UCL News


Other ways to make the grade

12 August 2006

When people look back on their exam results one message emerges loud and clear: to a teenager results matter desperately, often much more than their parents imagine.

Even for children who haven't put in the spadework, GCSEs and A levels are milestones that are impossible to ignore.

Yet what is also clear, as the following interviews clearly illustrate, is that while success or failure clearly influences the future, the results rarely turn out to be what they seem at the time: either the end of the world or the key to a brilliant career. …


"I was on a sailing holiday in Salcombe, Devon, and phoned my brother for my results; I was somehow too embarrassed to ask my parents. My friend was outside the phone booth and all she could see was me crying. She thought I'd failed all my O levels, but I'd done fine in everything except English language.

"I so wanted to be a writer that it was devastating to get a B. It sounds silly, but it is your world at that time and I felt I'd been judged as a writer. I never questioned the exam system. My parents thought it was quaint and endearing that I cared. They were just as pleased whether we failed everything or got all As.

"By the time I took my A levels, I really wanted to prove myself. I saw A levels as part of my plan to get to London. I worked hard and I gained the second highest marks in the school, an A for English and two Bs.

"Of course, the results haven't had the earth-shattering significance I thought they had. But they earned me a place to read English at UCL, and after university I moved into journalism. I wouldn't have had the confidence without an English degree." …

MARK LYTHGOE Neurophysiologist, 43

"I was probably one of the last of my friends to collect my A level results. When I read down the list and saw three Fs and an E in physics I was beside myself; I had thought that I could turn up to a few lessons and scrape through. Then I had to tell my parents, which was painful. My father cried. Even though I didn't get the importance of A levels, I knew this was a pretty important moment because I'd never seen him cry before. I was the eldest and they'd put so much hope in me.

"They wanted me to have something different from their situation.

"Failing was bad, but not going to university didn't bother me. I didn't know anyone who had gone, and my friends and I hated students. I was relieved to be able to stay at home and have crazy adventures with my mates on our council estate.

"I loved taking my motorbike apart to make it go faster. However, my mother forced me to apply for a three-year radiography diploma at Salford College of Technology, and after that I worked as a fitter in a factory. That's when I realised that there had to be more to life and I went travelling. During my travels I met a lot of people on gap years, and that's when I first heard about a PhD. I thought 'One day I'll be a doctor just to prove I'm not a failure'. My first research job involved taking chest X-rays to study tuberculosis in Aborigines in the Australian Outback. That's when I fell in love with research.

"I never did a BSc. I took a diploma in nuclear medicine at the College of Radiographers in London, then persuaded the Roehampton Institute to let me do an MSc in behavioural biology. When I applied to UCL to do a PhD in biophysics there was some scepticism because I hadn't taken a traditional route.

"Over the years my sense of failure was my closest friend. I never doubted my abilities but, at moments of darkness when I've struggled academically, it's the thing that's got me up in the morning. When I gained my PhD at the age of 37, that was one of the happiest days of my life."

Dr Mark Lythgoe is a neurophysiologist at the UCL Institute of Child Health and a director of the new Biomedical Imaging Centre, UCL, which opens in January. …

Celia Dodd, 'The Times'