I was homeschooled from first grade all the way through high school, so I wasn't part of a high school class year. I went to community college next, and there aren't really defined class years in that situation either. It wasn't until I transfered from community college to a university that I really had a set of friends progressing through school WITH me. A cohort, if you will.
It was in university that I first realized how valuable it is to actually have peers. Growing up, most of my friends were either older or younger than me - I was used to interacting with adults and children, and people my own age tended to confuse me. (Or, you know, it was just the fact that I'm an ENGINEER... not known for socializing well...) But if you have a set of people going through the same things with you, you can commiserate, and compare notes, and provide encouragement, and celebrate accomplishments together.
In fact, the best situation is probably where you have a mix to interact with - a cohort of peers, plus some older mentors, and some newer that are learning from you.
Hey wait a minute - that sounds a lot like grad school!
I wanted to address today the "cohort" part of that ideal grad school mix. In my office with about 20 students in it, three of us are at the same point in our PhDs. We are also the three most senior students in the office... must mean I'm getting old! Of course I also have friends at the same point in their PhD in other labs, but I am closest with my friends in my office.
So myself and two other guys are all aiming to graduate about the same time - June 2012, fingers crossed and lab gremlins willing. I passed qualifying exams first (because I somewhat stupidly decided to take qualifying exams the same semester I graduated with my Master's degree). The second guy passed quals the semester after me, doing things the normal-speed way. The third guy passed quals the next semester after that, but the reason he was slower was because he came in with a Master's degree from another university, and it takes a little longer to come up to speed in that case.
But now we're all about on the same page. We all started writing the PhD proposal about the same time. I finished mine a few weeks ago, and the other two are putting the final touches on theirs. I have my committee together, and I have scheduled a meeting for Friday the 18th. The other two can shop around their proposal and get a committee together as soon as they finish writing, and have a meeting as soon after that as they can schedule one. But I suspect that the other two may be a month or so behind me in getting a meeting.
So here's the thing about having a cohort of peers - you compare yourself to them. Sometimes I think I'm going really slow through the PhD process (I started writing the proposal a YEAR ago, for crying out loud, and I passed quals waaaaaay back in May 2009). I mean, what have I done in the past year? Then I waffle and think, man, I am doing pretty darn well. I did quals first, finished my proposal first, got a committee first, and now will have a meeting first. Score!
The reality is that I land (as is usually the case) somewhere in the middle. There is a huge standard deviation in the PhD experience, and I think overall I'm doing just about right. The important thing is that I am confident that I can progress forward from here with a clear goal in sight.
Then the question becomes - how do you find a balance between competition and companionship? On one hand, it's good to compare yourself to your peers to make sure you are keeping on track (motivation, anyone?). And competition is healthy when it keeps you on your toes and constantly pushing the cutting edge. But it's NOT healthy to be arrogant about your success. And it's not good to get a case of Imposter Syndrome and think that maybe you aren't good enough when in reality, well, you are.
I am going to try to enjoy having a cohort to learn and grow with during my PhD, and try to avoid the pitfalls on either side. For instance, if it takes me longer than June 2012 to graduate, I will be irritated but not heartbroken. On the other hand, I am afraid the the other two students would be upset if I graduate significantly before they do. But I can't base my life on what other people think, so I'm just going to proceed with my life as best I can - cohort or not! I'm an outlier, anyway, right? :)
Do you have coworkers, or fellow students, or professors on the same track that you relate to and commiserate with?