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We Need to Talk About Academic Validation.

With exam results released last week, students have, understandably, been feeling a rollercoaster of emotions. We place a lot of pressure on our grades, obviously – we all want to do well. Sometimes, though, we have the tendency to take our academic ambitions too far. This can manifest itself in several harmful ways; all-nighters at the library, academic anxiety, and burnout – to name a few. That being said, I think now’s the perfect time to start a conversation about academia, and more specifically, the validation we crave from it.

Academic validation, then, a term thrown about more and more – but for good reason. To me, it’s a feeling. That feeling of achievement, of pride, when receiving praise; the adrenaline rush that comes with a good mark. At first glance this seems perfectly normal, why wouldn’t you be happy with good results? The problem comes, and I guess the crux of it is when academic achievement becomes the root of your self-worth when you define yourself based on a grade, when the student’s studies take over, and the fear of failure assumes control.

This fear can become obsessive, and for some, detrimental. It shows its teeth in plummeting student mental health, with reportedly 1 in 5 students having a diagnosed mental health problem. The desire to get top marks can lead to chronic perfectionism, where nothing short of perfect is good enough. This is highly unsustainable and can easily lead to burnout. Where this hustle culture has taken hold, it’s crucial to remind ourselves to take a break and establish a healthy work-life balance.

Even social media star Emma Chamberlain struggled with academic validation, describing on her podcast how her self-image rested entirely upon her grades; how she would “literally look in the mirror after getting a bad grade on the test and see an uglier person”. It’s no wonder, then, that students have a complicated relationship with academia, very rarely is it about the pursuit of knowledge or a curiosity to learn; it has become entirely about achieving a set of grades.

This got me thinking about a, slightly tipsy, conversation I had at Brewhouse. Some friends and I were waiting for the toilets when we got chatting with this woman. Bearing in mind she was quite drunk and potentially oversharing – I still think there’s something to learn from it. Anyway, we exchanged pleasantries and told her we were students, and once this had been established, she began to describe her own student experience. She told us how tough it was, how much she struggled with the pressure, and how, ultimately, she decided to drop out. This was met with a lot of ‘Sounds awful!’ ‘Oh no!!’ ‘I’m so sorry!!’ But for her, it was a blessing; she ended up happier, and with a great job to boot! It was at this moment that drunk me came to an epiphany – grades and uni aren’t everything!

Sure, it’s great to be ambitious, and motivated, and driven to do well – by no means am I discouraging that. But, still, I think it’s worth asking – does a good grade make you truly happy? I’d argue no; the happiness is only surface deep, the high short-lived, the relief palpable, until the next assignment comes along, and so the cycle begins again.

This battle against academic validation isn’t a problem for everyone, but for those struggling, I hope this has been somewhat helpful! Naturally, it’s difficult to break out of a mindset so entrenched in your identity, and so fundamental to your self-worth. If you’re disappointed with exam results try to remind yourself this: you are more than just a number, and not the product of your academic achievements. Start shifting the mindset from loving yourself because of a grade to loving yourself in spite of a grade.

It’s time we stop looking to academia for validation and find it within ourselves.

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