It is done. Finally! Now that I have obtained my first academic degree, I somehow feel eligible to speak out on behalf of all those who are still suffering out there. I can tell from experience that it is serious. Not that everything I have seen and heard was bad. All in all, my experience with universities (in two countries) and academia in general has been, let’s say, mixed. I have had glorious academic epiphanies and intellectual revelations at times. At other times, however, I felt like I was being abused for research purposes and I was often frustrated with the many trials and tribulations that university life holds in store for its participants. While I am still recovering from this experience, there are some key lessons that are slowly emerging as a result of my reflections on the last three and a half years:
- Focus on what you love: This may sound too obvious a point to make, I know. However, I think it is crucial to be personally engaged with what you’re doing in order to excel. All too often, I would see students and teachers simply go about their daily routine with no enthusiasm at all. I remember the words of one of my professors: “Studying must be fun”. I agree. Of course, it’s not always fun but it should be for most of the time. It can be helpful to write down your personal fields of research and interest and then look for the respective courses (and institutes). Sometimes, I found myself in seminars where I could hardly pretend any serious academic interest and engagement. Just why did I go there in the first place? I still don’t know. The moment you are supposed to write a 20-page paper on a topic you don’t like you will know the meaning of the phrase “academic frustration”. So listen to my advice and go for what you love. And if you don’t find it in one place, go somewhere else.
- Think twice, ask twice: During my studies, I have become increasingly critical of what I heard and observed around me. This is a good thing, I would argue. At least as long as you remain respectful towards other people. Asking twice is important if you want to understand more, not just in academia. One of my teachers once said that he was happy if a student disagreed with him. Admittedly, it takes some courage to do so, but in the end it is worth it. Not only do you go away with deeper knowledge, you also train your personality and your self-confidence. And who says teachers and professors are always right? They may be extremely intelligent and have tremendous knowledge, but they can still be wrong sometimes or maybe a little tendentious in certain aspects. So be bold and be critical.
- Be prepared: I am still having a hard time to understand why some students show up two minutes before class starts when they are assigned to give a talk or a presentation. Most often, it takes some time to set up the projector or to copy some sheets for your fellow students. So why not be prepared well and come a little earlier? It’s not that hard. And it plays into the overall impression you make. Even if your lecture is shitty in the end, a thorough preparation and a solid presentation can come a long way in convincing people of your abilities. Dressing well also helps.
- Be ready to learn: This one is key. I know it can be frustrating at times to realize how much one still has to learn. I’ve been there, I know that feeling. But if you are ready to accept the process of learning, you can make great progress in a very short period of time. Also, don’t hesitate to ask somebody for help. It is not a sign of failure, it is a sign of strength. Acknowledging one’s weaknesses isn’t just limited to the academic and professional life. It also contributes to a humble character and makes personal relationships better. Sometimes, you can look back on your life and see how you’ve improved in a certain area. You may enjoy that moment and be a little proud as well. But remember: While your studies come to an end at some point, learning itself is a life-long process.
Those are only a few things that came to my mind while thinking about my studies. Maybe they can help somebody who is struggling with academic frustration right now. It doesn’t have to be that way. Academia need not suck. I remember great seminars with lively debates and challenging papers that were fun to write. I am thinking of vivid discussions with friends and colleagues, rewarding times spent abroad, excellent language courses and outstanding lectures on controversial topics. This is what it’s supposed to look like. This is what I prefer over academic frustration.