The Most Important PhD Skill

An interview with Kate Bechtel, PhD

Meet Kate:

Kate Bechtel is Senior Director of Advanced Sensing at Rockley Photonics in the San Francisco Bay area in the United States where she develops light-based instrumentation for the medical, biological, and environmental industries.

Kate has a BS in Chemistry, Biochemistry, & Biophysics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), a PhD in Physical & Analytical Chemistry from Stanford University and did a postdoc in Biomedical Optics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Following her postdoc, she transitioned to industry and accepted a Senior Scientist position at Triple Ring Technologies where she enjoyed a wide range of roles from technical development to business development to business area lead.

Her time in industry has given her valuable insight into where the strengths of a PhD scientist are particularly useful in a product development environment. She’s also learned quite a bit about the patterns of thinking that many of us acquire in an academic setting that are not so helpful in an industry career.

I interviewed Kate in 2020 and included excerpts from her interview in It’s a Game, not a Formula. Below is an excerpt of my interview with Kate to discuss her career path so far. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)

An excerpt from our conversation:

Dave:   What do you do in your current job?

Kate:    I stumbled into this company in the San Francisco Bay Area that does contract research and development for a wide range of companies, from startups to large well-established companies. We take ideas from a napkin sketch all the way though to a product that's used in the clinic, so we see ideas become real solutions and get used by people who need them. I absolutely love it.

Dave:   Working on the full lifecycle from napkin sketch to finished product is absolutely ‘turning science into things people need!’ What do you enjoy the most about it?

Kate:    I get bored easily, and so what I most love about my job is that it's always different. We have many different projects at the same time, and a client can come in the door any day with some entirely new request. With every new project we need to quickly become experts in that new area, and we have to immediately get our hands dirty and build prototypes and test things. I love that.

I was bracing myself for something terrible in industry, because in academia I’d learned to look down on everything that isn’t academia. Industry was seen as a career path where you get pigeonholed into a little box, and it's super boring and you have no room for creativity. But that’s not true at all. It turns out that my current job is what I've always wanted to do.

Dave:   I speak to many PhD students who worry that companies will not value the very specialized knowledge they gained through their PhD. But your job requires you to learn about many different things.

Kate:    We see a lot of PhD scientists who’ve been trained to focus heavily on the details of their dissertation work and highlight something unique that they have learned. But that's really not the best approach for getting a job in the real world. What's best is to present skills and how you are able to solve problems for the company.

At my company we've hired people who worked on science in grad school that we have no explicit need for. We've hired a solar physicist, for example. We have no need for solar physics, per se, but we knew that this person was able to understand a challenging topic at a deep level, understand sophisticated instrumentation, interpret the data and determine what is real and what comes from the instrument artifacts, and make making decisions on how to move forward. Those are the types of skills that we need in a PhD scientist.

The most important value of a PhD is the ability to teach yourself and become knowledgeable and useful in a short period of time. If you gained a lot of knowledge through your PhD but didn’t teach yourself how to learn, you failed. If you got a PhD through just turning the crank and generating papers off of an instrument that somebody else already built, you have just wasted your time.

Dave:   Have you seen any habits PhD scientists tend to have that don’t work well in industry?

Kate:    There's a stereotype of PhD scientists by many in industry that they're kind of useless because they get ‘analysis paralysis’ and can't make any decisions, or else they want to keep making things better and don't know when to stop and move on to something else.

And this stereotype is often true because, in academia, you're taught to stick with a problem until you get it 100% solved. Then you document the path you took to get from point A to point Z in extreme detail and make sure you understand every detail. In the real world, no one has time for that. You just need it to be good enough. Figure out when it’s 80% done and then stop working on it!

Dave:   I was absolutely that PhD physicist who just kept working on the problem to keep making it better. The transition to a product development environment was a real challenge. There were so many times where I realized I wasn’t focusing on what was important, and I had to keep reminding myself to think differently.

Kate:    I had those same habits, and it took me time to make this transition as well. I'm eternally grateful to my bosses, the founders of the company, who put up with me and took the time to train me, because I was not very effective when I first started. In fact, I remember early on I was in our office kitchen and I was explaining to the CEO of the company how a particular project was going. I was outlining the details of every single approach I was considering, giving him the pros and cons of each option. He finally got fed up and said “Just pick a direction and go with it! You need to move forward!” That really stuck with me.

Dave:   We’ve learned that making a mistake might be fatal, such as when we are standing up to defend our PhD thesis. But that’s a different kind of ‘fail.’

Kate:    Yes! I would say that in most things it's really okay to be wrong and it's okay to fail. In fact, an example of a very effective staff member is someone who makes a mistake and then very quickly says, “Oh, I was wrong. We need to try a different approach.” No one has any ill will towards that person. No one says, “I can't believe you made a mistake,” because that’s how you make progress.

It’s the Silicon Valley model of ‘fail fast.’ Try something quickly and see if it works. If you find it doesn't work, you can change directions, but you have to move forward. If you sit there trying to find the perfect answer, you make no progress.


Find Kate's LinkedIn profile here.

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