On Comparing with Others and the Research Iceberg Analogy

Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)
3 min readApr 8, 2022

It is tempting for researchers — including PhD students — to compare their individual progress and journey with the progress and journey of others. I encourage PhD students to try to avoid making such comparisons. In this post, I explain why. I do so using the “Research Iceberg Analogy”.

I’ve used the Research Iceberg Analogy before. So much can be learned from reflecting on this analogy. My first post about the Research Iceberg Analogy is titled “Unseen PhD Effort, ‘Failures,’ and the Research Iceberg Analogy.”

Summary of the Research Iceberg Analogy.

For this post, the most important thing to note about the Research Iceberg Analogy is the following: research projects, like icebergs, often have only a small visible component — the published paper for research projects or the tip of the iceberg for icebergs.

When in the middle of a research project, one is building the (possibly) never-to-be-seen base of a huge iceberg. It is not uncommon to become discouraged while building the research iceberg base. For a deeper discussion, please see my earlier post.

This is one of the images from my earlier post:

Perspectives on Research. In the middle of a project: working on the base of an iceberg. After project completion: can see the entire iceberg, including the above-surface published component.
Perspectives on research: In the middle of a project vs after project completion. Photo of iceberg copyright Andreas Weith under CC BY-SA 4.0; obtained from Wikipedia. Changes include cropping and adding text.

On Comparing with Others.

It is very tempting to compare one’s progress on an active research project with the published works of others — works by other people in the same lab, people in other labs, and more senior people in the field.

Left: underwater view of an iceberg base (close up) and the text “In-Progress Research”. Right: view of a sea of icebergs from above with the text “Published Works in the Field”. Recommendation: Do not compare progress on an active project with published works.
Perspective on (1) one’s own research when actively engaged in a project (the underwater portion of an iceberg) vs (2) a view of the published works in the field ( a sea of icebergs as seen from above the water).

My suggestion: do not do this. One sees the tips of others’ icebergs. One experiences the formation of the base of their own iceberg. These are very different things. Comparing the base of a still-forming iceberg to the polished tips of published icebergs can be quite discouraging. This is especially true when one is working on their first few projects, i.e., before one has had experience producing several icebergs from start to finish.

After one has built a few icebergs and knows — through experience — what goes into the base of an iceberg and the tip, then perhaps it’s less emotionally challenging to compare their in-progress iceberg base with published iceberg tips. This is because the experienced researcher might have a better intuition for what their in-progress iceberg will eventually look like and might also have a better intuition for what the unseen bases of other icebergs look like.

Still, I discourage such comparisons even at this stage. Everyone has their own life path. Each project has its own opportunities and challenges. Masayuki Shimabukuro Sensei (rest in peace), from whom I studied iaijutsu, once told me the following; I think about this quote often:

Never compare yourself with others; it is not fair to them, and it is not fair to you.

Of course, learning from others is different than comparing. I do recommend learning from others and their publications.

Stepping back.

My philosophy on the PhD process is informed by my philosophy on budo — Japanese martial arts — and yoga, and vice versa. Someday, perhaps, I will write specifically about those relationships.


I learned so much about the PhD process from my own advisor, Mihir Bellare. After obtaining a faculty position, I continued to develop my own philosophy on advising and the PhD process through the advising my own PhD students. Much of my thoughts on advising and the PhD process have also been shaped through the co-advising PhD students with UW Security Lab co-director Franziska Roesner. Thank you to all the students and postdocs that I have advised, past and present! Thank you also to Kaiming Cheng, Camille Cobb, Ivan Evtimov, Earlence Fernandes, Umar Iqbal, Lucy Simko, and Eric Zeng for comments on my writings about icebergs. Thank you also to Masayuki Shimabukuro for sharing with me the quote I include in this post.



Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)

Tadayoshi (Yoshi) Kohno is a professor in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. His homepage: https://homes.cs.washington.edu/~yoshi/.