How to Survive Academia

It’s been awhile since my last post. My personal life has been flooded with a cascade of responsibilities, things that aren’t my responsibility but I still feel obligated to do, and anxieties about how a relationship of mine is going to turn out.

Now, I have made the choices to deal with most of these things—including the relationship, including the things that aren’t my responsibilities. And the responsibilities that ARE mine were responsibilities I decided to take on, so I can’t complain. When you’re pre-med, you have a lot of stuff to do. If I didn’t feel flooded, I probably wouldn’t be doing it right.

But the truth is, schools aren’t doing ‘it’ right either.

I’ve been to three American universities in my life: one for an early college entrance program, one to complete my basics, and, now, my current one: a huge research university ranked ~80th in the nation. I’ve had personal experience with a fourth university, too, who screwed me over so much (prior to me even starting classes!) that I rescinded my acceptance. To quote that person anybody who works in retail knows: I took my money elsewhere.

However, that particular university isn’t the only school that as screwed me over. The entire educational system, from when we were in elementary school and our teachers told us we didn’t want to spend out lives “flipping burgers,” has screwed us all over.

We are taught that schools—be they public or private high schools, community colleges or private research universities—are some sort of golden ticket. We’re taught that if check all the right boxes and push the right buttons that our life will be set. Just go to college, show up to class, and get decent grades. That diploma will get you any sort of life you desire.

It’s not true.

Now, the education system is not malicious. Teachers don’t talk about flipping burgers because they want their students incur $100,000+ of debt pursuing a random degree that’s going to get them nowhere.

But just because it isn’t intentional doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. I got sucked into the “just check the right boxes” attitude. I’m pre-med? Cool. So, as long as I major in Biology, go to the office hours of two professors (so that they can write letters of recommendation), become a member of 15 pre-med organizations, and find a doctor to follow around, I’ll be set, right?


I found myself struggling to manage a billion responsibilities that did little for my own personal growth. My life was a blur of flashcards, trying not to fall asleep during meetings, and pushing aside my passions for writing, mental health, and community service so that I could chat with a professor I didn’t really like.

One day, after writing a statement of purpose in which I explained I was pursuing a career in mental health and community improvement, I went to update my resume. And I realized something: that this resume did not belong to a woman who loved to write, who loved to tutor, who was passionate about mental health, education, and children. This resume belonged to a robot, to a tired-out woman too busy pushing the right buttons to actually develop the skills she needed to accomplish her goals.

I realized that I had been lied to my entire life.

There is no formula to success. There are no buttons or checklists.

I had to stop acting like the university itself was what was going to allow me to reach my goals.

Education, you see, is a tool, not a ticket. Universities aren’t going to give you an easy ride to the high life—you have to figure out not what the university will give you for just showing up, but what you’re going to go out and take from the university.

Here’s the thing: your individual success doesn’t matter to the institution. It might be in their mission statement, they might adopt classroom models to improve student performance, and individual professors, advisers, and staff might want to see you succeed—but the university’s ranking isn’t going to go down because you, a single individual, fail to get your dream career or get into professional school. And, unless you happen to be insanely successful and donate tons of money to the university, your success provides little benefit to them.

You are a number, a tuition statement, a GPA that determines whether they’ll actually hand you a diploma. We can all pretend that we are paying them to provide us with a service, but really, we’re paying them for the opportunity to take advantage of their services.

I can’t count the number of times I have been screwed over by advisers who trying to push me along their fifteen-minute conveyor belt, feeding me misinformation or withholding information about what I needed to do to achieve something “unconventional,” like a double major or entrance into a certain program. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to spend hours fixing others’ mistakes, calling a dozen different people to figure out whose magic signature I need. I even once had a phone conference with the Dean of the entire undergraduate school to remedy a situation in which a department lied to me to get me to accept their offer, and then retroactively undid actual university policy because they were upset I wasn’t going to pay them an extra $35,000 worth of tuition.

Yes, I’ve had to work harder to secure the opportunities that I wanted than I would have had I simply continued to push the “right” buttons. But you should see my resume now. I replaced meaningless organizations with nearly 300 hours of research experience. Instead of sweeping floors at a giant hospital for volunteer hours, I’m working with children in a clinic for impoverished and underserved families. Now, instead of going to office hours for letters of recommendation, I have developed professional relationships with professors by working side-by-side with them.

As a student, you have be aggressive. You have to be relentless. You can’t take “no” for an answer because someone thinks you’re too young to take on detrimental department policies.

Instead of earning a degree, you should stand up and make your degree. When someone screws you over, they need to look at the name beside your number and say, Oh crap, what did I do?

And life is unfair, and life is hard, and there’s a good chance that half of the work you put in isn’t going to matter in the end.

But, once you’re at that end and you go back to the question “How are you supposed to survive academia?” you’ll realize you were asking the wrong question all along.

Honey, academia is supposed to survive you.



Photo credit: j.o.h.n. walker via / CC BY



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