Why I’m Not Afraid of Organic Chemistry

Everyone talks about organic chemistry as if it were the dark road through the mines of Moria with goblins and balrogs lurking at every turn.  I’d heard horror stories about organic chemistry before I even knew what it was and I’m just not convinced that it’s the demon everyone makes it out to be.  I realize that I’m setting myself up here, but I just don’t believe the hype.

If I do get shelled in this course, I want to really embarrass myself, so to that end, I’m going to list a few predictions and presumptions and then revisit them at the end of the semester to see how accurate I was.

First some comments on the course:

  • There are 70 people in my section, of which about half are the traditional second year students and nearly everyone is aiming for something in the health sciences.
  • The professor is widely regarded as a good professor, but very hard.  Previous classes have commented that they believed the course was beyond its level.  Whatever.
  • My section is part of a pilot program for an honors course, so it’s expected that we’ll go beyond the normal scope of the course.  And no honors credit either.

With that said, I still don’t believe that this course is the widow maker that everyone says it is.  Here are my impressions of organic chemistry and why so many people find it to be a nightmare:

  • The majority of organic chemistry students have never actually been challenged academically.  High school education in the United States is a joke and first-year university classes aren’t necessarily much more rigorous.  I think a lot of students that whine about how evil organic chemistry is have never actually had to study for a class before.  Stop complaining.
  • First-year courses aren’t rigorous enough and students show up for organic chemistry without any basic understanding of things like energy, electrostatics, and thermodynamics.  Reading through my textbook the last few days has convinced me that if you don’t take a year of physics before organic chemistry, you’re asking for trouble.
  • Freshman chemistry is little more than memorization, so incoming organic chemistry students have no fundamental understanding of things like the origin of orbitals, VSEPR theory, intermolecular interactions, and scores of other things.  They may have memorized a bunch of charts for their exams, but they have no idea why something like water has a higher boiling point than hexane or why carbon forms four bonds and not five.
  • Organic chemistry seems to focus upon understanding the mechanics behind how reactions proceed and why one is more or less favored over the other.  For most students, no other course has ever required them to understand things at that level.
  • While there are exceptions, second year university students have awful study habits.  I’m amazed how few students read their textbooks before coming to lecture and wait to start the homework the night before it’s due.
  • The hype. People believe organic chemistry is impossible because they’ve been told that it’s impossible.  I don’t buy it.  Difficult subject matter, sure – but not impossible if you put the time in.
  • They don’t like it and don’t study as much as they should.  Let’s face it – people tend to do better in subjects that they like because they’re more willing to put the time in.

After a week of lecture, I have to say I’m stoked to be studying organic chemistry.  At the end of the semester, I’m going to come back to these comments and do a nice self-evaluation to determine whether I was right or wrong.  It’s possible that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth during the first exam, or that I’ll have shaved my head and be walking around in sackcloth by semesters end, but I doubt it.  I guess only time will tell.

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9 Responses

  1. Generally I agree with your points, although I don’t think the subject matter is difficult so much as vast. My O-chem professor would always tell us that to be successful in the course we need to be comfortable with not understanding everything, since there isn’t enough time to cover it all in depth. More people have trouble with this than you might think. I really hope you continue to enjoy the course. Organic Rules!

  2. I don’t believe it’s so much that students have never been challenged before. I’ll admit that I got burned by O-chem. However it wasn’t the first challenging course I ever took. By that time I’d taken Calculus, Statistics (and not the intro for business majors one of the 3000 level courses) Human Anatomy and Human Physiology (which on my campus have the honor of being the 2 most failed courses, and I got an A). I knew how to study, it’s just very different way of thinking than most students, especially biology majors are used to thinking. As a physics grad student, you’re right you’ll probably be fine, but don’t just discount everyone who bombed it. (Oh, and I too loved the first two months, and then I got too confused, sigh.)

  3. Prediction: the things you have to deal with as a doctor are much, much, much worse than dealing with ochem. Ochem is not life or death.

    I wrote about this – http://masterorganicchemistry.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/some-perspective/

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I read your post and I completely agree. If organic chemistry is truly the most difficult thing you’ve ever encountered in your life, then you probably haven’t developed the maturity to become a doctor.

  4. Thanks.

    If organic chemistry is truly the most difficult thing you’ve ever encountered in your life, then you probably haven’t developed the maturity to become a doctor“.

    Great quote. I’d be interested to hear from you about your experience in your organic chemistry course – what you found difficult what you found easy, strategies you used to study the course. Take it easy.

    – James

  5. […] I would revisit my predictions about organic chemistry once the semester was over and determine whether I had been right or not.  Here is some of what I said with some post-semester […]

  6. I am of like mind, my friend. I refused to be sucked into all the O-Chem hype and B.S. As it stands, I’m half through O-Chem I and it’s not that bad, at all. I had a notorious teacher for general chem I and II that really forced some understanding of kinetics, thermo, M-O theory, VSEPR, etc., and even taught a good introduction to organic naming conventions; it really set me up for success. But, the class is challenging because there is a lot of material; however, it’s no harder than my University Physics or Calculus II classes. It’s just different.

    • Happy to hear it. You’re completely right – if you have a good teacher and you understand the background material really well, organic is pretty much just a matter of putting in the work, doing the problems, and staying up with the material.

      I will say that the second semester of organic chemistry is quite a bit different than the first. Not harder, just different. There are a lot of reactions that look unrelated at first, so it can feel a bit overwhelming. But, once you realize that there are only about a dozen reaction mechanisms, just applied in different situations, it gets a lot easier. I found the second semester rather boring actually, since it felt like every reaction was the same.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    Since you asked, I’ll answer. I wound up scoring as one of the top students in both semesters of organic chemistry as well as two semesters of biochemistry. The former was an honors section and the latter was a graduate level, two-part class.

    I also teach a summer organic chemistry preparation class for students taking the honors section in the fall.

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