Examples of Non-Academic Career Paths

Thomas J. Richards

PhD in Experimental High-Energy Physics, Retired, after 34 years at Caterpillar Inc.

By Meghan Anzelc

“My preference to work in private industry instead of academia or in government research started to develop the first year or two in graduate school,” says Tom Richards. “It never became a crystal clear choice, but one that evolved over the years.” Richards obtained his PhD in High-Energy Physics from Saint Louis University and began working for Caterpillar Inc. immediately after graduation.

Richards’ early interest in an industry career gave him time to prepare well for the transition out of academia. “To prepare for a non-traditional career, I focused on three areas. Number one, I tried to take a wide range of course work. I included courses from as many different topics in physics and mathematics as possible,” he says. “Number two; I selected experimental senior year and thesis projects instead of theoretical projects. I believed that knowledge of measurements and experimental design would provide me with the broadest range of tools and problem solving skills. Number three: I tried to generalize as much as possible by trying to link my physics knowledge to my limited knowledge in other areas. Applying what I learned in class to areas of sports, cars, music and other everyday events and machines gave me a sense of personal achievement,” Richards says.

As for what attracted him to industry, Richards says, “the notion of developing useful products and solving practical problems began to appeal to me most.” He liked the breadth of knowledge that industry offered as well. “If I wanted to get an academic position, I would have needed to take a postdoctoral position for 2 to 4 more years and focus my efforts even more in a narrow area. I decided not to invest more time to narrow my choices and specialize in high-energy physics. An industrial career appeared to offer more potential for variety and practical application of knowledge as well as creation of new knowledge,” he says.

To prepare for his job search, Richards gained a lot of interview experience and job search strategies from a career service group in Chicago. “I attended weekly meetings of a volunteer group to help unemployed persons with technical backgrounds. When you volunteered a few hours per week making phone calls and generating leads for job openings, experienced persons would help with resume preparation and practice interviews with a broad range of challenging questions. This group provided guidance and a systematic approach to generating leads, getting interviews, interview preparation and follow up efforts after the interview,” he says.

When asked about his job search and transition to industry, Richards says it was “relatively easy”. “It took a few months to get interviews, but I finally interviewed three companies and two of them resulted in job offers,” he says. As for possible resistance from his academic peers, Richards says, “I was fortunate and did not experience any unusual resistance. I received key recommendations and encouragement from my advisor and other contacts during my job search.”

Richards accepted a job with Caterpillar, working in their R&D department. “Because of the high expense in developing new and improved products, the work became very structured and focused. At Caterpillar, we spent enormous efforts on planning and assessing alternatives. We treated R&D as an investment, not merely an expense. We wanted to maximize the return on this investment. This approach appealed to me and I readily accepted it,” he says.

One of the stereotypes of a career in industry is that you never get to work on your own project. However, Richards was able to work on many projects that he initiated. “At Caterpillar, we prepared proposals that competed with other Caterpillar groups for limited R&D funds. The R portion of R&D represents applied research and advanced engineering that aims at maintaining and improving Caterpillar’s leadership position. Over my 34 years, about a fourth of the time I worked on projects I initiated and the rest of the time I worked on projects proposed by others or on problems brought to the Technical Center by business units. For competitive reasons, presentations at conferences and publications in Journals received minor emphasis. Patents represented the ‘preferred’ publication route. I was named co-inventor on 13 patents,” he says.

Not only did Caterpillar offer Richards a variety of research topics but it also offered a variety of opportunities outside of the company’s own R&D work. “Caterpillar also encouraged interactions with universities and government laboratories. Several projects every year involve funding campus research at universities. Caterpillar also participates in government-funded projects with varying fractions of matching grants. Over the years, I personally was involved with projects at the University of Illinois, MIT, Pennsylvania State University, UCLA, Bradley University and Purdue. I was also involved with a project partially funded by the DOE and the State of Illinois,” he says.

“I also was encouraged to work with Bradley University in Peoria. I became a part time instructor in Bradley’s Department of Physics and taught an introductory night class for more than fifteen years. My career has been classified as nontraditional, but as one can see, it contained many traditional elements associated with teaching and academic research,” says Richards.

Richards’ responsibilities at Caterpillar evolved over the course of his career. “Early in my career, I focused primarily on executing experimental & test work. These efforts included preparation of test plans, analysis and theoretical work to support the test plans. The planning process also focused on cost estimates, schedules and resources required. We tried to tie set quantitative goals to business objectives as a measure of their success,” he says. Illustrating the diversity of knowledge required for his job, Richards says, “topics that I worked on included welding, hydrodynamic bearings, alternative fuels, alternative power sources, coatings, electrochemical systems, engine emissions reduction, dynamic modeling, simulation, decision analysis, mining methods, nonmetallic materials and applications of high voltage and high magnetic fields to material processing.”

