Becoming an academic is obviously the pinnacle achievement anyone can attain. It’s the job that all kids dream of and is looked up to by almost all layers of society with dignity and respect. When leaving school many youngsters all dream of one day joining this beloved profession.
Now there are two ways into academia. The first (and the most common) is to join as an undergrad student and begin working your way up the ladder. The second is called breaking and entering and is a less accepted route.
So for most becoming an undergrad is both the first insight they get into the mysterious world of the academic and an exciting honour that only a few attain. So it’s important to make the most of these first few years in academia and use them to underpin what will be a long climb to professorship. This guide will give you all the tips and tricks to getting doing things right and setting you on your way to academic fame. It’s also almost entirely wrong but as you’ll learn, in academia the fact that it’s published matters far more than messy things like “being helpful”.
First things first, you need to get into an undergraduate program. The likelihood of this varies highly from country to country as every institution has its own way of weeding out the academic pretenders from the true students.
When reviewing applications true students have one key attribute that sets them apart from everyone else. Sadly almost all applications rely on the grades you got in schools and the briefest CVs ever produced so I’ve never learnt what this key attribute is. Instead students are generally selected on their ability to pay fees and not dribble on themselves.
If you apply to a fancy university then you might be interviewed in which case you will be additionally judged on your ability to tolerate watching a bunch of old academics amuse themselves by inventing complex tests. Just smile sympathetically and hope that they tire themselves out and fall asleep so you can quietly slip out.
Freshers week is a time honoured tradition of universities wherein students get to spend a week trying to work out how to be humans and to undo years of terrible pre-university education. For example one of the first lessons you’ll learn is that you should talk to as many strangers as possible via ‘social clubs’ and that if you see a stranger offering you free candy you should immediately accept and join their club.
Once you’ve relearnt lots of social lessons you’ll next have to relearn lots of academic ones. The first year is all about taking the things you learnt at the last level of education and explaining why those things are basically wrong. If your first year has gone well then you should end it knowing less than you started. The reason for this is both to test your resilience and a conspiracy by the lecturers to make you worried enough to buy their textbooks. Don’t fall for it, Wikipedia is all you’ll ever need.
Besides you’ll need to save as much money as possible because like all students you’ll find you are oddly entirely incapable of managing your finances and at some point will spend a week trying to survive on rice and an out of date bottle of ketchup. If you don’t contract a mild case of malnutrition then you’re probably living at home. Being able to cook an entire roast dinner for 50p using only a microwave and a kettle is the kind of food skills that your first year will be excellent at teaching you.
Year two is when the opportunities in academia really start to come through. A whole year worth of students ahead of you will have left and this will leave many social clubs without presidents and exec members. This is your opportunity to rise up the ranks and become a powerful force within the Biochemical or Tiddlywinks society. As an undergrad the running of the student union and social clubs is vital to your education and studies that repeatedly show how this may tank your grade later are just propaganda spread by Becky so she can be social sec unchallenged.
Year 2 is also when your academic studies start stepping up. More and more of your lecturers will be talking about subjects that you’ve not come across yet and the coursework is going to start taking a little more focus than just googling it and writing down random thoughts.
Now this is when you’ll hone the most valuable academic skill you’ll ever learn, the art of last minute deadline rushing. Year 1 will have left you fairly relaxed and when those year 2 deadlines come around you’ll be about as prepared for them as Donald Trump was to be president (satire!). But don’t despair and whatever you don’t start doing stuff early or with careful planning, this is all about practising writing 1000 words with only 3hrs and a can of Red Bull. By the end of this year you’ll be able to churn out an essay on Tolstoy’s Impact on the Interpretive Dance Theory of Evolution in mere hours.
Also you’ll probably have exams this year. Don’t worry they only count maybe 25% towards your final grade. That’s practically nothing.
Now it’s natural to start year 3 with a mild sense of panic. Given all the time you’ve spent learning important last minute coursework skills your grade might have taken a very slight dip. Don’t worry this is perfectly natural. Just try and focus on the victories of year 2 like that amazing trip to the Tiddlywinks championship. This is particularly important because now you’re in your third year memories are all you’ll have of those social clubs as you’re about to discover how little sleep you can live with.
At the start of the 3rd year you may be working on your dissertation. At undergraduate level this is essentially just cute pamphlets in the grand scheme of academia. But to you it will feel like you’ve been asked to re-write War and Peace from the perspective of a French soldier who had it explained to them year later by a Russian travelling Tupperware salesman. Some might advise chipping away at it over time and slowly building it up. But if year 2 taught you anything it’s that you should be writing all this at the last second while hallucinating on coffee and ramen noodles.
The rest of this year is now just focused towards exams. Exams are the height of academia and literally the best and only way of evaluating anyone’s ability to think critically or recall relevant problem-solving facts. I’ve lost track of the number of times that as an academic I’ve been asked to handwrite an essay in 3 hours with only a non-graphical calculator. It’s hard to give advice on how to revise for exams but so far the doing things at the last minute has been the strategy of choice so that might be worth sticking with. You can’t spell exam without cram… probably, I don’t know, I failed English.
Congratulations! You are now a graduate. You have a choice: you can either enter the big wide world of work and go for the to do whatever it is that you feel deep down inside you want to do with your life. Or, you can sign up for an MSc in the subject with the nicest lecturer and put that decision off for another year and continue your path to academia.
Yeah that’s what I thought. Read our soon-to-be published companion article How to do a masters – a terrible guide no one should follow.