Collective Competition: The Value of (totally platonic and in no way romantic) Academic Life Partners

Upon my entry to the PhD program three years ago, graduate students were cautioned during orientation that grad school—well, academia in general—can be isolating and therefore a real challenge to one's mental health. And in case we weren't already questioning what kind of hot mess we had just landed ourselves in, during the smaller departmental orientation our cohort of six incoming PhDs were told that the people sitting beside us are the ones we are going to be in competition with, both during the program, and on the academic job market afterwards. Competition can breed isolation as students view their colleagues as adversaries and spar over CV lines, and the individualistic nature of academic culture, as documented in the growing body of Quit Lit, may be to blame. To their credit, both my department (English) and University of Waterloo have attempted to mitigate the consequences of academic competition culture by emphasizing mental health resources and initiatives, and advocating for parallel career track planning.  But it was really the development of close interpersonal friendships that would prevent me from falling into the infinitely reciprocal competition/isolation conundrum.

Little did I know when sitting through those early fire-and-brimstone orientation sessions, I was also sitting adjacent to someone that I would come to refer to adoringly as my "academic life partner"—a person who I would discover is my toughest competition and yet a vital contributor to my own academic and professional success. Becky Anderson and I, in concert with other members of our graduate student community have together navigated the highs and lows of PhD life. (Side note: I feel it necessary to clarify that both Becky and I are married/common law. . . to/with other people.)

Paula, Devon, and Becky at congress 2018

From left to right, Paula Sanchez-Nunez De Villavincenci, Devon Moriarty, and Becky Anderson at Congress 2018.

Instead of viewing one another as hostile competitors, Becky and I came to be each other's motivators. Of course we want to be these amazingly productive academics, but we also want each other to be amazing too. We are equal parts ruthless and encouraging in response to one another—and it makes us better. Our conference papers are clearer, grant applications more persuasive (and successful!), and CVs and résumés more polished with one another's feedback. It is the lengthy "Conferences" section of her CV that inspired me to become more confident in doing the conference circuit by participating in the Writing & Communication Centre's (WCC) Speak Like A Scholar Program. My praise of the Graduate Diploma in Cognitive Science prompted Becky to pursue the program as well. Although we never once sat in the same workshop session for the Centre for Teaching Excellence's Fundamentals of University Teaching or Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) programs, we check-in with one another to calibrate our progress in CUT. With different writing goals in mind, we both achieved writing success in the WCC’s Dissertation Bootcamp. It was our realization that many students do not have the kind of support network that we've built with each other and our broader group, that convinced us to act as President and Vice President of the Student Association for Graduates in English this past year; our ultimate aim in leading this association being to bring our graduate students closer together, both socially and academically.

Interestingly enough, there is recent evidence that shows that collective supervision "is correlated with significantly shorter times to thesis completion compared to individual supervision." I suspect that the group dynamic offered by group supervision that can build a sense of community through competition and collegiality, may be a contributor to these shorter program times. But you do not need group supervision to facilitate this kind of environment—graduate students themselves are instrumental in shaping the culture of their department and must first recognize that competition need not translate to antagonism. In fact, competition mixed with a healthy dose of socialization may forge unlikely friendships—the kind where you crush out pomodoros during the day and then watch horror movies at night—and where you’ll find that your colleagues’ successes become your successes. Of course I felt proud of Becky when she won the W.K. Thomas Award that we both had our eyes on, and I know she was happy for me when I secured a job at the Centre for Career Action that we had both interviewed for.  

My parting advice, then? Find yourself a Becky—you'll both be better for it.

DevonDevon Moriarty is a PhD Candidate in English Language & Literature (Rhetoric). She mostly messes around on Reddit and calls it research, but SSHRC funded her so it’s totally legitimate. Check out her website and follow her on twitter because she needs to get as many followers as Becky.

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