Rethinking Our Compulsion to Comparison by Emily Beswick

I am a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout school, university and postgraduate studies I have often been my own harshest critic when it comes to defining academic success. 

Completing my PhD during a global pandemic made me step back and try be more realistic in my goal-setting, and more adaptable to managing change. I wrote this blog in the hope of reminding myself, and others, that productivity is fluid and highly impacted by factors outside of our control. A reminder for self-compassion and accepting that whilst social comparison is often inevitable, remember every destination has many routes.  

Defining Our Own Success

In my experience, creating my own definition of ‘success’ has been one of the easiest routes to improved wellbeing. Comparing ourselves to others, and using the trajectory of other people as a metric for our own success, can be detrimental to wellbeing. We as academics are not infallible to the very human tendency of comparing ourselves to others. Failing to acknowledge the potentially detrimental effect of this on ourselves can be a significant barrier to happiness and fulfilment, both in a professional and personal capacity. I have experienced this myself in feeling a continual lack of fulfilment, despite achieving goals, I often focus too quickly on the next step rather than taking the time enjoy the moment. Comparing the goals I set myself, and the rate at which they are achieved, to the progression of other people, often meant I felt even when the target was met I still did not feel ‘enough’.

I have found that making a conscious effort to avoid the temptation to use the career trajectories, publication records and achievements of others to define our thresholds of success, leaves room to celebrate our own wins and accept the losses. 

Making a conscious effort to define our own metric of success can help us to flourish. Ensuring this definition is flexible can also be essential in maintaining long-term well-being. Some days will be more productive; you will write better, think clearer and work more efficiently. Conversely, there will be some days where things are harder and perhaps smaller administrative tasks are more feasible. Acceptance of this fluctuation, awareness that ‘bad’ days will not persist indefinitely, and a reminder not to be too hard on yourself can be essential to remaining resilient. 

Acknowledging that these ‘bad’ days will occur, and lowering your definition of flourishing for that day accordingly, can be helpful in avoiding the self-doubt and guilt that often comes with setting higher, often unobtainable goals. Instead, after checking in with yourself, lowering goals and being more realistic in task setting, to ensure you can still achieve them rather than setting yourself up to fail, can be more conducive to long-term success.

Practically, it can help to prioritise the harder tasks for the ‘good’ days, and using the ‘bad’ days to catch up on emails, organise your calendar or update those expenses you have been putting off. On days where I feel I can concentrate, I aim to progress with manuscript writing, working towards my thesis or data analysis. However, on the harder days where I am struggling to focus and organise my thoughts I readjust my goals for the day. Often just the aim of doing something; be it referencing, data cleaning or making up recruitment packs, can ensure even the ‘bad’ days are not wasted days. 

This mind-set and work pattern can be useful to motivate you even further on those productive days to make the most of them. Utilising this time to get ahead on the tasks requiring more focus; get started on that manuscript, plan the grant or finish that report, or whatever task on your to-do-list you feel you need to be at the top of your game to complete. 

Adapting to the New Abnormal

These ‘good’ days may seem fewer and further between as we enter the next phase of living, and working, through a global pandemic. However, in redefining our expectations of ourselves, we can progress to new definitions of ‘good’. Although these may not initially be as productive or efficient, it is important to remember not to expect direct comparability between patterns of working often instilled since school with daily reiterations. Now, there is time for a new routine that has been established during significant upheaval and global crisis. 

As many of us continue to adapt to working from home, the challenges of this new way of working and living may mean we have to redefine our perception of flourishing. For some of us, dining tables have become offices, kitchens have become breakrooms and colleagues have become family as the line between the professional and personal life continues to blur. Often this is most keenly felt in our successes and failures, with professional and personal merging into one. Despite the feeling that a difficult day at work can easily spill over into a difficult day at home, particularly without the clear lines of the commute, I find that maintaining the separation can be crucial to my wellbeing. 

Defining, and re-defining, our metric of success to adapt to the changes in environment, task lists and working patterns that the pandemic has brought can be challenging. 

