From U to P: the unlikely route to a doctorate

This is a brief overview of a journey from failure to redemption.

At the age of 18, I failed a mock A-level English Literature exam on the seventeenth-century poet, Andrew Marvell. Eleven years later, I submitted a doctoral thesis on him.

How the hell does that happen?

A-Level Marvell Fail

Firstly, in case you think I’m exaggerating the impact of a single poor result – I’m not. As you’ll see below, I was capable of even worse during A2 Economics, which was supposedly my ‘best’ subject.

The truth is, I’m not particularly clever or talented. On a bad day, I still get described as ‘one out of ten’ or told by the National Archives that I’m a bloody awful candidate for a job.

What happened was that I developed a craving for Marvell’s poetry that became a passion, and the inability to accomplish that properly at the age of 18 would not deter me from having another go.

A-Level Economics Fail

After the almost inevitable failure to reach my first choice university, I decided to take a gap year. There was no glamour or exotic trips. I worked full-time, earned some money, joined a gym, and cleared my head.

By chance, I met a wonderful group of people, several of whom remain among my best friends today. Things started to brighten, and with that, so did my abilities.

Though the merits of IQ tests are disputable, I found it fascinating that I could score 14 points higher after a year away from education than I did on the eve of my A-level exams. It showed me that applied intelligence is psychological and responsive, and that it owes as much to health and state of mind as it does to the Gradgrindian pursuit of facts.

Nevertheless, starting university was always going to be terrifying. After a weak A-level season and a full year without education, wasn’t it destined to be a route to failure?

Actually, no. A bit of apprehension proved to be a useful spur to better things. Having the right tutor, who was a resounding inspiration, led me to work hard and carry a little belief.

By the end of my first semester, the failure from 18 months earlier had transformed itself into something much more positive.

The undergraduate journey wasn’t a straightforward one. I needed a strong third year to rescue a poor second year.

But the real excitement came with an optional dissertation. To propose your own subject and then to have the time, resources and expert guidance to explore it properly – that’s what you want your education to be about.

Burning Sword

There was just the small matter of learning to write, which has always been a thorn in my side. Even my master’s thesis is torture to read.

I often find English Lit graduates to be quite poor writers – partly due to complacency and partly because enthusiasm for a discipline doesn’t automatically translate into quality.

Doubtless there was a time when I was among the worst of them.

One essential component of the postgraduate experience has been learning to write properly, and having people around who will tell it as it is. As challenging as it seemed at times, the bluntness of my PhD supervisor on this issue was a great help.

Handling criticism is a challenge. Sometimes, it fires up stubbornness; you determine that next time there will be less corrective pencil on the page.

Ultimately, it is designed to make you think more carefully, draft more carefully, and take so much more care and pride in the product that you put before somebody else to read.

Where’s the flair?

The marker of my failed A-level paper – an amazing mentor who wished me better than I wished myself – always said I lacked flair. And he was absolutely right. You need a command of what you want to say before you can make it sound accomplished. I struggled with that throughout A-level years. As much as I’ve wanted to prove him wrong, I’m not so sure that I can.

Writing is similar to running. Just as a marathon runner won’t outsprint Usain Bolt, so long and short copy require different expertise. A writer of a dissertation may not be able to sell a story in 100 words.

But that’s the point of this piece in a nutshell. Even if I lack flair, or talent more broadly, what I do have is passion, persistence, and stubbornness – attributes that anyone should be capable of.

There are many things, including a love of learning and specific funding opportunities, that I’ve been very fortunate to have. But what I hope to show in the broadest sense is that even without an obvious talent, and especially when faced with clear signs to the contrary, there is much that other characteristics can do to compensate.

And just because something isn’t accomplished at one point in your life, that doesn’t mean it won’t be possible at a later stage.

What I submitted for my doctorate was the best I was capable of. It was an excellent piece of work. And I had to force myself a long way to get there.

From an unclassifed mock exam (U) to a PhD pass (P) was a direction worth heading.


The unlikely inspiration for this piece was a review by the esteemed historian, Anthony Fletcher, of England’s Fortress, a collection derived from the Fairfax 400 Conference in which my work features.

Anthony Fletcher Review of England's Fortress

Staggeringly, he describes me as a useful historian. I’m very flattered and very proud, if a little embarrassed.

I suspect the only reason I don’t have a similar disaster anecdote to tell about history is because I dropped the subject at the age of 14. I don’t even have a GCSE in history.

Maybe I do have a talent, then – for wool-pulling. I’ll take what I can get!

3 thoughts on “From U to P: the unlikely route to a doctorate

    1. You might be right – it’s difficult for me to judge. I know that my examiners wouldn’t have passed the thesis as a gesture of kindness, and I have enjoyed revisiting it recently after 18 months.

      Coming back to it has created a strange split: on the one hand, I’m now so far behind where I was that the work I once deemed very ordinary now seems enlightening. I’m trying to learn from it all over again. But on the other hand, having fallen so far behind, I do wonder how I was ever capable of it in the first place.

      It’s then I remember that I haven’t been shortlisted for even the most entry level of positions. There’s also the comparative treatment of my ‘successor’, who has been ushered from the beginning into panels at conferences I was never invited to. I’m not daft. From winning the studentship in Geneva in 2007, I’ve slipped out of contention over a decade. Now I’m having a last surge to see if I can generate a monograph, because there’s nothing that would mean more to me. Huzzah!

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