The concept of research excellence, as defined and practised in the current research landscape, has been shown to be problematic for gender equality. This interview study examines how the concept of excellence is perceived among researchers in two national contexts, Sweden and Germany. The findings show that the perception of what excellence is, and how it can be achieved, differs between the two countries. In Germany, the concept was perceived as positive, while researchers in Sweden were more critical of it. In both countries, however, excellence in research was related to different constructions of masculinity. One of these, prioritising work above other life concerns, was also discussed differently in the two countries. Most German interviewees cherished an all hours’ culture, while most Swedish interviewees advocated a more balanced life. In both countries, becoming ‘excellent’ was seen as requiring the practice of both traditional academic and a new kind of business-like entrepreneurial masculinity. This impedes female researchers’ career paths. The Swedish researchers, however, seemed to live in a more permissive research environment, in which different ways of being an excellent academic were possible.