As many of us in academia shifted to a primarily work from home model, discussions on how our work patterns and productivity changed became common both at a local and global level. Many people, myself included, lamented the introduction of distractions in their work environment and initially struggled with the blurred boundaries of home and office. 

Re-defining expectations set by ourselves, for ourselves, in response to influences outside of our control can be one of the hardest but rewarding changes to improve wellbeing. Learning to cut myself some slack in the middle of a global pandemic was a hurdle I did not expect to face during my PhD but I do believe that ultimately, continuing to work towards overcoming this has made me a better researcher. 

A tendency to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, forgetting the normality of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ days at any stage of life, may mean we over-estimate the differences between pre vs post pandemic levels of productivity. Re-evaluating our definition of flourishing to be flexible with the changing contexts can help us shift our focus back onto the present. 

Retaining the separation between professional and personal when considering our achievements, our to-do-lists and our problems can help us is retaining that separation in our sense of self. 

Social Media

We know that social media has many positive aspects; facilitating human connection and information dissemination across the world. Blogs and accounts such as Voices of Academia provide online communities, social support and help to raise awareness of systemic issues in treatment of people with mental health struggles and crises in academia and beyond. 

However, social media can also be problematic when we are trying to define our own metrics of success1. I often struggle with reminding myself that career trajectories, publication records and achievements look very different from person to person, discipline to discipline and place to place2. Reminding myself of why I chose to create my academic social media profile in the first place, to network, find new literature and explore outside of my current research area, helps me to check in with my own tendencies to social comparison. 

The concept of the tripartite self, existing simultaneously and all contributing to our own conceptualisation of ourselves was explored by psychologist Professor Higgins3. The actual self (who we think we are right now), ideal self (who we want to be) and ought self (who we think others expect us to be) can be an interesting way of thinking about how social media is often a distorted reflection, rather than an accurate mirror, for society3.

The ‘ideal self’ often portrayed on social media is the version of the individual on their ‘best’ days, and a reflection of how we all want to be seen. If this is too different from our actual self, or how we believe society thinks we should be, it can be difficult for followers to ‘aim’ for, and a burden for posters to maintain4

Social media also plays an important role in providing support to others and starting conversations. For example, offering people the opportunity to openly discuss failures and barriers to success can help them discuss issues and help them raise concerns that they may not feel comfortable addressing with closer colleagues. Movements such as the ‘CV of failure’5, the #normalisefailiure hashtag6 and anonymous accounts7 that document the ups and downs of the PhD journey facilitate feelings of community and acceptance. 

The supportive aspect of social media can also be beneficial in encouraging us to be flexible in our definitions of success. Individuals on Twitter and other platforms who acknowledge the variations in their academic journeys by discussing successes and failures alike demonstrate the cyclical nature of academic work, where people experience both wins and losses over time. 

Comparing our own progress to the social media highlight reel of others’ lives, and the inevitable disparity with the ups and downs of our own lives, can be detrimental to our mental health. Keeping the focus on ourselves and avoiding the temptation to compare the incomparable can help us to enjoy our own, and others’, successes independently. 

Redefining what we consider to be a ‘successful’ day, or year, needs to be flexible and adapt to what is going on in our lives outside of work, and fluctuations in our own mood and wellness. We must respond to external events, internal changes in mood and motivation by redefining our level of success for that point in time and learn to not compare ourselves with others. In accepting that success and flourishing are not static metrics, and instead vary even hour by hour, we reduce the self-imposed pressure to live up to the same levels of productivity day after day. Success is what you make it.

Emily Beswick

Emily is a 3rd year PhD research at the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on how we can support more people with neurological conditions to engage with clinical trials, and ensure that clinical trial design is effectively addressing research questions. She is also interested in how wearable technology and smartphone data can be used in evaluating clinical trial outcome measures. 




3. Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: a theory relating self and affect. Psychological review, 94(3), 319.

4. Michikyan, M., Dennis, J., & Subrahmanyam, K. (2015). Can you guess who I am? Real, ideal, and false self-presentation on Facebook among emerging adults. Emerging Adulthood, 3(1), 55-64.

5. Adam Grant