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Four Point Oh
copyright 2008 by H. Paul Shuch, All Rights Reserved

I was very much the non-traditional graduate student. By the time I got to Berkeley for my Ph.D., I had already served my country in time of war, survived a stint as a working stiff, distinguished myself as a Captain of Industry, and traversed the tenure treadmill. A decade and a half in academia had prepared me well for what was to follow -- or so I thought. Knowing exactly how the game was played, and just what was expected of me, I cruised through my courses with modest distinction, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the populous side of the podium. By the time I had advanced to candidacy, I surprised myself by having earned no grade less than A. Perfection was finally within my grasp.

The turn-around was really my own fault. I had completed all required coursework, and was well immersed in my dissertation research, when foolishly I enrolled in a queueing theory course. Gordon Newell was possibly the world's pre-eminent authoirity on queueing theory, having written the seminal works in the field. I neither needed the course nor required additional credits, but I was intrigued by the possibility of sitting at the feet of the master. Besides, he was my academic advisor, and might have perceived it as a slight, had I not enrolled in his class. So, while dissertating diligently, I took one more course, just for fun.

Prof. Newell was a marvelous teacher, and I learned a lot. Queueing was hard work: structured and analytical, it stretched me intellectually, just as graduate school should. By the end of the semester, I was not exactly at the top of the class, but clearly a contender.

Because the final exam had gone as smoothly as all my others, the grade report came as something of a shock. In all of my grad school experience, I had never seen a B before. Clearly, there must be some mistake. I protested to Gordon Newell.

During office hours, Newell dutifully reviewed his grade book. Then, he scrutinized my transcript. This latter was just for show; as my academic advisor, he likely knew it by heart. I made my case as eloquently as my disappointment would permit. Then, my advisor sat back in his chair, folded his hands behind his head, stretched, and exclaimed simply, "I got a B once."

The lesson was not lost on me. I've had decades to reflect on it, and it still rings true. None of us is perfect. Even the best student has more to learn.

To say I was as understanding at the time would be untrue. I was devastated, certain that my less than perfect GPA would haunt me for the rest of my career. It didn't. No employer or associate ever inquired about my academic standing. Their only concern was whether I could do the job.

I will immodestly state that I could do the job, and do it very well. That fact is a lasting testament to my old professor and advisor, the late Gordon Newell, who got a B once.


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this page last updated 28 March 2008
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