Peter S. Fiske is the CEO of PAX Water Technologies, Inc. in San Rafael, California. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, Peter has an A.B. from Princeton University, a Ph.D. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University, and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In 1996, he was selected as a White House Fellow and served one year in the Pentagon as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Acquisition and Technology, Dr. Paul Kaminski. In 2001 Peter helped found RAPT Industries, to commercialize a novel surface processing technology developed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.
In addition to his day job, Peter is a nationally recognized lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists and engineers and author of the book Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists. His columns have appeared in Nature and the on-line version of Science.
Here is an excerpt from my interview with Peter:
What advice would you give to a scientist working in industry?
One of the real hang-ups that scientists and engineers have is they feel like they have to be the expert and be able to provide all the answers. One thing you learn very quickly in business is just how much you don’t know, and how much you need to rely on other people. The sooner that you learn that, the more successful you will be. I’ve found people to be wonderful about giving you the answer or guiding you to others who can help you.
Scientists come from a culture where technical accuracy is absolutely paramount. It completely frames all discussion. When they move into an industry environment they see teams implementing imperfect technical solutions and making imperfect choices, and they simply don’t understand. Their natural tendency is to say the problem needs more study, but this is often impractical. The whole world of business is about tradeoffs and the time value of making a decision now versus later. The fact is, at a certain point you have to make a decision based on incomplete data and move on.
Scientists can also identify with their discipline and see themselves only as a chemist or physicist. They lock themselves into very specific roles within a company instead of thinking “I am a problem solver. I am resourceful. I can do a broader range of things.” I am surprised that scientists rarely spend time seeking out and learning about other aspects of the business. They should get out of their hole and see what is happening in other parts of the business. They should spend half a day with the marketing group, for example. When they don’t do this they risk slipping into a degree of arrogance where they think the R&D team is creating all the value for the company and everybody else is just fumbling around. By the time someone gets to that point they are in deep trouble.
Are there areas where science education could be improved to help students transition into an industry setting?
There are a number of things that frustrate me about graduate school training in both the sciences and in engineering. One is that a lot of the critical skills that scientists and engineers really need, such as leadership and communication skills, are not focused on in graduate degree programs. Universities seem to feel that students either come with those skills or they pick them up on their own, so there’s no reason to train them. These soft skills can and should be trained, though. The science and engineering disciplines would be much stronger if we had more professional focus on developing people, instead of just technical skills.