Since stakes are high and job opportunities are limited, competition is inherent to academia. The people you work with are often your competitors too, which causes a complex dynamic people might struggle with. Johan Braeckman approaches the balance between competition versus cooperation from an evolutionary perspective. Competition can be stimulating to achieve higher goals, but is it always healthy? This episode highlights both sides of competition and digs deeper into the advantages of cooperating. If you cannot beat them, should you join them?

Johan Braeckman

Johan Braeckman (°1965) studied philosophy at Ghent University (Belgium), Human Ecology at the Free University of Brussels and Environmental History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His doctoral thesis was on the influence of the theory of evolution on philosophy. He published books on Darwin and Evolutionary Biology; Cloning; the History of Philosophy; the History of Biology, Bioethics, and Critical Thinking, and several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

At Ghent University he teaches courses on the history of philosophy, science and biology. For five years, he also taught courses on bioethics and the philosophy of science at Amsterdam University, the Netherlands.

Testimony - Dirk Inzé

© Ine Dehandschutter
Dirk is a professor within the Department of Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics at the Faculty of Sciences.


Johan: [00:00:01] We have the same goal. And it's not about beating somebody. It's about enriching humanity with knowledge. Right. Clarifying things, solving things that are lifting us up altogether.

David: [00:00:18] Welcome to Unpublished, a podcast about mental well-being at work. The podcast has been created by Trustpunt. That's the confidential advisor service at Ghent University. Now in the series, we focus on topics related to academia and the research community. But there's a wealth of information in the series that will be inspiring whatever your walk of life. My name is David Chan. I'm a lecturer at Ghent University, and I'm the host of Unpublished. In each episode, we tackle a topic about mental well-being in the workplace. The topics are sensitive and often seen as taboo. They include phenomena such as impostor feelings, cultural differences, and loneliness. Now, for each of these topics, I talk to an expert in the field who gives fascinating insights based on their research and professional experience. And alongside our main guest, you'll also hear clips of individuals in academia sharing their own personal stories. With this podcast, we hope to create a greater openness towards the issues we cover and to help create a safe, comfortable space in which to talk about mental well-being in a positive way. Hello, Nona. Now you work for Trustpunt? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about Trustpunt?

Nona: [00:01:44] Yeah, of course. I'm a confidential counsellor at Trustpunt, but the Department for Psychosocial Health at Ghent University and people can come to Trustpunt if they are in need of a listening ear, or if they want advice or information and can talk about any issue or topic related to mental wellbeing at work.

David: [00:02:02] Right. So, the purpose of this podcast series is to discuss several taboo topics about mental wellbeing at work. Today's topic is the theme of competition versus cooperation in an academic setting. Now I'm curious how we should navigate this. What made you choose this topic?

Nona: [00:02:20] Well, in an academic environment, there's a lot of pressure to achieve your goals. And on the one hand, I think it's really beneficial if you work together with your colleagues, if you get along well, if you cooperate. But on the other hand, I think sometimes it's hard if you also have to compete with your colleagues, because at a certain point you want to move along in your career, you want to grow as a person. And I think at that point it's possible that you have to compete with others to get a certain position in academia. The career opportunities are limited, so it's very realistic. You have to compete with your own colleagues, the people you get along with the best. And at that point, it might get difficult. And that's a very complex dynamic because on the one hand, we have your colleagues who are maybe your close friends even, but on the other hand, they might be your greatest competitors. So that's what we want to talk about today.

David: [00:03:13] I think many people will certainly identify with that feeling of sort of treading a fine line between being a friend and a competitor. In this episode, we listen to the testimonial of Dickens, a professor at Ghent University. He talks to us about his experience with ambition and competition. And I talked to our main guest, Professor Johan Braeckman. Johan is a prominent philosopher and teaches courses at the Faculty of Arts and Literature and Philosophy. In his own work, he's looked closely at Darwinism, and in our conversation he's eloquent, and I think illuminating on the topic of competition and cooperation. Let's listen to how the conversation went. Perhaps you can start with the idea. As a philosopher, what do these terms mean to you? These notions of competition and cooperation? These are so ingrained in what we do in terms of a university.

