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Helping to cope with competitive environment

  1. Apr 18, 2013 #1
    Hello all,
    I am a second year physics grad student in the US. I'm writing this in the hope that someone who has gone through grad school can help, although I'll gladly take opinions from other people :).
    Ever since I came here for graduate school (I did my undergraduate education outside the US) I have felt a very competitive atmosphere. And it's not that my classmates are super competitive, or that they want to put me down or something like that. I feel like it's part reality but it's also a mental thing. Before coming here, I had no worries of this sort, I simply studied what I loved, didn't care for how everyone else did, and just enjoyed the learning experience. But now, for starters, classes are competitively curved, which I've never had before. I hate this system and it seems to be a constant throughout the US. Back in my country, you were graded based on how well you understood the class and that is it. But here it's more a competition to see how good or bad you do with respect to your classmates. I can see both advantages and (more) disadvantages to that, but since it's something that I probably cannot change, I would like to hear some suggestions on how people deal with this. I've tried to not mind it, but I'm somehow always a bit concerned about how my classmates do. And since the academic world is so competitive (my dream is to work in academia), I worry too much that not being in the top X% means I am useless for academia. It can be really depressing. And it's not only classes, I feel an overall pressure to know who is the best. I can't take it!

    Do you guys have any suggestions on how to simply do your best without minding everyone else's achievements? (I wish I could just do that, but much easier said than done)
    Thanks everyone.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 18, 2013 #2
    I know several tenured, productive academics that have failed undergrad and grad courses, in some cases several times(even in their field of specialty!). The most extreme case is one that got kicked out of university for a year. Didn't stop the person from making what most would call a successful career though (if you care, I can PM you a person to the person's personal webpage, and no it is not the forumer here with a similar story).
  4. Apr 18, 2013 #3


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    You're probably feeling a little more sensitive to this in graduate school because (a) it's a little different than what you're used to and (b) you've gone through another bottelneck where everyone in the pool of graduate students was a top-achiever in undergrad and now, you're likely a little closer to "average" among your peers.

    One thing to keep in mind is that marks tend to matter less in gradaute school than they did in undergrad. Becaue the failure bar is fairly high, unless you actually and outright fail, your grades in a graduate class are not likely to have any major impact on your career. The research that you do and the skills that you pick up become a lot more important.

    You may also want to spend some time talking with your professors to make sure you understand how the curving system is applied. In my experience curves usually didn't bring people's marks down, rather, if the class collectively struggled with a challenging exam, the marks were increased to enforce a predetermined mean for example.

    Finally, remember to take some time to do your own personal exploration. It's easy to be completely consumed by a graduate courseload, but try to squeeze in some time for reading about things that interest you (scientifican and otherwise) or personal projects that don't really have anything to do with school. Join a club. Try a new sport. Adding another dimension to your life can ease the strain on trying to "be the best" in the others.
  5. Apr 18, 2013 #4


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    IMO: Grading on a curve is a horrible way to evaluate performance. The cutthroat, zero-sum game atmosphere is highly detrimental to fostering a sense of camaraderie among students. Given that nearly every job I've ever had requires employees to work together and share information, it's not a good way to create good employees, either.

    Yet I went through it, I survived (bachelor's only - never felt any desire to go further). I will say this about it: you get a great sense of achievement if you get through, and a lot of confidence.

    You should try to make friends with people who are ahead of you or behind you in the program. That way, you won't be competing with people you consider friends.
  6. Apr 18, 2013 #5
    That sounds interesting, thanks for raising my hopes. Can you send me this person's webpage?
  7. Apr 19, 2013 #6

    Thank you guys, that helped :)
  8. Apr 19, 2013 #7
    This is a very insightful post that I highly agree with. The grad school system is about the same as my undergrad so I only had to adapt to my undergrad. I don't like being graded against my peers either. It seemed to be a constant cause of tension for some. I still remember 30% test averages where a 50% was an A..

