Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics

February 27, 2011 § 9 Comments

Even though I can carry a tune, I was never the girl who fought hard for the solo in elementary school chorus.

Even though I know I could have tuned the rest of the orchestra with my awesome “A,” I never challenged another violinist for the prime spot in first chair.

Even though my grades had always supported my claim that I can write, I never voluntarily entered into an essay contest.

Even though I loved dancing and practiced at all hours, I never auditioned for better stage placement.

I am not competitive. I never played competitive sports. I never earned any accolades that come from nominating myself. I never luxuriated in the thrill of being called “the best.”

In fact, all achievement certificates I earned found their places buried deep in my school folders, forgotten almost immediately and rarely mentioned to my parents (who would have been so proud). No blue ribbons or gold medals from mandatory orchestral all-state competitions decorated my walls. No plaques declaring me the absolute best literature student in college hung above my desk. Oh yes, I had these things. I still have them…somewhere. I’ve always shied away from pride and boasting, even when it’s actually just celebrating. My own birthday actually brushes against my comfort boundary for self-celebration (much to Robert’s eternal chagrin). The only reason my Master’s degree adorns my home office wall is because Robert encouraged me to hang it there…and because my granddaddy framed it. If those two points of fact had not been true, I would have been happy enough to leave it rolled up somewhere in a tube. My Bachelor’s degree, although framed, is not hanging–it still waits for its moment of glory in the framer’s box, stuffed behind my dresser at my parents’ home.

Why am I so wary of competition and even more weary of celebrating my victories?

Because they seem wasteful and petty.

I don’t relish another person’s loss or failure. In fact, when a classmate of mine recently challenged me in regards to our dissertation completion dates, boasting that she would finish in four years and not in the five and a half that I took, I could merely smile at her and wish her well. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to say to her, “How sad that you think your academic progress has anything to do at all with my academic progress. I will forget about you in a couple of years, and your cruelty will mean absolutely nothing to me.” How is her progress going these days? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year, and I frankly don’t care about her progress. Her progress or lack of progress has nothing to do with me or my progress.

But now…now all of a sudden, I’m meant to care about everyone else’s progress. Because there’s a substantial fellowship up for grabs now. Being awarded this fellowship means competing against my colleagues (and even my best dissertation writing buddy, V! Sob! But…really…if she gets it, I will be super-duper thrilled because she totally deserves it!). Receiving the fellowship also means the freedom to write, write, write absolutely uninterrupted for the entire summer semester–no teaching!! Recipients of the fellowship are funded so that tuition is not painful, so that they do not miss paying bills because they are not teaching.

I am going to apply for this fellowship more out of necessity than the desire for prestige.

This could very well be my final semester teaching because my department may choose not to offer me a teaching assistantship for the summer semester. Typically, our department funds doctoral candidates through their fifth year. Summer will mark my fifth year and a half. My department may choose not to fund me, but I will still require one last credit hour to be considered a student in order to graduate in summer–and the tuition is not cheap.

If I don’t get the teaching assistantship, it will be okay. If I don’t get the fellowship, it will hurt…but it will be okay. It will be okay because my husband is taking on so many extra courses this summer, and we will miraculously make it. (Well, no…not miraculously. We will make it because Robert is a hard-worker and an excellent provider.)

But despite knowing that we will be okay, I still want the fellowship. And my nerves hit me square in the gut when, on Friday morning, I received an e-mail from our graduate studies coordinator who sent the message along to all advanced PhD students (from my best calculations, people who are at least in their fourth year) and announced the details for applying. I was nervous when I saw the sheer number of names on that e-mail. I felt sick to my stomach when I read the requirements for qualifying. I need a letter of support from my dissertation director. I need to be able to show that I am making progress on the dissertation. I need to be able to say that I will defend and graduate within the term of receiving the fellowship.

I believe in my plan. I believe I will defend and graduate in the summer.

My fear, the only thing that would actually deter me from applying in the first place, centers entirely on the one reality: because I have never cared a whit about my colleagues’ academic progress, I don’t know where my competition is. I don’t know my likelihood for receiving the fellowship. V came up with some really good, educated guesses, and I do feel better now about our chances than I had felt initially. But, despite all of V’s wonderful uplifting words, my nerves still grip my heart…and my stomach.

