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need to stop comparing myself to my friend...

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Hi All,

So I've started out as a PhD student this fall, and I like the school, people and the city (which is great!). But since I started out school I can't help comparing myself to my new friend - he is also a first year, and we have the same advisor. The thing is that he started working in the lab in the summer, and a few weeks of experience already made him sound like an expert. During our lab group meeting, while everyone else (including him) shares their results and ideas, I end up feeling stupid as I try to understand whatever they are discussing. When I meet with my advisor, he treats me really 'carefully', asking me how my classes are going, how I'm adjusting to school and the lab etc., while my friend gets to discuss about his research. It just feels like I'm being treated as a kid just because he had been involved in the lab just a few weeks before me... and I'm not sure if I'm overreacting here.

Another thing that concerns me deeply is my own project. When I talked with my advisor during the interview (before I accepted the offer) he talked about projects A and B going on in his lab. He talked about A for a really long time, then suggested that B was another possible project I can work on. I told him both sounds like a good fit but A sounded more interesting. When the PhD program started, he told me that I could start working with project B, which I was fine with... until I found out that my friend was working on project A. Right now, I'm fine with project B, but this is definitely a more short-term project, and the direction B is going sounds less intriguing than A. Now I'm thinking, so did he get to choose project A first because he was here earlier than me, or maybe he was super clear on his interview that he wanted to work on A? But then I know that he was admitted before I was, and my advisor wouldn't have explained about A so extensively if he really wanted project A....

Okay, even if I end up really liking project B after working more on it, I'll have to compete with my friend for 5 years, trying to get grants and scholarships for similar-themed projects. We'll be getting letters from the same advisor (and others - his advisory committee is identical with mine). I am so overwhelmed with the prospect of being compared to him by my advisor/lab group/other profs as I go on through the program. I really like my new friend for being super nice and funny, and I don't want to end up hating him, but I don't want to compete with him all the time. Maybe I'm being paranoid here. Maybe not. Since the program started out I am stressed out comparing myself with him every single day and I can't do this for 5 years or more...

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I know this is hard, but try not to compare yourself to him. It never helps to compare yourself to others, and you said yourself the other student had more experience in the lab before you joined so it totally makes sense that he had a leg up on you when you started. As you continue in your lab, this gap will close and those 3 weeks won't matter at all in the long run. 

As far as your project, I would try talking to your advisor. Can you think of a way to modify project B to make it more interesting for you? As a grad student, you control the direction you want your research to go in. Don't  be afraid to talk about changing it up a bit. It sucks that you got kind of "scooped" in a way, but again, it's impossible to know how interesting the project results will end up being. Your project B or some other project could be more interesting in the long run. There are basically an infinite number of potential projects for you to work on. You don't have to be limited to B!

The most important thing is to try not to stress yourself out. Try to talk to other grad students (maybe students farther along in the program?) and gain some perspective. I bet it isn't as bad or scary as you feel it is. And if it is, I bet they can provide some more specific guidance for dealing with that professor or that kind of situation. 

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I felt this way too for awhile (and still occasionally do) in terms of wondering if my advisor liked one of his other advisees better than me. At first I was envious of the way that some of his older advisees seemed to "click" with him more, but as time has gone on, I've realized that it just takes time to build that kind of relationship with someone. Having worked with him for over a year now, we "click" but this wasn't the case when I first started. So the way he treats you now is not necessarily indicative of the way he'll think of you/treat you a year from now. Relationships take awhile to build. 

Regarding the comparing yourself part, however, that can be tricky, I admit. But I've found that even your peers who appear to be excelling still struggle in some areas (both inside and outside of academia). Seeing their imperfections helped me not to be so envious. Also, in terms of having to get letters for the same grants/apps as this other person from your advisor, I know that can be stressful too. But don't assume that your advisor will always rank him ahead of you, particulary down the road when you've gotten your footing in the lab. You could excel at areas that your friend doesn't! 

And regarding the project, I second the advice about talking about this with your advisor who may indeed be able to modify it somewhat. 

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Thank you Butterfly_effect and serenade! I just realized it's been about a month since I posted first. I still feel behind my friend, but I definitely think less about that, particularly since I've started to get more things done in the lab myself. I also think now that he "clicks" better with the advisor since he's more outgoing and sociable (I'm pretty quite) but whatever... unless I feel like my advisor actually treats me and him differently, I think I'm fine with this for now. I also decided that while this project I'm on is not the most exciting thing I've ever done, I want to give it some more time to figure out ways to develop it in the direction of my interest - or at least I'll get to master the techniques used in our lab, whatever project I work on.

It's funny how I came to not care so much about this problem since last month. It could be partly due to the fact that I'm starting to not like my new friend... I've realized that we'll never become more than work friends unfortunately. I've really tried my best to be friendly with him, and it would have been pretty obvious that I was trying... but maybe he didn't realize how hard I was trying, or he just doesn't do well with shy people. It makes it easier for me anyway because I'm feeling more detached from him and comparing myself less with him. Maybe this makes me sound like a terrible person, but at least I'm less stressed out now, and I'm happy with that.

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To resurrect an older thread -- what do you do if the one making a comparison to other students is not necessarily yourself but your advisor? My advisor will bring up other students (often in younger cohorts) and point how they performed better than me on a general/abstract level in a particular seminar etc. I think my advisor thinks that he's being helpful, but I often feel like these kind of statements are more discouraging than beneficial to me. Is there a way that I could say something to him along the lines of how I think that I would benefit more from specific criticism about ways to improve based on my own performance than from general comparisons about how another student is "doing better" than me? Because at the end of the day, I'm working to beat my own weaknesses -- not trying to compete with other students (or at least that should be the goal, right?) 

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