Johan: [00:04:08] Well, it's hard to give a clear definition. I think it depends also on what perspective you're looking at it. I've been working on evolutionary theory for a long time, and within the field of evolutionary biology, they are quite clearly defined. Anything that's connected to survival and reproduction, you can relate to competition or cooperation. And the main problem, in fact, here, from an evolutionary biological point of view, is the question of why is there something like cooperation? Because it's obvious that we are a cooperative species. But why is that? It's a bit of a riddle, or it used to be, let's say. But we all know Darwin's classical view. This is the 19th century. He emphasized competition, natural selection, the main mechanism of evolution favours the most competitive organisms, right? So they survive, they have more offspring, their fitness is higher, while if you are less competitive, you will lose in the end. That was the general idea. Nevertheless, of course, Darwin realized well. But it's odd because we also see cooperation out there in nature, and he did not really have a good explanation for this. So this is hard to explain from an evolutionary perspective because you would expect that the mechanism of natural selection would eliminate cooperative behaviour defined here as anything you do that is good for another organism, but bad for yourself. So cooperative behaviour hurts yourself from an evolutionary biological viewpoint. And so this is a riddle. Right until the second half of the 20th century, there were biologists, some other really brilliant scientists, and they came up with more than one explanation on how to explain cooperation from a biological perspective. And mainly, you have two ways here to think about this. You have the cooperation between genetic relatives, say if we are brothers and I support you, then I'm supporting 50% of my genes.

Johan: [00:06:29] So from the viewpoint of natural selection, it doesn't really matter whether I help myself or you or your children or other genetic relatives, as long as my cooperative behaviour is good for the genes that we share. And then there's another form of cooperation, which is probably more of interest here in our conversation. So we are not genetically related now. We probably are not right. But I might still help you. How is it possible that we are a species that tends to help each other, and we do that very often? I mean, that's a very normal thing for us to do. Yeah, well, the thing is here, this gets lifted off evolutionary because when I do something for you, for instance, I might remember you and you might remember me, and maybe in the future you can do something for me. Or if not for me, maybe you can do something for my girlfriend or my children, or your children can do something for my children and so on. So because we are a social species, we remember who cooperated with whom and so on. On the other hand, we also remember who is not cooperative. So we tend to shun these people. They get kicked out of the group, so to speak. When I invite you three or four or five times in a row for my birthday party, and you never invite me back, then maybe the sixth time that it's my birthday, I'm going to have all that. That's it. See, we are also like that. We may remember who we need to do a favour and who needs to do us a favour.

David: [00:08:08] We also had a chat with Kinsey. He's been a professor at Ghent University for over 20 years. He shows that in his experience, ambition, that desire to compete can be a positive force.

Dirk: [00:08:21] I think a scientist should have a certain ambition. I mean, ambition to discover, to new principles, to work out how something works. I think this ambition can be a very positive driver. It's something that keeps scientists busy all the time, day and night. Many of us actually work much more than the 40 hours that we should work, because it is just incredible, interesting and really to discover new things. And that's the kind of beauty of science, is really that every day is something new. You can open the publication, and you'll see somebody made progress in a certain field which can help. You can also be very frustrated because maybe somebody published the things before you have published this. Often it reinforces that several scientific groups publish similar data because then you know that there is, I mean, the value of that work becomes stronger. So I think a scientist should be ambitious. And this, of course, is a competitive world. And I think the art is to convert this kind of stress of being in a competitive world, into a kind of positive energy.

David: [00:09:34] Dick also talks about how he maintains a balance between competition and making sure people continue to feel satisfied in their job.

Dirk: [00:09:42] I think it's extremely important to have a good balance between being competitive and working hard to solve certain problems and taking care of people. I think people are, in the end, those who actually do the job, and they should like it, they should enjoy it, they should feel well, they should be recognized for their work and again and and and just contribute to the whole element of having fun with science and sharing this and a passion. And it's, I think it's, it's important that the group leaders and also the director really set an example out there.

