What I Learnt In Academia

[Image description: “WHAT I LEARNT IN ACADEMIA” written in red on flashcards, yellow highlighter lines coming out from the word “academia”.]

Article by Amelia A. J. Foy

As I’m going into my final year at university (or college to those of you in the USA), I thought it would be helpful to think back on my education so far and see what I’ve learnt. It’s back-to-school season now and I’m sure we are all going through the same motions, whether we’re in high school or higher education: worries about the new year, stress about the new class content, new and old friendships, new and old anxieties, and also some excitement! (And of course much much more.)

I’ve put together a list below of what I have learnt so far - whether I’m really there on understanding all of these lessons is another question. But I figured it could help those of us who are feeling a little lost or uncertain in academia. Since I’m 21, I’ve probably been there and, somehow, got here. 

But that would just be my experience - so I also asked our readers for any tips or lessons they have learnt so far in academia and included those! I hope you resonate with something here!

My Experience

1. Nobody really knows what they're doing. (No, seriously.)

I bet you’ve all heard this one before and thought, “Yeah, but especially me.” That’s what I did (and still do sometimes - shout out to anxiety, am I right?). But more and more I have realised this really is the case. The most high achieving person in your year group or at your job are, more likely than not, just very good at winging it alongside all their hard work. I always compare it to talking to new people: you often go away cringing at what you said, or how you may have come across; but every time, whoever was with me says, “What? You were fine! I didn’t notice anything!” We come off a lot more competent than we feel.

You may think you have no clue about what you’re doing - on a certain task, in your career or decisions around your career pathways, in your personal life - but of course you don’t. There is no set outline to how your life works. I touch on this more later, but it is impossible to plan out how your life will look because all we know is the present and what’s in the past, and we can only inform our current actions based on our past experiences. Thing is, the past is in the past, and we can’t tell what the next stages in our life will be. Or what grade we will get. Or how everyone else looks so put together, while we feel so lost.

Everybody is lost and just doing their best with their current situation (though of course some have more resources than others - more on that later). You are far more capable than you believe.

2.      Even your faves get Imposter Syndrome (so don’t compare yourself to or idolise others).

So, we don’t know what we’re doing. This can often lead to a belief that we shouldn’t be given the opportunities or positions that we may have - whether that’s a university acceptance letter, a grade or a job. We think it was a mistake; that, somehow, we managed to fool the system into thinking we are capable human beings, and we will soon be found out as a fraud. This, my friends, is called Imposter Syndrome.

And just like with the previous point: we all have had this. You have probably especially felt it if you’re from a marginalised community, as we are always being told to take up less space and make less noise.

I have a bad habit myself of assuming everyone else knows where they should be and knows they deserve it. But working on a placement (aka internship) this last year, I found that literally everyone in my office - people who have had multiple jobs, different degrees and masters, who in every sense I would view as far more capable and put-together than I am as a student - felt some degree of Imposter Syndrome. And looking at their work, I would have never said that they don’t know what they’re doing. They wholly deserved to be there.

And so did I.

You were accepted for a reason. Given that job for a reason. Given that grade for a reason. Your work, in some way, showed someone your potential and your capabilities.

So please, please believe me when I say that Imposter Syndrome is a liar. Once again, you are not only more capable than you believe, but you are as deserving of believing in yourself as your friends, colleagues, and classmates are. I promise.

3.      Grades matter, but not ever over your mental health.

I have always been very academic - yeah, one of those “gifted and talented” kids. We all know what happened to us: we put all our worth into our grades and now feel empty because we think we are underachieving.

This contributed, partly, to why I got depressed in my first year. I felt so out of my depth. In the midst of my depression, I neglected all self-care and only worked. I thought that if I stopped working, something bad was going to happen, because throughout everything I have always kept up with school.

The quality of my work decreased because I had no energy. This fueled the depression and it became a cycle.

I realise now that I needed to restore some balance in my life, and when exam season came around, I definitely employed this better: I wouldn’t use up every hour of every day revising, but instead plan in my revision sessions, and also schedule breaks and time to draw. (Drawing was the hobby I maintained throughout this time and it helped me express myself.) This, in combination with my medication, kept me afloat, and helped me do well in my first year of university. I resisted the urge to feel lazy, selfish, or like I wasn’t doing enough because everyone around me was pulling all nighters in the library and eating dinner from their rooms - and it was one of the most helpful things I did.

4.      Your privileges and lack thereof will impact you - acknowledge this.

Ah, the myth of meritocracy: if you work hard, you will succeed. What this notion misses out is that some people get a head-start.

