades to get into Honours. 

I have to do better than all my friends or I won’t get into honours.

I can’t ask for help from my friends or they will steal all my good ideas.

Although you are jovial with the people you sit next to in class, you moan about lecturers and assignments together, at the back of your mind you are constantly thinking “are they smarter than me? Will they get into honours and I won’t?” And, if you’re not careful, this mindset persists even once you make it into honours and beyond. I’m fairly certain some people spend their entire academic careers thinking like this. 

This mindset is so unhelpful. I’ve found that you get infinitely more out of your education when you think about the people around you as collaborators rather than as competitors. Once thing I loved about doing the honours program was that everyone was working on a different project and writing a thesis. We could explain the methods of our studies to each other and offer advice. We could ask each other for help with statistical analysis. This is because we didn’t feel like we were competing anymore. One person might have been conducting a longitudinal study on anxiety and gut issues and another person might have been researching decision-making under pressure, both of which have completely different methods and different ways of analysing the data. There was no way to “steal ideas” from each other so it felt safer to share and ask for help.

It was during honours that I realised it takes a village to write a thesis. Apart from the support from non-academic friends and family, you need your nerdy buddies around you. I set up weekly coffee sessions where we could discuss our projects and ask “the hivemind” for help. This continued throughout my masters and PhD. From the outside we just looked like a bunch of PhD students eating lunch and whining about their PhDs. But the sessions were so good for our mental health and often for our PhDs. Sometimes your supervisors don’t have all the answers, but one of your friends might. Sometimes you’re just too close to the problem to see the solution. Your friends have more distance and might be able to help. Foster your friendships and shift your mindset. It will help you get through the PhD.

A final caveat: Some people are in labs or research groups that don’t have the best culture. They are very competitive for a variety of reasons. Check out this post for some advice.

– Alessa Teunisse

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