Following on from my post about school the other day, I wanted to talk a bit about qualifications.

I got into high school based on an interview, not an exam. Furthermore, it was my parents who were interviewed – I mostly sat quietly in the corner. As a result of that, my first competitive exams were my ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, aged sixteen. They’ve had a few names since, and different countries have different setups, but most every schoolchild sits some form of exam aged sixteen.

These exams were nerve-racking. With hindsight that’s because I didn’t know what to expect. So, I revised and revised, and in the end I got good grades, the exams were a lot easier than I thought they’d be. They were good enough to allow me to study for the next level.

The next level of study was ‘A’ (Advanced) levels. Maths and Physics. These were two-year courses, from sixteen to eighteen. In my case, I just carried on at school, although a lot of people went to specialist sixth-form colleges. These were the most difficult exams by far that I ever sat, in terms of both content and stakes. Plus, of course, at that age, there were external distractions such as girls and booze. These exams really made the difference between going on to university, and staying home and finding a job. In my day, B and C grades were good enough to get into all but the very best universities, onto all but the most popular courses, although nowadays children routinely need As and beyond. Does that mean that the university intake is better now? You decide!

On to university. At this point, exams stopped being competitive. Your grades would be mentioned in conjunction with the name of the university. If you got a first from Oxford, you were likely onto a winner. I was at the University of Wales – an okay reputation, probably one of the better places to be.

At university, there was only a limited trust of ‘A’ level grades. After the first year at university, we took another set of exams. These again were pass/fail – if you failed, you had the opportunity to resit, if you failed again you were out. I passed, but again knowing that failure meant being kicked out, was tough.

From that point, things got a little easier. It was pretty-much accepted that everybody would get a degree of some kind, the only thing up for grabs was the actual grade. There were exams at the end of the second year, their results counted towards the final result, but even if you scored 0% (I probably wasn’t far off that!) you would sit a third year. It’d be fair to say that my foot was off the gas that year! I think second year counted around 30% toward the final grade. Not enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail, but certainly enough to fine tune between grades.

A lot of my third year was spent in the library. I suppose I was lucky in that I was in a stable relationship this year – the previous year I’d been a bit messed up. I knew exactly how important my final exams were, didn’t see girlfriend for a month, and I was a model student. In the end, I scored very highly in the exams, but left with just a 2:1 degree. Disappointing in the context of the third-year exams but given my laxity in my second year, I couldn’t really complain.

For me, then, the world of academia was over. I had opportunities to stay on and do both a one-year master’s degree, or a three-year PhD, but I was fed up of having no money. With hindsight, I should probably have stayed on as long as possible, gathered as many letter after my name as I could, simply because university was a “time of life” thing. Having been there once, it never really felt appropriate to go back.

Finally, a word about some exams I didn’t take. In my final year, in particular, I worked with several people who subsequently earned PhDs. This was simply a case of staying power. After three yeas at university, I was ready to go out into the world, but they chose the other option and stuck around. Even after three years, a lot of people didn’t really know what they wanted to do in life, so staying on to earn a doctorate was a rational choice (although I myself chose to go into the science research industry). Many PhD students had worse degree grades than I eventually received, so this wasn’t an academic split. The same was true of post-doctorate students. I have a lot of respect for somebody who has earned a PhD, or even become a medical doctor, but the respect is because of the time they spent education, rather than any kind of inferiority complex.

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