In what might be my last moment in academia, I face near-mandatory competition. I wonder if I have it in me.

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§ 9 Responses to Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics

  • You do have it in you. Forget them; focus on you. Half the battle here is putting YOUR best foot forward. You can do this.

  • boyonabudget says:

    Forget the degrees, forget the grant, focus on smiling at the face looking back from your mirror and self talking yourself to great success. If you do not toot your own horn, no one else is going to do it for you!!!
    I have to give myself that little pep talk often. Now go to the nearest mirror and repeat after me…”I am worthy and I will succeed.”
    Good luck with the grant!!!

  • amblerangel says:

    Ahh- here’s what I tell the offspring when they run track- you lose seconds off your time every single time you turn your head to gauge how you’re doing versus the competition. Nose down, full stride ahead, do what you have been trained to do, and do your best – write. It’ll all be fine- go for it – worrying about the competition will only distract you- gambatte- do your best!!!

  • I’m delighted you’re going to take this step. Good for you! I will cheerlead you through the application process any way I can! You definitely have it in you!

    Hugs from Haiti,

  • I think none of us ever outgrows that need to have little gold stars slapped on the good work we do. It’s so difficult to validate ourselves, and even more difficult to do so and not take note of the successes of those around us. When you have completed your defense and your graduation, you’ll know you can do anything.

  • […] a week ago she wowed me with a discussion about the semantics of the word “gay” . In today’s post she reveals with utter honesty her feelings about competition and fears as she is thrust into the […]

  • […] will soon discover, I am writing a dissertation. This is a book-length project of torture. I have given myself a deadline of March 11th to complete the next chapter. That’s two weeks to write an entire chapter. This is not an […]

  • Tim says:

    I have always been uncomfortable receiving praise, deserved or not, and, like you, I don’t like to compete. I love to do things that require skill, from singing to writing to composing music, but hearing praise for those things makes me feel like a turtle trying desperately to retreat into its shell. I think part of it is an overwhelming fear that the people who say those things will one day see through their compliments and realize there’s nothing worth complimenting.

    I can even partially chalk up the loss of my old job to being noncompetitive. I could easily have exposed serious shortcomings in a coworker that would have gotten him tossed out on his ear, but the thought never even crossed my mind – he had two small children, and I thought maybe seeing a hard-working fellow employee get sacked might motivate him to work harder so that he did not risk his children’s well-being.

    All that said, however, I am more than happy to compete with myself, and I always want to improve upon myself. You very obviously do, too. As long as that remains at the forefront of your thoughts, I think you’ll be fine no matter what comes with this fellowship. Much like a job interview, it isn’t that you are going in trying to be a better person than anyone else going after it, but rather you are going in trying to show by your actions that you are the best fit for it. It’s a subtle difference, I know, but it’s not insignificant. I can’t bring myself to convince anyone that I’m better than someone else who needs something just as much as I do, but I CAN go in to show them how much they would benefit from having me, and if that benefit meets their needs, that helps us both.


  • This post interests me a lot, even though I am probably close to the opposite end of the spectrum of collegiate competition you’ve written about here. In my own experience, it’s difficult to want your strengths and talents to be considered when searching for something as absolutely necessary as a job (and to have these not be apparent from the few things you are able to list in a resume) yet to keep hearing from “job readiness” and “job placement” specialists, counselors, and writers, that you also have to “win” an intense personality competition, in order to make a living.

    If we were still wilder animals in this jungle of life, knowing by instinct that every morsel of food and bit of safety will be fought for and hard won, then maybe it would be easier to embrace competition without a second thought. But I thought those times, when competition was a matter of survival, were supposed to be over ages ago. I agree with what I believe you are saying here — that you prefer not to be immersed in the psychology of wanting to be “better” than someone else at something. I’m sorry that this notion is foisted upon us at so many points in our so-called civilized modern lives. I also wonder if I have it in me.

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