Richards’ later career at Caterpillar shifted from experimental and test work to technology assessment. “These [technology] assessments included initial screening of a new technology and estimates of its value to Caterpillar. Short, intense efforts determined if a technology needed to grow and become a core effort within established R&D groups,” he says.

As for his typical day, Richards mainly worked Monday to Friday between 7am or 8am and 5pm or 6pm with occasional Saturdays in his early career. He says his career at Caterpillar “permitted a comfortable and stable lifestyle.” He currently lives with his wife in Peoria but will soon be moving to his retirement home in Michigan.

Richards found his career very satisfying. “The pros and satisfactions involve the tremendous variety of the work and the mixture of many technologies. The variety meant that new technology needed to out perform the existing technology, needed to be cost effective (profitable) and needed to last a long time (achieve superior reliability & durability). To balance these objectives in parallel required continually learning new subjects,” he says. Were there any drawbacks? “The only con I can think of relates to time constraints. Sometimes one would like to follow an intriguing tangent by running more experiments. Time and budget never seemed to permit it,” he says.

Richards has some good advice for those of us considering non-academic careers. “Regardless of the career path choice, I would recommend that the student construct a view of a desirable future. A vision of what one wants (both near term and long term) helps the selection of alternatives,” he says. Attributes that will help one succeed, he suggests, are “maintaining one’s flexibility, possessing a positive attitude, and be willing to change and take well-calculated risks. Try not to get enamored with or anchored to one particular area of expertise. One also needs to feel comfortable with competition, both from other companies and other workers. Physics offers unique, valuable and competitive training. Stick with APS and as the career develops, it will lead to other professional organizations. Look for gaps and fill them with specific training and professional associates.”

“Do not fear change or the future. It’s impossible to predict 30 to 40 years into the future. Clairvoyants do not exist (regardless of those that claim the title). Go after a career that you enjoy. If you enjoy it, most likely you will be successful. The world needs new technology and problem solvers. Job choice and career selection represents a subjective process. One needs to construct criteria for selection. A vision of a desirable future helps, as mentioned earlier,” Richards points out.

“I would like to suggest one more thing to keep in mind. The world represents a very competitive place. In most careers, you will need to compete with other organizations and even persons on your own team. At Cat, employees received quarterly reviews. Persons get ranked relative to their peers. As Cat differentiates its products to make them more desirable and profitable for customers, employees need to differentiate themselves from others to make their contributions more valuable and desirable to an organization. Ph.D. physicists possess many outstanding attributes. I suggest that they should build on them to maintain unique and valuable skills not readily found in others. Their contributions can complement their team’s efforts without generating divisive consequences,” he says.

What does the future job market look like for Caterpillar? “Caterpillar has expanded into new products and industries to minimize cyclical fluctuations in revenues. This has permitted reasonable stability in hiring rates and growth in total employment. Cat has announced its intentions of growing total annual revenues to 50 G$ by 2010 and to 100 G$ by 2020. This kind of growth will generate significant opportunities for many kinds of scientists and engineers at Cat. These intentions cannot be guaranteed, but indicate realistic possibilities that do not violate any physical or socio/economic limitations. With regard to challenges, expense and time to develop new and improved products represent hurdles. To achieve aggressive goals, Cat will continuously improve the efficiency of its product development processes. They have committed to incorporating Six Sigma methods into all management practices. Cat cannot completely eliminate test and experimentation, but certainly will continue to improve analysis and simulation methods to minimize full scale testing & experimentation,” he says.

Overall, Richards was very happy with his transition to industry and his long career with Caterpillar. “Looking back, I received good guidance from my professors and advisors. I do not have any significant regrets or feelings of missed opportunities because of poor directions,” he says, and continuing, “I was fortunate to work for an outstanding company whose growth provided excellent career advancement opportunities. As I enjoy my retirement, I have few regrets and enumerable great memories.”

“All careers possess room for improvement. In my case, perhaps I could have delegated more of my responsibilities to others. In private industry, one becomes more valuable to the organization the more one can leverage their abilities through the efforts of others. In my case, I might have tried to do too much on my own without getting more efficient assistance from others. Team building requires enormous up front investments in time and effort, but learning these skills early can pay big dividends later in one’s career. These skills might not be appropriate for graduate school, but need to show up on the ‘to do’ list early in one’s career,” he says. What does he wish he had known earlier? “It surprised me to realize the importance of ranking people. I wish I had learned more about people assessment. In an industrial environment, one often works with many other persons as part of a team or interacting with other divisions to synchronize activities. Over the years, the ability to assess the strengths of others becomes more important to achieving significant results,” Richards says.

Many graduate students look for affirmation that they are on the right track, and Richards provides this. He says, “I hope that graduate students reading this realize that getting your advanced degree in Physics represents merely the beginning of an adventure with infinite rewarding possibilities. These comments are not unique or new. However, they represent data points to help validate the guidance and advice you’ve been getting all along from family, friends, professors, advisors and the visiting lecturer with coffee and doughnuts.”