Press release

Failed high school exams to PhD: How student turned his education around

Published on 3 June 2024

A 22-year-old budding researcher, who failed his final year exams in high school, will begin a PhD after summer

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Robert Davis will graduate from the University of Dundee next month, having completed an MSc in Applied Neuroscience at the University’s School of Medicine, before continuing his studies in Cardiff.

Robert, a former junior rower for Scotland, is sharing his story of his alternative path into university in the hope of inspiring others. 

He dreams of becoming a medical researcher into degenerative brain diseases and is well on his way to making that dream a reality by embarking on a PhD.

But things looked very different for Robert as he finished secondary school in Edinburgh, having failed to achieve any grades in sixth year and he received below expected grades in his fifth year.

His applications to attend university to study science through the conventional route were refused and he was left questioning whether he would have to compromise his ambitions.

Young man wearing white lab coat and protective eye wear, looking into microscope, in a science lab

“I probably should have been a bit more focused on trying to do well in my exams, instead of just aiming to pass them,” said Robert.

“I’d never not passed them before so I didn’t even think about that, but when I got my results through showing I’d failed all my sixth year exams, I realised something wasn’t right about the way I was balancing my time.”

Robert admits extra-curricular activities took up most of his attention during school, when he was a competing member of Scotland’s junior rowing team and ranked tenth in the country for junior rowing.

He was training daily and competing across Europe, but failed to recognise at the time that his success in rowing may have come at the expense of his studies.

However, the University of Dundee’s administration team spotted Robert’s potential to succeed with the right kind of support around him.

University of Dundee's associate student pathway opened doors

Robert was offered a place as an associate student – meaning his first year would consist of an HNC in Applied Sciences run by Dundee and Angus College, with one day a week at university doing two first year modules over the academic year.

Then, should he pass the HNC, he would continue into second year of the undergraduate course, full-time at the University along with all other students.

Two men standing at science lab bench, carrying out science experiments together. On the left, older man wears blue lab coat, on right younger man wears white lab coat.

Robert said, “I took a while to think about whether I wanted to do university through the college route.

“I thought there might be a stigma around it, that other students would see me differently or that employers might not look too favourably on it.

“It was a high school way of thinking and as soon as I started university I realised how wrong that perception was. I didn’t feel any different to other university students.”

Robert attended classes and lectures at both the college and the University’s School of Life Sciences, including special scheduled lab work, and there was regular downtime within the timetable.

Authentic student experience

Just like all other first years, he had a student card, could use the University library, take part in student sports clubs and associations and was able to stay in the halls of residence.

The mixture of the University’s self-study approach to education, combined with the more structured and teacher led approach from college, also allowed him a smoother transition into university studying.

Two males in science lab wearing lab coats, standing at microscope, passing a sample disk between them, while looking at the camera

After completing his undergraduate degree, Robert then continued onto his Masters course. 

He added, “I don’t think I would have done a Masters if it wasn’t for the alternative route. The experience was so positive and supportive that it made me want to stay on past my undergraduate course and move into research.”

Up to 50 additional funded places 

Each year the University has up to 50 additional funded places per academic year which are ring-fenced for associate student places. To date, it has welcomed 201 students through this route into Humanities, Environmental Science and Life Sciences, in the past five years.

Professor Nick Brewer, Assistant Vice-Principal (Education) and lead for the Associate Student pathway in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, said, “A lot of our associate students come from challenging backgrounds or situations and feel like university isn’t for them.

“It can be quite intimidating coming to university – classes can be with hundreds of people, even our lab classes can take around 110 students per lab. Some people thrive in that environment but others find it daunting.

“Through this programme students can sample university and work out if it’s for them. It might not be, and that’s ok, but some really grab the opportunity and that’s what it’s all about – giving them that chance.”

For further information on the University of Dundee’s associate student pathway, email Professor Brewer at


Sheanne Mulholland

Media Relations Officer

+44 (0)1382 385423