If your family is middle- or upper-class, the likelihood is you got a better start on your academic journey than a working-class student (e.g. private education or well-funded schools with smaller classes, out-of-school tutoring, financial support, family who have already been through the university process and can proofread your work and applications, and wider socialisation that makes you seem like a more viable student to many institutions, e.g. a “posher” accent, using “proper English” (aka not slang) or more socially rewarded extracurricular activities). As a working class person, I noticed this a lot going into University. I also saw how many people didn’t notice.

My secondary school was an inner-city, underfunded London school and half my year group failed their GSCEs for many reasons, including the, uh, not great education. We didn’t have enough textbooks, seats, classrooms or resources. This is such a far cry from the experiences of most of my peers.

I also had to worry about things my peers didn’t even have to consider. For example, I needed a guarantor in my second year for my housing (someone who can cover rent if I fail to pay it). Usually, this would be a parent - but guarantors have to own a house or pay a mortgage. My immediate family all rent. My parents both live in council flats. This was an obstacle that caused me a lot of stress in second year which could have impacted my education negatively had it not been sorted out.

This is only one example of how our privileges or disadvantages can impact our education. In the grand scheme of things, I am still a very privileged person. When I moved for sixth form (ages 16-18), I received a lot of help in my uni applications that other students didn’t because I a) did well academically, but b) let’s be real, I could pass as a middle-class student. I am white. I “speak well” (which is classist in itself, but I am articulate and if I don’t use slang, I can sound like I’m from Surrey - lol). I had lots of extracurriculars, because I had time for them. In essence, people’s first impressions of me aren’t informed by negative stereotypes, conscious or unconscious.

I can also eat everywhere on campus because I don’t have dietary restrictions beyond being veggie - if I needed halal or kosher food, I’d be fucked at my uni. I don’t have access difficulties as a result of a chronic illness or disability, and my learning was never impacted by having a learning difficulty or being neurodivergent (though being mentally ill has been a real struggle). I have never been in poverty or had any dependents. I am on good terms with my family, so I can live with them outside of term time. I have experienced homophobia and biphobia, but have never experienced transphobia or worried about what bathrooms I can use or how I am listed on a register. I have never experienced racism or religion-related bigotry like Islamophobia or antisemitism. I was born in England and have never had to worry about how anti-immigrant rhetoric will impact my family.

So, of course, I worked hard for my education and the positions I have, but it would be ignorant to deny how all my privileges have helped me get to where I am, despite other set-backs or disadvantages. I wish this was acknowledged more by institutions and other students, and that affirmative actions (measures taken to level the playing field for disadvantaged students, e.g. bursaries for low-income students) were more readily available to the students who need it.

Your Experience(s)

1. Having a counsellor outside of the institution is good.

This is so important! If you have the ability to access counselling or therapy alongside your education, I would recommend looking into it, especially if you’re prone to stress or have mental health difficulties. Some schools and institutions have on-site counselling teams, too - universities certainly should.

2.      You may be entitled to special consideration in exams.

If you’re someone who has a disability, chronic illness learning difficulty, mental illness or neurodivergency - as well as other extenuating circumstances - definitely look into any special considerations you are entitled to. This includes extra time in exams, a reconsideration of your grades based on your circumstances at the time of taking the exams, deadline extensions, additional school help and more. You can also apply for Disabled Student Allowances’ at university, which includes the previous as well as financial help or additional resources like electronics. At other universities, there is a mini budget included in tuition for the mental health and psychiatric needs of students.

3.      If you work so hard and things still don’t work out for you, it means the universe has other plans.

This is something I resonate with too, more so as I have gotten older - despite every setback, there have been other opportunities, other memories to be made and other routes to take. Sometimes, things won’t work out. Maybe it isn’t for you at that time in your life.

4.      There are always second chances, failing isn’t the end.

Kind of tying into the previous point, I agree with this too. You can try again, do something differently, and learn something from the experience. It won’t be pleasant or easy necessarily, but it will - always - be okay.

5.      The essays I left until the night before were always my best.

I think we have all been there, though it depends a lot on who you are. For example, I would have about 17 mental breakdowns if I had to plan and write an entire essay the night before; but I know people who thrive and work best when under that kind of pressure. So really think about what is best for you - and do try to plan ahead where you can!

6.      You don’t need to work so hard that it becomes detrimental to your personal life.

Life is all about a balance between necessary, routine and pleasurable activities. So, you have to feed and water yourself, wash yourself and take your meds; you also should clean your room, get out of the house a bit, or go to therapy; then, you need to have your hobbies, rest time and socialising time. Of course, depending on your circumstances, these activities change; but at the core of it, you cannot be working all the time. School might have you believe you need to work all day every day to maintain your grades and succeed, but this isn’t true. The best way to foster success is to listen to your body and your mind, and look after them. Be kind to yourself and maintain your hobbies and connections.

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