Academic success and failure - my message to my first year undergrads

Academic success and failure - my message to my first year undergrads

Talking to a number of first year students about stress leading up to exam time, and about fear of failure, has made me think more about my academic journey to date, and how I ended up where I am now. I wasn’t afraid of failure until later in my academic career (impostor syndrome anyone?), but I have definitely experienced failure more than once, and I am very much aware of how much dedication, effort and resilience an academic journey takes.

The analogy between academic success and an iceberg definitely applies: an enormous amount of stuff underpins the success, and this stuff is generally unseen. This leads to people making assumptions about those who they perceive as successful, which may not always be true. To put this in perspective, let’s consider my academic journey to date.

The following is a summary timeline from where I can first remember experiencing academic success:

1997: Passed middle school in the top 3 of my class.

1997: Started at the highest and most prestigious level of highschool available.

2001: Moved highschool after failing Latin and Greek and therefore year 3. Made a small step down, still the same level but no more Latin and Greek. Less prestigious, but definitely better for me.

2004: Graduated highschool with honours.

2004: Started year 1 of vet school and failed. Too much partying, not enough studying.

2005: Restarted year 1 of vet school. Failed again. Studied hard, but the course and the way it was delivered were not right for me.

2006: Started a BSc in Agriculture and Biotechnology with a specialisation in Animal Health.

2009: Graduated with a BSc in Agriculture and Biotechnology (Animal Health) with Distinction and received an incorporated Certificate in Laboratory Animal Science.

2009: Started an MSc in Animal Biology and Welfare. Passed with Merit and received an award for my dissertation. Academic success, but at the detriment of my personal life as this course cost me a long-term relationship.

2010: I applied for 3 exciting PhD positions and was not selected. I also applied for two cool jobs, but again was not selected.

2010: My application for a fully funded PhD programme in Animal Science at Writtle was successful.

2012: I changed my PhD programme to part-time to be able to take up a full-time lecturing role.

2012: I had to give up my PhD programme because it was not compatible with a full-time job. This was hard as I really enjoyed the subject.

2013: I started a new research area at Writtle in meat preservation with the aim of this eventually leading to a PhD.

2015: At the start of my first PhD programme I also started a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice. This normally takes 2-4 years to complete, but I couldn’t do this and finally achieved the award after 5 years.

2015: I had to stop the meat preservation research because I did not have sufficient resources or time to make it work. This was really difficult as at the time it felt like I would never achieve a PhD and I just gave up on my last chance.

2016: I started my Doctorate in Education (EdD). This was paid for mostly by Writtle, no would be the very last chance I would get to achieve a doctorate, so the stakes were high. I passed the admissions interview and ended up with a great supervisory team.

2016, 2019: I had to have 2 intermissions from my EdD programme due to personal reasons. It really felt like I was failing again.

2021: I am about to enter the final year of my EdD. It has been a bumpy ride so far, with pretty much continuous impostor syndrome as I switched from quantitative to qualitative research and everything was new. However, I have made some major strides in the last year, and am on track to finish successfully (so far so good, fingers crossed!)

As you can see, my academic career to date was most definitely not a straight line! It contained plenty of failure, and took a lot of resilience, effort, hard work, dealing with disappointment, dedication, sacrifice, etc. I am now a successful (or at least I’d like to think so) academic and consultant, but nobody sees the bit under the surface, or what it has taken to get to where I am now. It does however mean I understand the pressures, and am generally sympathetic to how the pressure manifests itself in students.

I think my main message for you is this: whatever happens next week, and however you do in the exam, keep in mind that this is only the beginning of your journey, and being unsuccessful in one exam does not determine where your future lies! Year 1 is there for you to figure out what works, and all staff in the Department of Animal Science are here to help you get there.

I will see you all in the revision session for Animal Biology next week, but in the mean time I wanted to wish you good luck.

Nieky