    What I did was just focused on doing the best I can without thinking about the end result. I would constantly ask myself after every quiz, test, and even homework if there was more I could have done. If the answer was yes then I failed. It's the "winning vs succeeding" attitude.

    Bardeen, would you mind explaining this more: "Back in my country, you were graded based on how well you understood the class and that is it." I am curious how this works.
  9. Apr 19, 2013 #8
    I really don't like it either. Even though I'm only an undergrad, I am taking a graduate course at a large state university very well known for math. The environment is competitive and everyone seems to be worried more about doing better/worse than other people than their own personal development. At the same time, this does force some students to work harder. For example. I bombed our first midterm, even compared to everyone else. With that chip on my shoulder I worked much harder and ended up scoring 20+ pts higher than the average on the second midterm. Sadly I don't think the competition ever truly ends. After classes there then becomes pressure on who can publish the most then its a dog fight to get tenured at a university, etc. I believe competition is just part of academia.
  10. Apr 19, 2013 #9
    I empathize with your situation. I am doing my undergrad in a highly competitive engineering program that is almost totally graded on the curve. Furthermore, we're on a +/- system so the standard A, B, C percentages are further broken down in that way.

    At first I hated this. However, like you, there's nothing I can do about it. I chose to come to this school because I wanted a competitive, rigorous education. We must be careful what we wish for.

    The world is a competitive place. I try to use the situation as an opportunity to be a better student and, indeed, a better person. I am under constant stress. The way I look at it is that learning to manage the stress is part of my education. Part of managing the stress is being a good person to my fellow students while competing with them as well It's possible.
  11. Apr 20, 2013 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    I agree - and have never understood why students demand it.

    What I find really surprising, though, is that this is happening in grad school. That's a new one to me.
  12. Apr 24, 2013 #11
    About half my graduate-level courses have been graded on a curve, including my graduate classical mechanics class. There were about 40 students enrolled in the course. As I recall, there was 1 A given, 3 A- (including mine :biggrin: ), 3 B+, many B, 5 B-, and even a couple C+. Since this is grad school, the B- and C+ grades are considered failing grades.
  13. Apr 24, 2013 #12

    Andy Resnick

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    Even though I constantly tell my students that I don't grade on a curve (and *why* I don't grade on a curve), they keep asking for 'the average score' and get uncomfortable when I refuse to give it. I think students just want to know how well they do in comparison with others- which is a common trait for the general population.
  14. Apr 24, 2013 #13


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    If you want to succeed, I suggest you aspire to be a student who does not need to complain about the grading method.
  15. Apr 24, 2013 #14
    Grading on the curve was absolutely the norm for me in grad school. The bottom few would get C or B-, the top few get an A and the bulk of the class gets a B. This was the case in undergrad too, but with more As given out.

    Never was a rubric explained in the beginning of the class, just a weight of assignments to tests.
  16. Apr 24, 2013 #15

    Vanadium 50

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    Why is that grading on a curve? The fact that the outcome has as many C's as A's doesn't tell you the class is curved. Oh, and I think mathwonk nailed it.
  17. Apr 25, 2013 #16
    Its generally a bell curve shape, thats why its called grading on a curve. Mostly Bs in the middle of the curve with As and Cs making up the tails. But more important than the shape is the fact that the distribution is determined ahead of time or standardized. Seems silly to stipulate a non bell curve to class scores, but there may be a reason to. Once our quantum teacher stipulated a 2:3:2 ratio of C:B:A at the begging but the class essentially split into two clusters of grades that simply couldn't fit that ratio. Times like that are when the teachers changes the curve after seeing the grades. In either case, its comparison to the peers that matter. Not benchmarks of material understanding. (which are presumably the same thing with large enough populations)
    Last edited: Apr 25, 2013
  18. Apr 25, 2013 #17

    Vanadium 50

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    Grading on a curve means that the instructor forces the distribution to be bell-curved shaped, not that he ends up getting a bell-curved shape.
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