Be a gracious winner and not a sore loser (or don’t be a jerk)


There are a bunch of life skills that come in handy in academia. Some are obvious and discussed a lot like time management, setting goals, getting stuff completed, etc. Others fly under the radar but maybe shouldn’t. One of those things is how you handle competition. Academia is one of those careers where competition is constantly part of the gig. As much as collaboration can be an essential part of success, there are also winners and losers throughout. The competitions vary but all of us fall on both sides of the line at least some of the time.

It starts even before grad school with who gets in, on what scholarship (or not) and where. There are limited PhD positions and obviously not everyone who applies gets a position. Of course the competition doesn’t stop there but as a grad student this realization can come slowly. There are many ways in which we as academics compete with each other directly and indirectly. The competition can be most obvious when you are directly competing for a job, a slice of the grant pie or other direct ways where you and your colleagues all put your names into a particular hat.

In Sweden, all jobs and government grants are public so anyone can know who applied and who got the position/funds. The day the decisions are made for the grants, an excel spreadsheet is posted on the website with the people, titles, and monetary amounts of the funded grants. It means that the grant recipients (or non) aren’t even always the first to know. As someone relatively new to the system, it felt very weird to find out this way but it is definitely transparent. It can be a little awkward after the grants are posted when you didn’t get one (my experience so far) but people are generally pretty nice about it. Like most places, getting funding in Sweden is not particularly easy these days.

On the other hand, it is nice to celebrate your successes and you should definitely do that. But be graceful, be thoughtful, be kind. It helps.

One thing that I’ve seen happen in Sweden, the land where having coffee and a little something has its own word (fika), is people bring cake (or bubbly) for a successes like an important publication or big grant. This could come off in the wrong way but Swedes (and the general Swedish academic culture) are pretty humble so it seems to not.

In these direct and indirect competitions, think about who you want to be. Do you want to be the one who celebrates other’s successes or sulks in the corner? Do you think people want to listen to you brag about your success or would you rather work in a collegial environment where your colleagues are happy for you when you succeed? We all have feelings and it feels great to succeed and really sucks when we aren’t the chosen one. I’m all for dealing with the emotions that come with the job and I don’t mean that you shouldn’t feel happy/sad/ecstatic/depressed with your placement in a particular competition. But it is good to know when and where to express and deal with those emotions.

I’m not sure I’ve always done this the best possible way. Here’s a prime example that haunts me a little: To the person I got interrupted from completing my thought about getting the position I have, I hope that didn’t sound arrogant (the full sentence was to be: “It was good for me to get the position…because I didn’t have any other options in Sweden”). But I try to be genuinely happy for others successes and be humble about my own. We might have to directly compete from time to time and there can always indirect comparisons of, well everything (students, papers, index, grants…).

Just remember usually nobody wants to play with the sore losers and bad winners are almost worse. So think about who you want to be the next time you win or lose.

5 thoughts on “Be a gracious winner and not a sore loser (or don’t be a jerk)

  1. Losing out is hard, but it is far healthier to celebrate other’s successes and try again next time. Who knows, maybe that successful person will reach out to you in the future to work on something because you weren’t a jerk.

    At the same time, while I recognize the inherent competitiveness of science (really, everything is competitive at some level), I also have a hard time getting into that mindset of ‘we’re competing and I take no prisoners!!!’. I’ll do what I can do the best I can and see what happens.

    I don’t have evidence for this, but I have a sense of a ‘comfortable’ or productive level of competition where it genuinely spurs you forward to do great work. But there’s a level of competitiveness where a lot of people might just opt out completely saying ‘competing makes no sense here, no matter what I do, I cannot win’. I’m sure everyone’s thresholds are different for this and maybe I’m just particularly sensitive, but I feel like we’re getting to that level of competition with funding in science.

    That’s my longwinded way of saying ‘I agree, don’t be a jerk’.

  2. Whether or not bringing out the bubbly comes off as bragging depends a lot on what you actually say, and how you say it. I’ve seen it go both ways, and it only tended to be jarring if someone started with the “look how unique we are” speeches. So yes, don’t be a jerk and don’t be full of yourself!

  3. Playground politics: basically you have the opportunity to be a jerk whether you win or lose, just choose not to.😉

  4. Interesting article! Have you thought about doing a write up on how the Swedish system works in relation to grants,tenure etc etc? I’d be interested in seeing an outsiders view on how it all works in comparison to other countries. Also as a someone who is guilty of this I think I can point out that there is a little swinglish creeping into this article😉.

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