David: [00:10:21] When we look at competition and cooperation and what tends to be the stronger idea within society, it tends to be the idea of competition.

Johan: [00:10:30] And we're inclined to cooperate because it's in our own interest. One of the things is that it's also good for your reputation if you help people. When I see you help an old lady getting across the street, then I'm going to think That's a nice guy. That's a person I can trust. I would love it to be friends with that person because he's a co-operative guy, right? When I see you push an old lady under the bus or something, it's the opposite, of course. Right. So there are a lot of reputation aspects in this too. And this may sound like it's a cynical view, but in fact, it's a very natural thing. Also, reputation is, for us, extremely important. So, yes, we are, as a species, naturally inclined to be co-operative, which is good. This has also good evolutionary reasons, so to speak, that is that we tend to organize ourselves in in-groups and out-groups. This is a viewpoint from social psychology, right? And that's where competition arises between groups. So maybe at Ghent University, we can be one group, but we organize ourselves in this one group at university, but it'll be against other groups, living in university, Antwerp, University, Brussels, whatever.

Johan: [00:11:54] And there's been a lot of research that shows how easy it is to become a group, so to speak. It doesn't take much to be one group, but it's like, Yeah, you can't avoid it. There will always be out-groups also, right? And the fiercer the competition with the out-group, the stronger the ties within the in-group. So having strong ties in your group seems to be like a good thing. And usually it is. Yeah, but the price you pay is that you will become competitive as a group towards other groups. That almost seems to be unavoidable now. And another thing because what I'm talking about so far now is just the way our species is. It's kind of human nature. So we have this in-group out-group thing that comes naturally. That's not necessarily a bad thing, right? It can lift us up in certain things. Like if you look at sports, for instance, it's soccer teams, football teams and so on. Of course, that's an in-group against an out-group, and it lifts the quality of the team. You. You want to win, so you train harder. And I guess it's in science and research. It's kind of the same thing.

David: [00:13:15] Being competitive often has a negative connotation, but Dirk draws our attention to the advantages of competition.

Dirk: [00:13:22] I think as a scientist, it's important to be competitive. We are living in a society where we are expected to contribute something to societal values. And in addition, effect science is something which is really globally performed. So we would be working in a competitive environment, but that does not mean it has to be battle-like, and I would rather say that it can be very stimulating to work in a competitive environment because it allows you to achieve more. It allows you to excel in what you're doing, by which you also, in fact, get on the radar screen of many other organizations internationally.

David: [00:14:15] A bit of competition is good because it allows you to achieve more. But what is the competition? Turns the work environment sour. Is competition always healthy? In your experience, what would be sort of examples of unhealthy competition.

Johan: [00:14:31] Within the in-group, as I called it? Yeah. Yeah. You expect people to be cooperative there. But there's also, of course, obviously a lot of competition going on. On the basic level, that means between individual people. Right. And that is a very ambiguous thing. And I see many, many downsides there. When your colleagues become your competitors more than they are, well, people you cooperate with, you work with, you see them every day. You're supposed to get along and so on. Then this has all kinds of disadvantages, of course. So when one person in a lab or a research group or whatever has a publication in an important journal, then you kind of celebrate, right? You have a drink that day, as it's accepted in the article. We're happy for you. We're happy for our group. But then again, for the colleagues who are in the same situation, it also means my chance of getting the next position has lowered because of his or her success. Right. Yeah. And I think that's not a healthy situation.

David: [00:15:48] We already learnt that competition is a complex concept. It's this opinion that competition can also serve as a driver, as an incentive to foster excellence.

Dirk: [00:15:59] Of course, we want to be competitive. We want to be a leading centre at the world level. And so our position is that every principal investigator, every professor which then works in our centre, needs to be in his own field to be a world leader. This is really challenging, and you don't reach that. And like in a couple of years, sometimes it takes 15 to 20 years to reach all that. And what we can do as the centre is actually really create the optimal environment for these people to build to achieve that goal. It's a kind of atmosphere that we have been creating over the years to foster excellence. For me, competition is actually more like a kind of driver. You can convert it to something very positive.

