Looking back on the Leaving Cert: How it affected my career

The 2015 Leaving Cert results are out on Wednesday. Students who featured in The Irish Times on previous results days tell how their careers have gone since


Some 56,000 students sat the 2015 Leaving Certificate. On Wednesday they will go to their schools or log in online to check how they fared.

Every year we see photos in the paper of delighted students, results sheets in hand. But what happens to them after results day? We have gone back through The Irish Times archive to find students featured in the past, and caught up with them to ask them where they are now, how they got there and what they remember of their own results experience.

Susan Spillane Class of 2005. Results: 900 points Now a senior pharmacist at the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics

Susan Spillane received nine A1s in August 2005. “I couldn’t believe when I saw my results,” she says. “I thought there must have been a mistake with the page; it seemed crazy.”

She got the first choice on her CAO form – pharmacy in University College Cork, her hometown. She completed an intern year in Dublin’s St James’s Hospital before completing a PhD, funded by the Irish Cancer Society. A health services research scholars programme led her to her current job, working in pharmaceutical policy with the HSE.

Though Spillane had the points for medicine, pharmacy was a better fit for her. But knowing she had secured enough points for college didn’t ease the stress for on results day.

“Everyone is getting their results, she says. “Some people are really happy, some people are very disappointed. While a lot of people were very happy for me, I felt a bit silly.

“I’d been so stressed, and then I got the nine A1s and thought, ‘I’m going to be in the paper now and I’m going to be one of those people’.”

While Susan is proud of her results, she feels the Leaving Cert isn’t the be-all and end-all. “I’ve had friends who did really ‘badly’, as they saw it. They didn’t have the points even necessarily to go to college, but they’re now coming through veterinary college.

“There’s always another route. People say that, and you think they’re just trying to be nice, but long-term, people don’t talk about the Leaving Cert.”


Adam Glynn Finnegan Class of 2003 Results: 420 points Now a senior designer at Evernote, San Francisco

Speaking to The Irish Times in 2003, Adam Glynn Finnegan said he felt biology was marked “a bit easy”. He had gotten a C3, his lowest mark, but on the basis of the previous year, his 420 points were enough for his first choice – art and design at IADT.

He didn’t end up studying there. He moved to Leeds, where he studied graphic media communication, as it was only a three-year course. He set up his own design studio in 2009, and in 2011 became the first graphic design hire at Evernote, which designs note-taking and archiving software in San Francisco.

Finnegan’s favourite subject in school was art, but he laughs when thinking about how little many of his other subjects at school have stood to him since.

“I work at a technology company in Silicon Valley, so you would think science would be important. But I’ve never used any of my biology knowledge.”

“I can’t even remember the results day. It’s one of those moments in life where at the time it’s the biggest thing and then as soon as you’re past it, it just becomes a blur,” he says.

“It’s important to have a line that’s a definitive end to your school, but I don’t know if getting 400 or 500 points makes a big difference to what your career will be. The more time that passes, the less relevant the Leaving becomes. It’s the gateway into college, which is really important, but it’s more about what you end up doing later that shapes your career path.”

Emer McGrath Class of 2002. Results: 800 points Now resident in neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston

Emer McGrath’s eight A1s made her the highest achiever in the 2002 Leaving Certificate, which she said at the time was “pretty cool”. Though she was hoping to study physics in college, she ended up accepting a place in medicine in NUI Galway.

“It turned out to be a great choice for me, she says. “During my fourth year in medical school, I rotated through the neurology department at Galway University Hospital, and became fascinated with neurological diseases.”

McGrath completed a PhD in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics, and now works as a resident neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, one of the largest neurological centres in the world. Her focus is on the understanding of cognitive decline and dementia and reducing the burdens of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation.

When she told her parents of her results in 2002, it wasn’t the news they were expecting. “My mother didn’t believe me initially, and my father was in shock. It was a great feeling to have made my family so proud.”

While she describes good results as “a great platform”, she feels the biggest worry young people should have at Leaving Cert age is concentrating on what it is they actually want to do.

“People have lots of different talents, and may not necessarily shine on standardised testing. Some of the greatest people I know did not necessarily excel at school . . . I think choosing the right college course and career path is the more daunting prospect for 17-years-olds.”

