1987 8/15/20

Memories by Richard Bleil

My friend posted a photo of herself on my social media page today. It’s noteworthy because she rarely ever posts photos of herself.

About this time, back in 1987, I started a new journey. This is about when I started graduate school. The institution I attended is one of only two in the nation of which I am aware (there may be others) that puts people either in the doctorate track, or the master’s track. At most universities, graduates all start in the Master’s track and after two years, somebody taps you on the shoulder and says “congratulations, here’s your master’s degree,” and you say “thank you” before turning back to the bench to finish your doctorate. At my institution, if you’re put into the master’s track, you will not be able to get a doctorate there, and if you get a doctorate there, like I did, then as odd as it sounds, you don’t get your master’s.

To determine if you belong in the doctoral or master’s program depends on a series of exams, the first of which are the qualifying exams. There are five sub-disciplines in chemistry: Organic (the study of carbon containing compounds), Inorganic (the study of other compounds that are not organic), analytical (determining what something is made of, or what concentrations there are), biochemistry (the study of compounds and systems of biological relevance) and physical (the study of energy and chemistry, which was my discipline). There are five qualifying exams, one in each sub-discipline. The exams are based on standard American Chemical Society exams, which chemistry students graduating with bachelor’s degrees across the nation take. Passing requires a minimum grade of 50% in the discipline, and to get into the doctoral program, you must pass four of these five exams. You are given three opportunities; one when you walk into the school doors, one at winter break, and one at the end of the first academic year. If you don’t pass four exams, you go into the Master’s degree.

Our graduating class had about fourteen students. Of them, one, my friend who posted the photo today, passed four right out of the starting gate. She was always kind of my “rival”, but I’m glad we’re friends because she was always better than me. Of the rest, only one person passed three of the four exams. Yes, that was me, in Physical, Analytical and Inorganic chemistry. I didn’t think I’d have a chance at biochemistry, so my fourth choice was organic chemistry.

I failed it the first time, and the second. I was there for a doctorate since I wanted to teach at a college level, meaning a master’s degree would not be sufficient. My last chance was coming up fast. Of course, I was reviewing, but I needed an “ace in the hole”. So, I called my mother.

Back in the ‘80’s, the “crystal power” movement was in full swing. I never put much stock into crystal power; although the theory is based on actual science, the extensions are unrealistic. Still, I love raw crystals, their shapes, their colors. They’re simply beautiful, and in the ‘80’s they were easy to find. So, I asked my mother to find a simple quartz crystal and send it to me. She asked me why, but I didn’t want to sway her choice, so I simply promised to tell her later. She picked out her favorite, and when she sent it she said that when she picked it up, she just felt connected, like it had chosen her. It was kind of sweet, really.

At exams, I always like to have two things with me. My watch is there so I can keep an eye on the time, and I keep my calculator on the desk, even though I know with organic chemistry I wouldn’t need it. As I took the multiple guess exam, the first few questions, as all of these exams are designed, were trivial. What is Organic chemistry? What was the first organic compound created from inorganic? (It was, in case you’re curious, urea.) Then the questions get harder and more technical. I think this is the right answer for the third, the fourth is probably this, the fifth, I don’t know, maybe this one, and the sixth is dumb and the seventh is ridiculous and how am I supposed to know the eighth and the ninth is AND THE TENTH…

And I’d stop. I’d put the pencil down, sit back, pick up the crystal and look at it. If the proctor wanted to see it that was fine, there’s nothing on it. But I would think about the journey I took, the people who believed in me, and just relaxed. When I felt ready, I’d put the crystal down, pick up the pencil and resume the test surprised to find the eleventh question was pretty simple.

This cycle repeated four or five times. Organic chemistry is my weakest subject, and it is the best subject for most chemistry majors, a little disconcerting since I needed to be at least as good as half of these students (fiftieth percentile) in their strongest sub-discipline.

The end of the story is seventy-fifth percentile.
Success is not about intelligence. It’s about self-confidence.

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