David: [00:16:50] A moment ago, we were talking about the fact that you can be happy for your colleague if they succeed, but on the other hand, you can feel threatened by the success of others. I'd like to continue on this. You mentioned earlier this notion of cooperation, and ideally we're very good at it, and we do favours for each other. It's a very fluid, kind of ungenerous set of gestures we make towards each other. But in this situation where you have this conflict and of course in English you have that expression always looking over your shoulder, that's what you have to do in a certain sense, yeah.

David: [00:17:25] That has to affect the social dynamic.

Johan: [00:17:28] I mean, I don't have the numbers in my head, but we do know that too many people starting to work on a PhD opt out after one year or two years or three years. Then they realize what this is. Just not my cup of tea. This is too hard for me. It's a tough job in itself because it's always in your mind. I clearly remember when I was working on my page, but this is still the way I am. It's in fact, you of course, you're doing something relaxing. You're going to see a movie or whatever. But in the back of your mind, you're thinking, well, I could be working on that article now, right? Or I could be reading this, this book or whatever, or preparing a class, or there's always. So the university is like that, right? It never leaves you. It's not a 9 to 5 job, right? There's always stuff to read, to think about, to prepare. There's always the next article to publish. And so when you're in your twenties, and you're working on a PhD and your friends are going out, and you're your girlfriend or your boyfriend is having fun, but you have to excuse yourself all the time because you need to work on that PhD that's in itself already tough.

David: [00:18:49] Yeah. Yeah.

Johan: [00:18:49] But then if you realize, well this is, this is okay for three or four years, but what after that the other guy. So girls will be ahead of me, who knows. And they will have the post-doc and I won't unless you work even harder to beat them. In a sense, you're not working anymore for the fun of obtaining the knowledge or doing the research, or because you're curious about what you want to know about your topic and so on, but you want to beat the other people. Yeah. And so that shouldn't be the main goal of research beating other people.

David: [00:19:29] Do you feel that much of this is self generated? I mean, of course there are, you know, there are situations where you might have a supervisor, or you might have a culture which says we demand a lot from you in terms of publications, etc…

Johan: [00:19:44] Broadly speaking, you.

David: [00:19:45] Mean broadly speaking. But then for the individual, I think for, as you mentioned, for many young academics starting out, they are very driven and. The point at which to stop. It seems it's very, quite difficult for them to save themselves. Well, I need to slow down a little here.

Johan: [00:20:06] It would surprise me if lots of young researchers do not feel this kind of burden or urge or like I said, there's many who start on a PhD, and you're very happy that you have the opportunity to do this. And most people are right. You want to belong to the best students during your study, obviously, or you wouldn't get the grant or whatever? Yeah. Yeah. And so there's competition already there. But that's only fair, of course. I mean you want to have the most driven people to, to do, to go in research. But then after a year or two years, some of them, many of them maybe realize, wow, this is harder than I thought. And the prospects aren't that good because even if you do your PhD, you defend it and so on, you're already older by now. And so if you don't get that postdoc, it's tougher to get the job. Yeah. Another job or to switch say like become a teacher or something which is, which is a great job of course. But if you come from university after a few years, you have a PhD. It's maybe not what you had in mind if you think, well, this is not why I did the PhD and so on. So this can be frustrating. So there are problems there, of course. Yeah. Now I do know some decades ago we've all agreed to put more funding into research, which is, on the one hand, the good thing. On the other hand, of course, that also means that more people can start doing research, but also more people will eventually lose out or get well, not necessarily fired, but that is a problem like the generation of my promoter. When you become an assistant to a professor, the odds are you will become a professor after so many years. And that was that there was hardly any competition. Well, now, of course, it's very different. Yeah. Also, the competition for jobs has become international. Right? Researchers nowadays are the new nomads.