Lorcan Fox Class of 2001 Results: 345 points Now a freelance film-maker

In 2001, Lorcan Fox was photographed in The Irish Times with Shane O’Connell and Gregg McDonald, whom he still counts among his closest friends. He was phoning his parents to tell them his results.

Fox’s 345 points, combined with a portfolio, would land him a place studying film and video at IADT. It was a course he had previously assumed he had no hope of getting.

“I went to the Dún Laoghaire Institute interview and was really blase about it because I thought I wasn’t going to get in,” Fox says. “I had quite a wide portfolio and they gave me full marks in it to get me over the line.”

He now lives in London and works freelance as a film-maker. He has worked on a political TV show called Going Underground, as well as MTV reality shows and various films, including Skyfall and Pirates of the Caribbean.

In school, Fox admits he was “very hyperactive and distracted and dreamy and annoying”. He now has a greater appreciation for the importance of the State exams.

“I thought ‘f**k the system’, but it is important,” he says. “My girlfriend is very academic; she went to Trinity and did science. It’s important there is a fair system.”

In hindsight, he says he wouldn’t change his approach to the Leaving Cert much. “I’d probably just play even more sport. That’s probably not what the mothers want to hear, but that’s the truth.”

David Campbell Class of 2000. Results: 430 points Now a physiotherapist at Hartmann International Sports Injury Clinic, Limerick

“I’ve been offered a couple of sports scholarships to America,” David Campbell, a promising athlete, told The Irish Times in 2000.

At the time, though, Campbell didn’t have much interest in college. So he stayed in Ireland to work in his family’s retail business and pursued a short course in physical therapy.

A year later he began a degree in economics and finance in NUI Maynooth, followed by a masters in finance and capital markets in DCU. The former was motivated by a desire to get into a good training routine for athletics, the latter by a desire to train with some of Ireland’s top distance athletes. He competed as a professional athlete from 2006 to 2010, representing Ireland in the European and World Championships.

“Unfortunately, in 2010 I became injured, he says. “Despite undergoing multiple surgeries to get back to winning ways, it more or less retired me from international athletics. I saw this as an opportunity to return to study physiotherapy at UCD as a mature student.” (Physiotherapy was his original first choice, but he didn’t have the points for it.)

Since graduating, Campbell has worked as a chartered physiotherapist at Hartmann International Sports Injury Clinic in Limerick. To date, he has worked with 30 Olympic Medallists from more than 20 countries.

Having found a way to the career he always wanted, Campbell says he doesn’t think highly of Leaving Cert results. “They’re over-hyped. There’s too much emphasis put on that month of your life. There’s always an avenue to find a way to do what you want to do.

“I’d urge graduates to remember that. It’s only an exam.”

Deirdre Ní Fhloinn Class of 1992. Results: 570 points Currently a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin

“‘I still can’t believe it,’ Deirdre managed to exclaim through tears of joy,” The Irish Times reported in 1992, the year Ní Fhloinn received her results.

A place in law in TCD was the next step. Now, 23 years later, she finds herself once again studying saw at Trinity. This time she is a PhD candidate, specialising in construction law.

Ní Fhloinn previously completed a masters in European law in UCD, a masters in construction law in Kings College, London, and practised as a solicitor in Ireland for a number of years.

She says her success in the Leaving Cert was largely down to good subject choices. She played to her strengths, studying five languages and avoiding more scientific subjects. “I was rubbish at maths,” she recalls, “but always said ‘well, there’ll always be calculators’.”

On the day of results, she says she was feeling excitement more than nerves.

“I didn’t worry so much that I wouldn’t have anywhere to go because the points for my second choice were quite a lot less. I think once you get to that stage in secondary school where you’re on the cusp of adulthood, you want to be shut of it. I was just excited to start college.”

Though it feels strange to be back where she started, Ní Fhloinn feels grateful for the opportunity. “I love sitting down to my work now, and it’s never something I have to force myself to go and do. I’m very lucky; most people don’t get a second crack at enjoying college, as I am.”

As someone who still doesn’t feel certain of what she wants her career to be at the age of 41, she says this year’s Leaving Cert class has nothing to worry about for the future, no matter what’s inside the envelope on Wednesday.

“As a teenager, you think you’re making this decision that will determine the rest of your life.” she says, “and for some people that’s true. But it doesn’t have to be true.”

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