David: [00:22:23] Right, that means the field of the competition is…

Johan: [00:22:27] Exactly, so it's much much tougher. Much harder.

David: [00:22:34] Dirk addresses an interesting point, namely that if you can't beat the competition, then you should work together with them.

Dirk: [00:22:41] We also work at the world level, so we have many connections. My philosophy is if you cannot beat them, join them. In the last ten years in my field, which is agricultural biotechnology, we experience that there is enormous competition from China. It's because it's just a matter of the number of people. When we can afford to pay two people to do a certain project, they have 20 students who can work on it. So it's impossible to be competitive in that field again because it's just too resource intensive. But we collaborate with them. We have several collaborations also funded by the National Science Foundation and in which we actually do joint projects, and we communicate regularly and that's quite nice. Sometimes they are students from there coming to work with us. It's a kind of constructive way to have science progressing.

David: [00:23:46] I'd like to continue with the analogy between academics and the world of sport. The sports analogy is something I just heard on this morning program about Kevin de Broner, what he was like as a child. And one of the most valuable things he learned when he was a young, brilliant footballer, but he was only, you know, six, seven years old, was getting beaten, not physically, as in somebody beating him, but just in the game of football.

Johan: [00:24:11] He couldn't stand it.

David: [00:24:12] Couldn't stand it. But he learned how to take disappointment to learn. I mean, I learned how to lose.

Johan: [00:24:20] If you submit an article to a journal, and then you need to wait six months, which is a common thing or even longer, and then you get rejected for offending a grant or whatever. Sometimes it's very, very, very disappointing. But on the other hand, it shouldn't be like sports in this respect, I think in research and signs and I mean science now here very broadly, so also in the arts and so on, we shouldn't try to beat each other. Kevin De Bruyne, of course, wants to beat the other team. Obviously, we shouldn't try to beat each other. We should try to clarify stuff, right? Come up with better explanations for the natural world or a better interpretation of some novels. And when you're in literature or crack a molecular code or solve a philosophical riddle, and that's not about beating someone else, it's part of it. Of course, when I know you're working on the same problem, then yeah, then maybe I want to write a more ingenious article or beat you and the date of publication. Sure. Because that counts and science and so on. But on the other hand, of course, we're kind of in it together, right? We have the same goal. And it's not beating somebody. It enriches humanity with knowledge, clarifying things, solving things. And that's what's lifting us up altogether. And this is also part of the best aspects, as far as I'm concerned, to work in academics. You meet people who are as crazy as you are about certain topics. Yeah. So you, you're in this together, and you can be competitive. But on the other hand, of course, you become one soul, so to speak. You share that common passion, that common interests. That's also a very good thing that science, broadly speaking, is a worldwide community. Of course, we rely on other people's data, research, insights, brilliance, people from all over the world, people from the past. And you hope that you yourself can add a little bit of something that's valuable. And then other people might profit from this or, you know, use this for their own research.

David: [00:26:57] What I'm taking from this is how wonderful it is to work together with people who share your passion and that we all get the chance to contribute to humanity. I'd like to go back to Dirk. He talks about how even the smallest act of cooperation is good for science.

Dirk: [00:27:11] I think that talking with colleagues within your group about your work gives you insights often, which you don't have yourself, because they have been reading other parts of the literature because they point out maybe the certain improvements that can be made. I think most progress has been made by really discussing as scientists together actually with small groups and brainstorming, go through data, and listen carefully to what people think about your work. There is also some not something like a stupid question. It's often the let's say, naive questions and sometimes are the best other questions. So I can, so it's fantastic in the scientific culture. I like that, we can learn from each other and listen to each other and move the entire field to look forward. And in this way.

David: [00:28:08] I think that sort of brings us back to the very beginning when you were talking about how cooperation is so natural, so natural, a feature within us and the way we behave and the idea of spontaneity, something instinctive. And even on that level, that connection, that's when it works.

Johan: [00:28:27] You know what the university can do, must do, is try to create an environment, but you cannot enforce it. It needs to have that spontaneous touch, create an environment that brings out the best of the people who work at your university and your institution, you know, bring out the best. So there has been this idea, I think it's out of date now, that you need to put people against each other to bring out the best, right? Yeah. Well, that's a failure. Of course, that's a huge mistake. You some level of competition we've talked about this is necessary I guess, but bringing out the best in an environment like a university means that you share knowledge, that you share interests, that you share passions, that you want to resonate with other people, that you are curious to read the articles of your colleague, that you take it together to a higher level, that you can be proud of what you're doing. And as a supervisor, let me also say this as a supervisor, and this goes for the university on all levels, I guess there should be an environment that makes it possible for people to explore their own curiosities. So I think maybe the best thing a university can do is do not. I'm going to put this very straightforwardly here, right.

Johan: [00:30:02] By lack of better English, don't ask too much of your people, because I've seen this also in my career so far. There's always something extra that people seem to invent to take away time from us. And there's always a good reason for this. I understand this, right? But there's only 24 hours in a day. And then on the other hand, what you see is, and we need to talk about this. What is it? I don't know the numbers by heart, but say most of the articles that are published are never read or never quoted. So what's their function? Their function is not to create new knowledge or to come up with a piece of the puzzle. Their function is to put it on your resume, basically. That's why they're doing it. Right. But nobody ever reached these articles. How sad is this? So there's something rotten in this system, of course. I mean, it's much, much, much better to publish five articles during your whole career, but five articles that are picked up and mean something and or read and people refer to them, then publish 300 articles and nobody ever reads them. I mean, that's obvious. But that's not, that's not the current situation. On the contrary.

David: [00:31:42] It's a great idea to end on that note of allowing, you know, a university as a place, you know, for our students, for our staff as well, for our researchers, ideally a place in which that curiosity is given the space to bloom. Right. So we're at the end of the episode. So time for a small wrap up. What did you think of the episode, Nona?

Nona: [00:32:05] Well, I think it was really interesting. I think the balance between cooperation and competition is a very prominent topic in academia, and I'm sure a lot of researchers can relate to that.

David: [00:32:16] And what are the key messages to you?

Nona: [00:32:18] Well, I think the first important message is that if you feel angry or disappointed or jealous that you acknowledge those feelings, that you just accept them, that you know, it's okay to feel them, even if it's not easy to feel them. But by doing that, the chances are high that these feelings in itself will be less strong. I think the second message is if you have the feeling that this urge to compete with one another gets in the way of a really positive, good work relationship, then we would advise going into dialogue. If you think that this work relationship would suffer because of this urge to compete, it would be a pity that this relationship will suffer because of that.

David: [00:32:57] That's so important, isn't it, that a lot of these feelings can be avoided just by talking to each other?

Nona: [00:33:02] And I think it's also useful to look at it from a more broad perspective because there's more to life than work. And if we only identify with our jobs, with the work that we do, we might get really disappointed if something doesn't go our way, or it doesn't go as we had planned. So if we put our eggs in several baskets, so to speak, and if we also have meaningful activities in other life domains, then we might get this feeling of satisfaction, of fulfilment in various aspects of life. And I think that would be a good message.

David: [00:33:34] You know, a lot of academics do live for their job and might forget sometimes that there's more to life than the research that they're working on.

Nona: [00:33:42] I think it also has to do with mindsets. At the one hand, you could think, oh, the academic world is really hard, competitive place to be, but you could also look at the positive side of it because you get to work with experts in a certain field who share your interests, who share your passion about a certain topic, and with whom you can make real contributions to your field of expertise.

David: [00:34:07] This was Unpublished, a podcast of Ghent University to give insights about mental wellbeing to our local and international co-workers. Have you been affected by one of the topics in our episodes? Then don't hesitate to contact a confidential counsellor of Trustpunt. Did you find this an interesting episode? Share it with your co-workers. You can find more information about this podcast at In the next episode, I'll be talking to Scott Solder about boundaries in the workplace. Unpublished is a podcast brought to you by Trustpunt from Ghent University and is produced by Chase Creative.